Soft-shell crabs are one of America’s favorite seafood delicacies. While all crabs shed their shells to grow, only a few species of crab can actually be eaten in this form. The blue crab is the only commercially available soft-shell product.
Experienced crabbers can quickly spot crabs about to molt. Five to 10 days before molting, a narrow white line appears just within the thin margin of the last two joints of the swimming legs. A few days before shedding, the peeler crab’s narrow white lines give way to a red line, and fine white wrinkles appear on the blue skin between the wrist and upper arm. The actual molting lasts for only a few minutes as the crab pushes out the rear of the old shell.
The resulting soft crab, which is limp and wrinkled, will swell to normal shape and usually increase in size by 25 to 35 percent. If disturbed, the vulnerable soft shell crab can swim and walk but prefers seclusion. After a few hours, the crab’s shell becomes parchment-like and is fully hardened within two or three days.
During the spring, usually early April, there is a “run” of peeler crabs that lasts for about two weeks. At this time fishermen will target the female crabs that are molting into mature crabs after the winter dormancy. These crabs can be caught in “peeler pots,” which are crab traps in which one or two large males are used as bait to attract the females that are ready to mate. The peeler crabs are held for a short time in shedding tanks until the molt. After molting, the soft shell crabs are removed from the water and refrigerated for sale.
I had the soft shell crab entree at Fig and it was delicious, but call first because the dish is very seasonal and might not still be on the menu…