How to Pick Crabs

July 29, 2016 4 min read

How to Pick Crabs

How to Pick Crabs


In Maryland we love our blue crabs and if you live here you better know how to pick a crab! It’s no surprise that one of our most popular cutting boards has a crab on top. Our crab trivet is pretty popular too. Again, no surprise. We can’t get enough of the blue crab, our state crustacean.

If you’re from Maryland, like I am, you should already know how to pick a crab. It is part of growing up in Maryland. But if you’re new to the state, or just visiting, crab-picking can seem intimidating and – let’s be honest – weird or gross. It shouldn’t make you nervous, though. Anybody can do it; you just need to learn how. This guide, then, is for all you non-Marylanders, transplants and visitors.

Why am I qualified to write on this subject, you ask? Well, my whole life I have caught, picked and taught people how to pick crabs. And I love to do it! Catching blue crabs is almost as fun as picking them.

As a young girl, I would catch crabs with my Grampy by using a string tied to a piece of wood on one side and a piece of chicken neck on the other side. The string gets lowered into the water and you wait until you feel the crab start to nibble on the chicken. At this point, you slowly pull up the string until you see the crab. Then you take a crab net and scoop up the crab. Easier said than done - but in my opinion, it’s the most rewarding way to catch crabs.

This, logically enough, is called chicken-necking.

We also caught crabs using crab traps tied to the dock of my family’s Miles River home. Back in the day, crabs were very plentiful and we would catch what seemed like a bushel every few days. My mom and I would sit for hours on the dock, with our legs dangling over the water of the Miles River, and pick crabs. Instead of eating as we picked, we’d save the meat, which would be used for crab cakes or crab imperial.

We always threw the female crabs back so they could reproduce. The way you can tell a female from a male is by looking at the back of the crab, also called the apron. It is male if it resembles the Washington Monument. If it resembles the dome of the US Capitol it is female.

Transferring crabs from crab pot to bushel basket and from the bushel basket to the cooking pot can be quite an adventure. You have to make sure you wear shoes that cover your toes! Crab claws are sharp and crabs are strong; If they latch on to any part of you, it’s very hard to get them off. The best way to hold a crab is by its back fin, so the claws can’t get to you. 

Once you catch them, of course, you have to cook them. Here’s how we cook crabs:

½ bushel of crabs (about 3 1/2 to 4 dozen)

Approximately 1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 can of beer

1 can of water

Old Bay to taste

Put ½ the crabs at the bottom of a big crab pot. Sprinkle with Old Bay (link to  Place the rest of the crabs in the crab pot and pour in the beer, water and apple cider vinegar. Then, sprinkle more Old Bay on top. Steam for 35 minutes.

Once steamed, it’s time to sit down to eat. There are many different ways to pick a crab and every Marylander will tell you their way is the best. This is my way (which, of course, I think is the best).

Step-by-Step on How to Pick Crabs

  1. Take both claws and all the legs off the body. Eat any of the meat that comes out—and you’ll want as much to be attached to the legs as possible because that’s less you have to pick:)
  2. Turn the crab over so that the “T” shaped apron is inverted. With your finger or a dull knife lift the apron towards you and then force your finger or knife under the shell and lift off. Set aside.
  3. With your finger or dull knife, pull out the guts and lungs. I also like to scrap away all the "mustard" (the yellow stuff). This can be eaten but I don't like it too much. I like to pile the guts/lungs in the crab shell to make clean up easier.
  4. Crack the crab in half. Then press down on one half and crack that in half lengthwise. Do the same with the other side. Now you should have 4 pieces.
  5. With a dull knife or your fingers start pulling out the white meat. Pile it to the side or eat as you pick.
  6. For the legs, use a knife and mallet to crack open the claws on the top and bottom and enjoy the meat you find. The other legs have meat too. You don’t need a knife and mallet for these, just break open with your hands.

For a really rich, decadent crab eating experience dip the freshly picked meat in some melted butter. Yum!

Pictorial on How to Pick Crabs


Click here for a list of Restaurants in Maryland that sell steamed crabs.  

Fun facts about crabs:

The blue crab's scientific name, Callinectes sapidu, translates as "beautiful swimmer that is savory".

Crab meat is an excellent source of high quality protein, very low in fat, especially saturated fat, is a high source of phosphorus, zinc and copper as well as a good source of calcium and iron.

A mature male blue crab is called a Jimmy.

A mature female crab is known as a Sook.

Now, go pick a crab and let us know how you do.

Kim Strassner
Kim Strassner

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