There is, perhaps, no more loved and debated dish in the mid-Atlantic region than crab cakes made from the meat of blue crabs — we’re not talking stone, Dungeness, or snow crabs here. Restaurant guides, food critics, and diners up and down the coast will argue as to who makes the best version. And then there’s the discussion as to what’s the best way to cook them: frying or broiling? Broiling is considered by many to be the less greasy, healthier preparation, but then I don’t know anyone who eats crab cakes for their health, do you?
At its most basic, a crab cake is a tasty way to prepare and serve discrete portions of crab meat. Leave the “cake” out of the equation and you’re just looking at various ways to prepare loose crab meat. It readily lends itself to casseroles, soups, and dips. One of the simplest ways to prepare it is to saute it in butter; you can then serve it on toast or crackers, or just eat it with a spoon (no, not a fork – don’t waste the butter; not a knife either – that’s awkward at the very least, while also wasting butter, and is gauche to boot); I especially enjoy butter-sauteed crab mixed in with scrambled eggs for breakfast.
Those two simple ingredients — butter and crab — are a lovely way to prepare the meat, but I know what you’re thinking. You might want to season it a bit, perhaps just a dash of salt and pepper. Which brings us to the next question: what can you add to the dish to make it more tasty, but not overwhelm the crab? Look up recipes for “crab newburg” or “crab imperial” and the world opens up to sherry, parsley, onions, cream, hot sauce, and on and on.
But the subject of today’s article is the cake version. The critical point here is to be able to have the ingredients not be so loose as to fall apart; rather they must hold together in some semblance of the typical hockey-puck-like shape. That means you need a binder (or binders) to help hold the mass together. Yet you don’t want the additional ingredients to overwhelm the light, sweet crab meat.
Another way to look at it is to ask, what makes for a bad crab cake? Here’s a list of oft’ heard complaints:
- too much filler
- over seasoned
- not enough crab meat (another way of saying too much filler)
- no lumps of crab meat (it’s been over-handled and broken-up)
- tough, dried out and overcooked (leathery is not the texture you’re looking for)
- shell in the cake (a cardinal sin — quelle horreur!)
Below is a simple recipe for crab cakes. For other recipes, you might try Mrs. Kitching’s Smith Island Cookbook. ♦
Yield 8 -10 cakes
- 1 pound backfin crab meat
- 3 tablespoons self-rising flour or pancake mix
- 4 shakes Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon parsley flakes
- 1 tablespoon prepared mustard (simple yellow is fine, use Dijon if you want to get fancy)
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- ~3/4 cup vegetable oil
- Place crab meat in a bowl and gently sort through it with your fingers, feeling for extraneous shell to remove. Avoid breaking the lumps.
- Add the rest of the ingredients, except the vegetable oil, and blend together gently with a fork; again: avoid breaking the lumps!
- Put an inch of oil in a skillet and heat to 360°. (If you don’t have a thermometer, you can drop a grain of rice or pop corn into the oil; if they start to cook, its ready. If not, wait a bit and try again.)
- With your hands, form the mixture into a small ball in the palm of your hand, and then press lightly to form a cake. Alternatively, you can use an ice cream scoop to ensure a regular amount of the mixture to make your cakes. Once formed, place them on a plate to prepare for frying.
- Into your skillet, place three or four crab cakes (how many depends on the size of your skillet; they shouldn’t be touching) in the oil and fry until golden brown on one side.
- Turn over the crab cakes and fry them again until the other side is golden (a minute or so).
- Remove and drain on a wire rack or paper towels.
- Continue until all of the crab cakes have been fried.
After Step 2 of the frying instructions, you can cover the formed crab cakes and store in the refrigerator for frying later the same day, or the next. Some folks believe refrigerating them helps them keep their shape in the pan. The problem is, you probably should remove them from the refrigerator and allow them to warm a bit before frying, so as to avoid having a cold center, so I’m not sure how much good chilling them will actually do in terms of keeping their shape.Another option is to freeze them for later use. Place them on a sheet pan and place into the freezer for a couple of hours. Once frozen, you can store them long-term in a plastic freezer bag. When you want to cook them, defrost them overnight in your refrigerator before frying.
Did You Know?
- The Maryland state legislature designated the blue crab as the state crustacean.
- The local team of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball is called the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. The fan-base is known as the Crustacean Nation.
- Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources estimated that in 2016 there is “a bay-wide crab population of 553 million, a 35-percent increase over last year.”