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Factors affecting dungeness crab flavor? [moved from San Francisco board]

I'm in no way well-versed in this topic but I've noticed that crab to crab, the flavor and texture can be quite noticeably different. Mostly richness/depth of flavor and texture (I'm referring to fresh, pre-cooked crab from grocery stores all presumably at the peak of the season and from the Bodega Bay region). I was wondering if anyone could better explain what's going on here and what could be affecting this? Brining, age, geography/diet, length of cooking, etc... Also if there's any possible way to "pick a good one" just from appearance at the store.

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  1. I don't think there's any way to judge the quality of crab unless it's alive.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      I would have to agree with this assessment. Unless you are eating at a restaurant where they will serve you great crab for a price. I long ago stopped buying cooked crab mainly because they are all too salty for my taste. Freshness and fattiness affect the flavor the most IMO. I try to control for this buy buying from reliable sources (from a boat if I can) and also the biggest crabs I can get. Generally speaking, the crab seems to get fattier as the season goes on (Jan/Feb), but this year the Nov crabs were surprisingly rich. As other posters recommend, asking when the crab was cooked is probably going to get you your best result. And buy a big one! BTW, Lucas Wharf (not the retail market, but the place next to where the boats unload) in Bodega Bay is one of my fave places to source crab.

      1. re: rubadubgdub

        Curious. Why does the water get salted?

          1. re: rubadubgdub

            I think D-crab with butter and lemon juice is all the flavor I need. But thanks for answering.

    2. Not that hard to cook them yourself, if you don't get squeamish. Main trick is not to overcook, just like any seafood.

      Lots of boiling water. If they are alive and kicking when you buy them and you cook them within a few hours and keep them cold, they will be great. Best to get them from the boat so you don't have to worry about what's in the water in the storage tank. When they have been kept cold for a bit in the fridge or on ice, they are very lethargic and easy to dump into the hot water.

      Enjoyed a couple last night. I commit a big sin by NorCal standards by putting some Louisiana crab boil spices in the pot. Doesn't hurt.

      1. One of the big factors that effects taste is freshness: Both how soon after the crab was caught was is cooked and how soon after it was cooked is it available for you to eat it. Fresh is always better. When I buy pre-cooked crab I always ask what day the shipment is coming in and when the crabs were cooked and only purchase very freshly caught and prepared crab. The best thing to do as Robert sais is to buy live crabs but this requires more work. I haven’t purchased cooked crabs too recently and the last time was from the Berkeley Bowl and they were pretty decent. Saw them there this weekend but did not purchase any because my partner is not the biggest fan. When you chose them ask about when they were caught and cooked and also ask to smell them. Look out for off, ammoniated or overly strong fishy or funky aromas.

        1. I think I'm more squeamish about the "Predator" like interior of the crab than the idea of boiling a live one. In any case I'd love to be boiling live ones myself but it's just usually not that viable of a plan for where I live.

          Have y'all noticed a difference though between that buttery salty rich flavor and more flaky texture compared to the more stringy chewy sweet flavor? Do you think this is still a freshness issue?

          And I'll begin sniffing my crabs from now on! (har har...no but seriously)

          1 Reply
          1. re: humblenommer

            That's the difference I notice, sweet vs not. I'm still trying to determine if it's a freshness issue since I've cooked crabs that were lively and kicking, but still not as sweet as I've had. I'm starting to think the water in tanks at the store are a big factor.

          2. There probably is some variation in taste dependent on where the crabs were caught and how long they have been in captivity. Humblenommer-by predator like interior, do you mean the green stuff? That’s my favorite part of the crab.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Ridge

              I believe it's the gills of the crab that look like those frilly things that hang off the Predator (the fictional character). The first time I cracked and cleaned a crab myself I got pretty squeamish. Do you prep the green stuff with other ingredients? I've usually found it a little too bitter.

              1. re: humblenommer

                The gills do look scary. I mix the green stuff with a good dose of lemon juice and a touch of olive oil. The lemon masks the bitterness. My significant other, otherwise an extremely adventurous eater, is grossed out by it.

            2. Fresh is key. Go buy it off the boat, or live from Chinatown. Toss it in salted boiling water for 15-18 min. Plunge in cold water, clean (don't be afraid to eat the yellow stuff and the soft membrane lining the shell. Besides the shell, only the lungs (or gills), long, triangular white things, are inedible.
              Oh, and be careful. If you're not familiar with handling crabs, grab them with some long tongs.

              1. The last two Christmases, we've bought cooked crab at Sonoma Market. They get them in live and can tell you what time they're available. I have NEVER had anyone crack and clean them. I do that just before eating. Recently we bought a crab on Saturday afternoon planning on having with our adults kids as an app on Sunday afternoon. We'd had too much snacking and didn't want to ruin our appetites. We didn't eat it til Monday and it was great. And we had some left that I made corn and crab chowder with on Tuesday. Still great though the texture suffered a bit by then but didn't matter in the chowder. So I think how they're treated from beginning to end makes a big difference. And as a side note, I'm always appalled when I see Costco sell them as "previously frozen." I'd think that's not a recipe for success but what do I know. Just my two cents.

                2 Replies
                1. re: c oliver

                  It's so interesting how everyone has their tried and true method. I have found that cleaning the crab after cooking keeps the crab in better shape. After a brief while, the gills and goop tend to release juices into the meat that lend to off flavors. And crab that has been cooked, cleaned and then frozen is surprisingly fine. I know this because it's the only reliable way to travel with them. My other observation is that markets tend to use too much salt in their cooking liquid so that the delicacy of the flavor is lost. I've never had great cooked crab from a market.

                  1. re: rubadubgdub

                    It IS interesting! I was so sure that MY way was the right way but YOUR way makes a ton of sense. And honestly the crab used in the chowder that was three days old and cleaned but not cracked was great. I shall open my mind :) Living here at Lake Tahoe, truly fresh crab just isn't an option so we just wait til we're in SF or SEA. Actually I should ask WF in Reno if they get theirs in live.

                2. We've been catching and cooking dungeness crabs up here in Washington State for many years. A fool proof way to bring out the best in a live crab: first make sure the crab is full and heavy, (no flexing of the legs or belly area, a crab that is not filled out will be watery.)
                  Bring a large pot of water(a couple of gallons) to boil with a small palm full of rock salt and 6 to 8 whole allspice. Put the crab in the water, bring it back to a boil and cook for 16 to 17 minutes for about a two pound crab. Plunge it in ice water to stop the cooking. The allspice is key to a nice sweet tasting crab. Good luck!

                  1. Since my last post I have tried two cooked crabs. The first was from the Berkeley bowl about a month ago. It was good. Very fresh tasting. But the flavor was very mild. The second was tonight and was purchased at Ikeda market in east Davis. (Ikeda is kind of like a combination farm stand and small market. There is one in Davis and I think there might be one in Napa and Sacramento.) This crab was perfect. Very fresh and very richly flavored. It had the depth of flavor mentioned by the OP. The claws in particular had this pronounced but delicate umami flavor that was delicious. Served with lemon juice and olive oil. So enjoyable. Better than the one I had a month ago from the Berkeley bowl. I wonder if it was better because of where it was caught and how it was prepared or if it was better because it’s latter in the season now. Has anyone else had one lately?

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Ridge

                      Two weeks in San Francisco was the best crab of the season. Not for the style of prep, but the essential quality, sweetness and intensity of flavor of the crab itself, as posted here,

                      If we're trying to get at terroir influence, I'll say that over the years the crabs from Bodega Bay taste the best to me. During a season, I'll also have many from the Monterey Bay region from a friend who fishes near Marina and purchased from boats that land at Moss Landing. Those are good and fresh as can be, but not as delicious as the ones I buy from the boats in Bodega Bay. I cook them all the same way (steamed, not boiled) and there's a definite difference that's not attributable to freshness or cooking method.

                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                        The crab at the Garden Restaurant sounds really good. You inspired me to have crab at a Chinese restaurant this weekend.