Fish come and go according to the season, seafood has become, like many other foods, a global commodity that can be had at any time. The soft shell crab remains an exception. There are varying accounts as to when the soft shell crab season is; some say it starts in the beginning of April through September. Other sources I’ve read state the season starts mid-May through mid-September. Traditionally, the first full moon in May marks the soft-shell season.
Starting in May and throughout the summer, the blue crab abandons its shell and starts to form a new one, making its sweet, briny, delicious meat — usually incredibly tough to get at — immediately accessible. When the crab is molting, in fact, practically the whole thing is edible, and the new shell is among the best parts. The combination of tenderness and crunch makes it one of the great delights of eating.
The shell remains soft for only a few hours after the crab has molted, making timing just about everything for this industry, located mostly on the central Atlantic coast and most famously in Chesapeake Bay. But the crabs ship well and are available nationwide right now. Most soft-shell crabs you see at the market are ready to cook. This may not be the case if you’re buying them from a real fishmonger, in which case you should ask to have them cleaned. If you want good instructions on how to clean soft-shell crabs check cookinglight.com. Cook them as soon as possible for maximum flavor. At that point, I’d cook them within 24 hours; if you want to keep them longer than that, buy them live and clean them yourself.
All too often, soft-shell crabs are overbattered and overfried. The crunch at that point comes entirely from the fried batter, and the flavor is lost amid the oil and flour. My favorite mode of preparation — and by far the easiest and least messy — is to grill or broil the little guys. This adds to the skin’s natural crunch and leaves the meat tender and juicy. (My no-brainer recipe: baste with melted butter mixed with lemon and Tabasco and grill until plump and dark.)
But there’s no denying that a fried or pan-fried soft-shell is a beautiful thing. Keep the coating simple (again, my tendency is to keep it really simple and dredge the crabs in nothing but cornmeal), and fry or sauté quickly, in good oil or butter.