Around the Chesapeake Bay, crab feasts are a summer tradition. A crab feast starts with a basket of blue crabs, a steamer and a group of friends. Preparations for a crab feast usually start several hours in advance. Crabs must be obtained, either by catching them in the wild or from a local supplier. Most entertainers look for the best possible crabs, which are usually #1 or #2 male blue crabs, also known as “Jimmy crabs”.
Crabs are perishable and should be kept cool at all times. If they must be transported any distance, its best to place them in a large cooler with a considerable amount of ice. Isolate the crabs from the ice so that they do not freeze. The idea is to provide a cool environment while waiting to be steamed. Do not allow crabs to submerge in water. If crabs must be stored before a feast, they can remain in a cooler for a short period of time or be stored in a refrigerator.
Prior to steaming, crabs should be washed and inspected. Remove any debris or lost claws from the batch. Discard any crabs that have broken shells or do not move. Most steamers have a rack which holds seafood above the water level. Add water and if desired, beer to the steamer, filling to roughly one inch below the rack. To steam crabs, use a high flame, heating the steamer until the water reaches a rolling boil and steam begins to form.
Using gloves, add live crabs to the steamer, placing them upright and arranging them in layers. Cover each layer of crabs with crab seasoning, repeating the process until the steamer is full. Steam crabs for 20 minutes or more, checking often to insure that a little water remains in the bottom of the steamer. After steaming, crabs should be bright orange; remove with tongs and serve immediately. Continue to steam crabs in batches until all crabs have been steamed.
Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are traditionally served with local summertime side dishes such as fresh local sweet corn, cole slaw or potato salad. It is a good idea to offer containers of melted butter, malt vinegar and dry crab seasoning. To accompany steamed crabs, most diners prefer ice cold beer, sodas or a dry white wine.
The simplest way to enjoy steamed crabs is to serve them outside, covering the table with newspapers. Feasters will need a sturdy paper plate, a crab mallet and a small but sturdy knife for picking out crab meat. Left over crabs should be refrigerated immediately, but are good for a few days if kept cold at all times.
An alternative method is to remove the backs from crabs and spray out the bodies before steaming. This method results in more appealing meat with a much stronger crab seasoning flavor.
Crab Feast Checklist:
(1) bushel of Chesapeake Bay #1 jimmy crabs
(1) can Old Bay crab seasoning
(1) outdoor propane burner (preferred)
(1) 24-36 qt. crab steamer
cider or malt vinegar
fresh sweet corn