Some recipes specify she-crabs as an ingredient and you may have wondered whether that is a specific type of crab. She-crabs are simply female crabs, not a distinct species. Spring she-crabs carry flavorful roe or crab eggs, which will make a difference in the recipe. It is also thought that the female crab adds more color than the male.
How to Tell Female From Male Crabs
If you are catching your own crabs to use for she-crab soup or other dishes, you will need to be able to tell females from males. Luckily, this is easy to do, and you will not need a magnifying glass. Simply look at the underside of the crab. For example, the female blue crab, which is typical for East Coast crabs, has a broad, triangular-shaped area in the center of the shell, whereas the male has a more distinctive, elongated spire in the center. With blue crabs, the males have bright blue claws while the females have red tips on their claws. If you are buying crabs at a market, you can ask for help in identifying males and females.
She-Crabs and Crab Roe
Fishing regulations restrict keeping egg-bearing female crabs. The mature females may have eggs attached and most states require these be thrown back. Immature females may have eggs inside the shell and that will be your source of crab roe. Females bear eggs in the spring, so that is the season for catching those that have roe that you can use for she-crab soup.
Some states make it illegal to harvest any female crabs, although they may be imported from states where they have been legally caught.
Due to the regulations, crab roe may be hard to come by. You may be able to find it commercially available, either from U.S. or Asian sources. But you may need to study the regulations for your state and know whether you can go crab fishing yourself to harvest females or you will be able to buy them locally in season.
She-crab soup is made with lump crabmeat and crab roe. You will find recipes that hail from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia. For example, a recipe for Southern she-crab soup starts with whole, live crab, which you must boil and shell. That's your opportunity to find the crab roe. The soup is similar to a bisque, made rich with cream and sherry. If you can't use fresh crab, a substitute is a pound of crab meat and a 1/2 cup of crab roe.
With crab roe in short supply, you may not be able to add that flavor element. It adds an earthy-briny flavor. Recipes deal with this in different ways. Some suggest using crab stock, fish stock, or lobster stock to boost the flavor. Others suggest using uni or fish roe. There are even recipes for she-crab soup that omit any mention of the roe and just call for lump crabmeat.
There are some commercially canned she-crab soups, such as that from the Blue Crab Bay Co. They sell condensed Southern-style she-crab soup. It is a creamy bisque and they say it contains crab roe.