How to Break Open Crabs

by Ann Levelle
photography by Vince Lupo

Every summer as a child, I went to my friend Annie McCormick's house on the Fourth of July to eat crabs. And every year, without fail, her father would pull me aside and show me how to pick crabs his way. Funny thing was, I alreadyknewhow to pick crabs, and Mr. McCormick's method, sound as it was, didn't better my fastest time picking a crab, my crab-picking style, or my shot at the biggest-piece-of-lump-meat contest (an annual event at the McCormick house). I suspect most of us have a Mr. McCormick in our lives-someone who believes his is the absolute best way to pick a crab and never stops trying to convert you. But in fact, there is no perfect way to pick a crab. Even if someone's method is close to perfection, it may not be perfect for you. That being said, our mission here is to show you how the professionals do it. At least this way when yourMr. McCormick comes around this summer and tries to show you the finer points of crab picking, you'll be able to show him a thing or two.

In this case our professional is Robin Bradshaw of Smith Island, Md. Bradshaw, a native of the island, has been picking crabs for a living since she was 16 years old, and is a member of the Smith Island Crabmeat Co-op-a group of about 10 women who make a living selling the crabmeat from their husbands' daily catches, and who formed the co-op after the state health department cracked down on in-home picking in 1992. With help from state and local officials, they set up a licensed crab-picking operation on the island where they can pick crabs to their heart's content.

During my afternoon visit with Bradshaw, she showed me around the co-op, and then we sat down at the big stainless steel table so she could show me how she picks. Often all 10 women in the co-op will pick around this table, but that day it was just the two of us. Bradshaw was very patient while teaching me her techniques, stopping often to explain things and to allow each step to be photographed. During my lesson, I learned that Bradshaw can pick a crab in about 35 seconds (though she admitted that when she picks them to eat, she slows her pace considerably), and that by the end of the season her fingernails look awful. While learning, I made the typical rookie mistake of trying to get every last morsel of crabmeat-that's not how the pros do it. To pick fast, Bradshaw says, you have to let a few slivers of meat slip by the wayside if you're going to keep your pace. I also got Bradshaw's take on a few points of contention regarding crabs in general. She feels that fall is the best time of year for sooks (females). Contrarily, jimmies (males) are better at the beginning of the crabbing season. And when I asked her if the "mustard" inside the crab is actually bad for you, she replied, "I don't know, but I don't want it. We just call it guts." She did tell me about people who like eating it and of another who at least temporarily considered it a culinary delicacy. "He collected a container of it. He was a chef and he wanted to see if he could make something out of it. . . . We never heard from him again."

As I mentioned earlier, I have my own way of eating crabs. And while my techniques have always worked well for me, apparently many of them are big no-no's among real crab pickers. First of all, after removing the shell and legs and clearing "the guts," I've always broken the crab in half (along what would be the spine, were crabs vertebrates). That's the worst thing you can do, Bradshaw says. "You can't get to the meat very good, especially if you're pickin' with a knife." After picking a few crabs, I saw her point-it was much easier to get to the meat from the side, where the legs were, than from the inside edge. Also, I had never used a knife to pick crabs. The pros, on the other hand, do pretty much all of it with a knife. A sharp, heavy stain less steel knife is important while you're scraping the meat out of the crab because the knife can slide along the walls of the chambers easily, allowing you to get the meat and not the cartilage. A slightly concave or "hooked" blade helps you get into some tight places, and, if the handle is heavy enough, you can use it to crack a crab claw open without any broken shell, leaving only the intact claw meat. Bradshaw has used her old Carvel Hall knife for about 26 years now, and it seems to work as an extension of her hand. It's pretty worn out though, and she's a bit worried about where to find her next one. Carvel Hall went out of business several years ago and worthy equivalents are now a bit harder to come by [see sidebar page 84]. I never used a knife in my picking endeavors, but I did use a mallet. Surprisingly, the ubiquitous crab mallet isn't used by the pros; they crack claws with a blow from their knife handle. If you don't have a hefty enough knife, you can place your knife blade where you want to crack the claw and give it a good whack with a mallet to produce the same effect.

While it was difficult to employ some of Robin's methods at first, after I picked five or six crabs her way I really got the hang of it. I could get the legs off without too much trouble, pick a good lump of back fin, and get a good bit of the meat out of the top chambers without making a mess of everything. I found that cutting the legs off rather than pulling them made a huge difference when it came time to find where the meaty chambers were, and that using the knife in general made everything go much more quickly. In about an hour, we picked roughly half a bushel, which yielded about three pounds of crab meat. Since Bradshaw couldn't sell what I had picked, she graciously made me and photographer Vince Lupo delicious crabcake sandwiches to take back on the boat to Crisfield with us. Because the meat wasn't separated into claw and lump meat the cakes were much more flavorful than I am used to. I also took about half of a pound home and, feeling like a real pro, made some fantastic hot crab dip. Then I called Mr. McCormick.

Get yourself a crab and a knife [see sidebar, page 84]. Grasp the crab and take the claws off. Don't worry about trying to get any meat when pulling them off-you'll get that later.

Remove the top (the shell, that is) by inserting your knife between the top and bottom shells of the crab about halfway between the back fins and prying it off.

Slice off the mouth, eyes and "whiskers." They all come off easily and in one piece. Place your thumb underneath the crab's feelers and mouth and press the knife down while bending back the mouth with your thumb.

Scrape the lungs off. Start at the center of the crab where the lungs all come together in a small point, get under them with your knife, then scrape and pull. Scrape out the "mustard" and the intestines. Don't worry about getting it all out, but try to get out the majority of the innards. (This is when a lot of people might break their shells in half. Don't.)

Cut the legs off. That's right,cutthem off: Grab the whole body and put your knife just barely inside the line of joints and firmly push your knife down and through the legs. (Don't forget to cut the back fin off too, the joint is a little farther in than the other joints.) If your hands are strong enough you can get the knife straight down and through the crab, and the whole group of legs will come off together, leaving the body intact and the meat held together inside the crab. If this is too tough on your hands, use the beginner's method that Robin taught me-place the crab on a table and set your knife along the line of joints and press down to chop them off. Then turn the crab around and cut the legs off the other side. Get rid of the legs at this point; the pros don't bother with them.

"Flip Your Lid"
Put your knife under the white "lid" (the white semihard surface where the lungs formerly sat) about halfway between the lid and the bottom shell of the crab, just above the little piece of cartilage that looks like an inverted wishbone coming out from the back of the crab. Work the knife in, about 1/4  to a 1/2  inch, and then flip the lid back using your thumb as the fulcrum. (It's hard to find the right spot to put the knife at first, but after a crab or two I had it down pat and was able to pull the lid off without any trouble). This separates the top and bottom chambers of meat. You can see the chambers clearly and can slide your knife into each one and pull the meat out with ease and without any accompanying shell. Do this to both sides of the crab. Set the top sets of chambers aside and work on the bottom ones first. The bottom sets of chambers will still be connected via the outer, bottom shell of the crab.

The bottom chambers
Once you've separated the top and bottom sets of chambers, the lump from the back-fin chamber is nice and exposed. If you position your knife along the front edge of the chamber (closest to the crab's former face) you can easily drag your knife around the chamber and pull out a huge lump of meat. Once you retrieve the lump, the other chambers can be cleaned out relatively easily by scraping the meat out with your knife. The chambers are easy to spot since the legs have been cut off and the lid has been removed.

The top chambers
There should be a thin layer of meat that was in between the top and bottom sets of chambers. Remove it, and then remove the meat from the top chambers themselves (above and left). It's a little more difficult to find where the chambers are on the lid, but once you find one and clear it out, it's easy to find the rest.

"And Then the Claws"
First take any meat that is still attached to the joint from when you broke it off the body (right). Then, put the leg on the of the edge of the table, and position your knife (the thickest part the handle of whatever knife you're using) just inside the joint for the claw (below) and give it a good whack. If it doesn't break enough to pull out the meat, flip the claw over and do it on the other side. Be careful not to do it too hard because the shell can shatter.Once the leg is broken, pull from the claw end, and you should have a nice piece of meat attached (above). The meat has a thin layer of cartilage in the middle of it, so you can either run your knife edge perpendicular to the cartilage and scrape the meat from both sides of the it, or pull it off with your fingers (or your teeth). The other half of the leg that the meat just came out of might have some tasty remnants as well, and you can put your knife in and scrape any leftover meat out. Repeat the cracking step on the "thigh" portion of the leg (left).

STEP 10Eat and Repeat

A Good Knife is Hard to Find
If you want to pick crabs like the pros, the first thing you need is a good knife-and for crab-picking purposes that means a short blade, about 21/2  inches, and a heavy metal handle. Ideally, the blade should have a slight hawk-bill curve to it, but, more important, the knife's handle must be heavy enough to neatly crack a claw with a single blow [see Step 9].

Until a few years ago, the answer to "where can you get a good crab-picking knife?" was easy: Carvel Hall Inc. in Crisfield, Md. But now, with that company out of business, it takes a bit more nosing around. Though purists say they don't compare to the originals, Carvel Hall replicas can still be found in Crisfield-where, among other retailers, J.P. Tawes & Bro. Hardware on West Main Street sells them for $12. According to George Tawes, great-grandson of the store's founder, the replicas are made by a former Carvel Hall designer who bought the company's blanks. Tawes also sells two other all-stainless models: a Tool Master that, like the Carvel Hall model, has the slightly curved blade; and a straight-blade model made by R. Murphy Knives of Massachusetts. These, and similar models, can be found at many Bay-side hardware stores.

In a pinch, of course, a short-bladed all-metal paring knife will do the trick-and if you've browsed housewares lately, you know that all-stainless cutlery is all the rage. Bed, Bath and Beyond, for instance, sells a Calphalon all-stainless paring knife with a 31/2 -inch blade for $20.

Here are a few leads to get you started in your hunt for the perfect crab-picking knife.

J.P. Tawes & Bro. Hardware, 410-968-1066, 1100 W. Main St., Crisfield, MD 21817. Sells three types of crab knives: Carvel Hall replicas, Tool Master and R. Murphy Knives.

Linton Seafood Inc., 877-546-8667, 4500 Crisfield Hwy., Crisfield, MD 21817. Sells Carvel Hall replicas.

R. Murphy Knives, 978-772-3481,, 13 Groton-Harvard Rd., Ayer, MA 01432. Sells (wholesale and retail) an all-stainless crab knife, 21/4 -inch straight blade, model SSSCM.

Maryland Delivered, 888-284-8565,, 2200 Sykesville Rd., Westminster, MD 21157. Sells an ornate chrome-plated Carvel Hall replica through its website (under Kitchen Items), made from original "mold."

Stevens Hardware, 410-269-0629, 142 Dock St., Annapolis, MD 21401. Sells Carvel Hall replicas and Tool Masters.