The Ultimate Guide: Maryland Crab Feast with Steamed Blue Crabs

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From how to choose the best bushel of crabs, to how to perfectly steam them and get the most crab meat for your buck, this post has everything you need to know for a perfect Chesapeake Bay crab feast even if you've never steamed blue crabs before! Get the napkins and wet wipes, honey...this recipe is covered in old bay and melted butter!

overhead view of a  pile of steamed blue crabs on brown paper

Join me in celebrating Juneteenth with more than 30 other Black culinary creators. Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day, signifying the final emancipation of those enslaved in the US announced in 1865. This year, we are celebrating "Freedom Day" by offering a delightful selection of mains, sides, desserts, and refreshing drinks that are perfect for backyard barbecues and summer gatherings with friends and family.

Join us in honoring the legacy of progress and freedom by cooking and sharing these recipes. Additionally, you can easily follow each participant by using the hashtag #JuneteenthCookout2023 on Instagram.

An Authentic Chesapeake Bay Crab Feast

I have lived most of my life in the Chesapeake region, specifically Virginia Beach in my childhood.

It's a very family-friendly area, and in the summer you'd find many a newspaper-covered table, streets blocked off, party games, the Electric Slide, and fingers covered in old bay seasoning.

Because crab feasts and seafood boils aren't just recipes, they're events that are rooted in a ton of history here in the Bay area!

Which is why I'm bringing this recipe to my friends in our annual Virtual Juneteenth Cookout. Crab feasts are a quintessential part of my family, y'all thought I wasn't going to share the love?

a pile of seasoned steamed blue crabs behind one crab in the forefront covered in old bay seasoning

Right before Greyson was born, my mom and aunties flew up and took my pregnant self on a long drive up the eastern shore of Maryland to Baltimore to buy a bushel of live crabs from their favorite childhood crab house.

They then steamed them up in my base housing apartment with vinegar and beer, and covered my dining table in brown paper and crab shells throughout the night, gabbing and noshing.

So these steamed blue crabs are my mama's recipe, which I treasure very much. My mama, who was born in Baltimore and spent many a celebratory moment scaring the living hell out of everyone by having an angry crab or two fly out of the pot, has the best crab feasts known to man.

Y'all this post is the ultimate guide to buying, cooking, and eating an authentic steamed maryland blue crabs recipe like a pro, along with some suggestions for sides dishes for the ultimate crab feast this summer.

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The History behind Black Folks, Seafood, and Crab Feasts

Crabbing has always served as an essential aspect of the region's economy and cultural identity, even before colonization, and the contributions of Black folks have been significant in this history.

Black people being trafficked living near the bay had access to the abundant seafood, including crabs, that it provided.

Fishing and crabbing became a vital source of both food and income, with the techniques and knowledge being passed down through generations. 

a small pile of steamed maryland blue crabs for a crab feast covered in old bay

Seafood back then wasn't considered high value at the time, something only poor people would eat and picking crabs was not considered 'posh', so many Black people took up the job. It takes a lot of dexterity and patience to both quickly and delicately remove backfin meat and not shred the jumbo lump crab meat we now find at the store.

Even following emancipation, African Americans in the area continued to rely on crabbing and fishing for their survival and financial success. They started their own businesses, like as local seafood markets, in where they sold their catch. 

What is a crab feast?

Crab feasts are a nod to the deep connections between people, food, and nature in the area, reminding us of the rich cultural history behind it all. These parties typically feature heaping piles of steamed crabs and Corningware full of summer side dishes.

They provide the perfect opportunity for socializing with friends, family, and the community. Laughter, storytelling, and eating blue crabs coated in old bay seasoning and melted butter are all part of the package.

For African American communities, crab feasts have taken on even greater significance as a way to honor and pay homage to their culinary roots. These talented cooks have innovated their very own spicy recipes and distinct preparation methods, bursting with cultural influences. 

overhead view of a crab feast with crabs being broken apart to be eaten

These “Maryland-style” and “Chesapeake-style” dishes have now become the ultimate cultural meals of the region, appreciated by people from all walks of life. 

Crab feasts are still a big deal in this area, reflecting the area's love for seafood. You'll find them all over Maryland and Virginia, hosted by local communities and organizations, with music, games, and other fun stuff.

It's a chance to honor the African American community's contribution to the region and chow down on some damn good eats straight from the Bay. 

Equipment to Steam Blue Crabs

A Cooler - you want a cooler with you when you go buy the live crabs from the market, to put the crabs in, dump the ice on them and wet paper bags or paper towels, and keep them cold as you drive back home.

Steamer PotThis is a very large stock pot with a raised rack or steamer basket.

Ice - go to the store or to a Sonic and buy a couple of bags of ice. Your ice maker won't make enough. You'll want enough to be under

Tongs - stay safe and don't get pinched with a long pair of tongs!

Crab mallets and Crab Crackers -  these wooden mallets and tong-like tools are great for cracking the claw shells open,

Paper Towels - you're going to need them, a lot of them.

Brown Paper Bags or Newspaper - I like using brown paper like the restaurants! It's stronger, sturdier, less likely for crab juice to leak through and isn't covered in ink. You could also use butcher paper or parchment paper.

Ingredients for a Crab Feast Recipe

ingredients for maryland steamed blue crab recipe: old bay, vinegar, beer, and live blue crabs
  • Maryland Blue Crabs - for the right flavor you want live Chesapeake blue crabs. These aren't like snow crab legs, you want them alive. The ones here in the DMV area are a much brighter blue than the Carolina or Gulf crabs.
  • White Vinegar or Apple Cider Vinegar - We use apple cider vinegar for better flavor (in my opinion!). The vinegar tenderizes the meat as it steams and helps the meat pull away from the cartilage and shell!
  • Beer - light beers are the key here for flavor. A light lager, the traditional Natural Bounty (Natty Bo) in Maryland, or a light ale like Blue Moon are best.
  • Crab Seasoning - many crab houses have their own special blend, but the tried and true will forever be Old Bay Seasoning.

How to Buy Fresh Blue Crabs

If you are blessed to live in the region like us, local crabs are caught daily and sold at mom and pop seafood markets, who are often crabbing themselves in places like the Baltimore harbor off their boats.

When you arrive at the seafood market, you'll be bombarded with all types of words you may have no idea how to decipher. So let's get into the lexicon of buying live blue crabs:

Crab Sizes

When you go to the market, you'll find that the amount will be of different size and price depending on which type of crab you're buying. Don't worry, I've got a quick guide on crab sizes.

Crab TypeSize and Meaning
Extra Large Male CrabsThese Jumbo or Heavyweight crabs are around 6 ½ to 7 inches across, they're the best crabs for eating but more expensive than the others
Male #1 (Jimmies)These are the more common large male crabs, they're 5 inches to 6 ¼ inches across the shell. They're full of meat and much more affordable than the extra large males, so they're most desired.
Male #2 These are medium crabs (and cheaper than #1 Jimmies) they're typically caught right after molting and have not quite filled out their new bigger shell. They range from 5 – 5 ½ inches and are not as meaty.
FemalesAlso known as “sooks”, female blue crabs can grow up to 6 inches. They are typically sought after because the taste and texture of the meat is sweeter and dense, and the fact that they're rarer since the heavily pregnant ones are thrown back.

Bushels, Dozens, Servings, and Price

This guide is for general hard shell live blue crabs, not for soft-shell crabs that are also available during the summer! The amount in a bushel can vary because of the different size of the crabs.

Most people will eat between 2-6 crabs, depending on if it's the main dish to eat and how much y'all like crab.

And the price does depend on if you're in the region or not and if you need shipping, but this is my findings at the local markets in the Chesapeake region from Maryland and up and down Virginia.

The TermThe DefinitionHow Many Servings Pricing (varies)
A Bushel of CrabsA bushel equates to 5.5 dozen (large crabs) to 7 dozen (smaller crabs), or about 66 to 84 live crabs.8-10 people$250 to $350
A Half Bushel of CrabsA half bushel is about 3-5 dozen crabs, or 36-42 crabs5-6 people$150-$190
A Quarter Bushel of CrabsA quarter bushel is about 21-24 crabs.3-4 people$60-$100
A dozen crabsthis is the smallest amount of live blue crabs you can buy, and the 'bushel' amounts are counted by dozens.2 people$28-$50

Live Crabs Only!

Make sure these crabs are live, and not just a little alive, but mad.

Bubbling mouths, wide mean stances, trying to 'bite' you with their claws before you leave the seafood market.

blue crabs in a bowl with an angry crab on the table looking up at the camera

That means they're not 'dying' and of course, not dead. Never eat a dead crab. Check your crabs before leaving!

Bring them Home

If you're not getting them shipped, you'll need a cooler and ice to bring the live crabs home.

The cooler keeps them contained, because the bags the market will give them to you in will not resist ripping apart from angry, fighting crabs that warmed up and now you have angry crabs in your car attacking each other.

Keep them on ice with the cooler cracked open so they can get some air (as long as the cooler isn't packed with crabs toward the top, they can't climb out) and cover them with seaweed or wet straw (ask for some from the crabbers) or wet paper towels so they remain wet.

How to Decipher Male or Female Crabs

When you have the live crabs, the easiest way to tell the female blue crabs from a male crab without having to handle them and risk getting bit, is by their 'red nail polish': the females' claws are tipped with red color.

live female blue crab on ice in a bowl

They're also much meaner and feistier than the males, in my opinion. They are the ones breaking limbs off each other in the cooler.

You can also tell the difference by looking at the apron:

a male steamed blue crab being held up to show to long and narrow apron

A male blue crab apron is long and narrow.

a female steamed blue crab being help up to show to wide, domed apron

A female blue crab apron is wide and domed.

Why are females harder to come by or more expensive?

Depending on what state you're in or buying blue crabs in, you may only be able to get male crabs.

In the spring and summer, the crabs begin molting and that's the only time they can procreate. So summer crab feasts will have less females as many of those crabs will be pregnant with a lot of eggs, and crab population sustainability laws force crabbers to throw them back into the waters.

If you do end up in an area where you can buy females (we can here in Virginia), you may be lucky in finding roe inside the shell, but we'll talk more about that in the 'how to eat steamed blue crabs' section.

How to Cook Blue Crabs at Home

pouring beer into a large pot for a crab feast recipe

Step 1 | pour the beer and vinegar into the bottom of the pot and bring to a boil.

While the steam pot is coming to a boil, give your crabs a rinse in a large bowl under cool water then put them back on ice until the liquid is boiling.

placing the crabs onto the steamer rack in a pot for a crab feast

Step 2 | Once the beer mixture is boiling, carefully place the first layer of crabs onto the steamer rack in the pot. You want them to only be one layer, don't pile.

Step 3 | cover that layer in a generous amount of old bay seasoning. And I do mean generous.

last layer of maryland blue crabs in a pot to be steamed

Step 4 | Repeat with another layer of crabs on top. One layer, then season. Another layer, then season. You want at most 3-4 layers(I was able to put in 24 crabs per batch for my 24 qt pot). Work in batches so they all cook evenly.

crabs seasoned in old bay seasoning in a pot to be steamed

Step 5 | Season the last layer of live blue crabs on top, the cover and steam the crabs for 20-25 minutes until they are bright orange. Pro Tip: if you see them pushing out mustard and fat, they're ready!

steamed maryland crabs piled onto brown paper

Step 6 | serve the steamed blue crabs on newspaper or brown paper with melted butter, wooden mallets, and claw crackers!

How to Eat Steamed Crabs

This is for those of y'all who have never eaten a steamed blue crab! It'll just be our little secret, nobody has to know. You'll look like you've been spending every summer of your life in the Baltimore harbor with these step-by-step instructions.

hands ripping off the legs of a steamed crab

Step 1 | It's time to eat!

First things first, remove the claws and legs. They don't have much meat in them, but you do want to get at the claws and knuckles. I'll show you how to do that later on.

hands removing the female apron from a steamed blue crab

Step 2a | Next, remove the apron. Remember, the females have the wide apron, seen here. Remove the gonads that are under/attached to the apron.

hands showing how to remove the male apron from a male blue crab

Step 2b | Have a male instead? Lift and tear off their apron too.

the gonads of the male steamed blue crab removed from the crab

Step 2c | Instead of frilly gonads underneath, they have...those. They kinda look like those little popping fireworks. Get rid of them, too. We don't eat them.

two hands lifting the top shell off a steamed blue crab

Step 3a | The apron removal left a hole, use that to help pull the top of the shell off the body of the crab.

top shell removed from the crab, showing the insides of the body

Step 3b | You'll be able to remove the eyes and mouth area from the front easily along with the top shell.

two hands holding the top shell of a female crab showing the roe inside

Surprise! | This is the top shell of a female crab with a prize: orange crab roe. Many female crabs carry roe in big sponges in the summer and have to be thrown back for conservation and sustainability efforts. Since that roe is rare, it's a delicacy for crab lovers (and a must for authentic She Crab Soup!).

hands holding the body of a steamed blue crab to show the inedible gills

Step 4 | When you pull the top shell off you'll see the frilly gill parts right on top of the actual body full of meat. Gills are an inedible part of the crab, so pull them off.

Also, that yellow stuff in the crab is the 'mustard' or 'crab fat', aka the tomalley. It is edible and it adds extra flavor to the crab meat.

hands breaking the body of a steamed crab in half

Step 5 | Okay so now we have the gills removed and are left with the actual body. Break it in half along the spine to release some of that sweet crabmeat!

hands showing how to break apart the steamed blue crab's body to expose the crabmeat

Step 6 | Much like a snow crab cluster, the chunks of meat are hiding in pockets between the cartilage. So give it a little *crunch* using your fingers to break open the cartilage, then go to town!

Because we steamed the crabs with vinegar, the meat will come pretty easily.

hands using a crab cracker to break open the claw

Step 7 | Now get after those claws! Use a mallet (or if you're not a delicate person and will smash it) use a pair of crab crackers to gently crack the claws and knuckles open.

hands pulling a crab claw apart to expose the meat

Step 8 | Pull the claw meat from the cartilage it's attached to on the thumb and enjoy it! It does have a stronger crab flavor than the delicate body meat.

Amazing Side Dishes for your Crab Feast

Pro Tips

  • For the juiciest, fattest crabs: have your crab feast anywhere from late summer to November. This is when they start packing on the fat to survive the winter and the prices start to go down...but keep that between us. I don't need the prices hiking up on them.
  • Make sure to use a steamer rack that is at least an inch above the boiling liquid. Any crabs that end up in the liquid will end up with soggy meat.
  • Crab bushels are expensive, y'all. So have everyone chip in on the buy if you're serving a party. Group effort!

Storage and Reheating Instructions

Steamed crabs can be kept in the refrigerator for 5 days in an airtight zip top bag. 

To reheat the steamed blue crabs: place a steamer rack or basket in a large pot with a few inches of water, but keep the water below the steaming rack. Once the water is boiling, place the crabs onto the steamer rack/basket and cover.

Steam the crabs for five minutes or until the meat is warmed through.

two hands holding up a steamed crab to the camera

FAQs

How do I know that the crab is cooked?

The shell of the crab will be bright orange, without any traces of blue or green when cooked through. Test for doneness by lifting a claw or leg—if it separates easily from the body, the crabs are cooked.

How do I recognize a Maryland crab?

Maryland blue crabs are more intensely blue on their claws and fins than crabs in the Carolinas and in the Gulf.
When cooked, Maryland crabs have more mustard that is deeper in color and more flavorful since the crabs have to hibernate and store up more of that 'crab fat'.

Can you cook a dead crab?

Under no circumstance should you cook and eat a dead crab! Not only because the texture and taste will be mushy and gross, but the moment a crab dies it releases ammonia and bacteria levels increase rapidly. You would be risking some serious food poisoning.

Do you need special tools to pick crabs?

Hands and teeth are all you really need, but for those of us who really want to get all the meat crab crackers, wooden mallets, and seafood forks will help get every last nook and cranny.

Can I eat the yellow stuff inside the shell?

The yellow stuff in blue crabs is called the tomalley, or "mustard". It's really the hepatopancreas, which is the liver-and-pancreas organ in the crab. Its flavor is well loved by blue crab eaters.

Why use vinegar while steaming crabs?

Not only does the vinegar give better flavor but it helps tenderize the crabmeat and stop it from sticking to the shell and cartilage while you're picking through them.

How long do I steam a dozen blue crabs?

If you're only cooking a dozen, steam the crabs for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them after 15 minutes, if the mustard is starting to push out of the crabs they're cooked!

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📖 Recipe

a small pile of steamed maryland blue crabs for a crab feast covered in old bay

Maryland Steamed Crabs

Eden Westbrook
This recipe has everything you need to know for a perfect Chesapeake Bay crab feast even if you've never steamed blue crabs before! Get the napkins and wet wipes, honey...your fingers will be covered in old bay and melted butter!
5 from 8 votes
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes
Course Summer
Cuisine East Coast American
Servings 1 bushel of crabs
Calories 64 kcal

Ingredients
  

  • Live Blue Crabs up to a bushel
  • 2 12 oz bottles light lager or ale beer
  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups water optional
  • 1 cup Old Bay Seasoning

Instructions
 

  • Clean the Crabs
  • Rinse the live crabs in a large bowl under cool running water to remove debris and dirt.
  • Carefully place the crabs back into your cooler on ice as you bring your steaming liquid to a boil in the pot.
  • Steam the Crabs
  • In a large steam pot with a steamer rack or basket, pour in the beer, apple cider vinegar, and water (if there's enough space without the liquids touching the bottom of the steamer rack). Bring it to a boil.
  • Once the liquid is boiling, use your tongs to start layering the crabs into the pot but don't pile them on top of each other. Lay them next to each other on the bottom, and once the bottom is covered, season them generously with ⅓ cup of Old Bay Seasoning. Don't be shy with the Old Bay, use more if you want! You really want those crabs covered in those spices.
  • Use your tongs to place another layer of crabs on top of the crab layer you just seasoned, and once you have a full layer season those crabs generously with Old Bay as well.
  • Repeat this process for 3-4 layers, we don't want to overcrowd the pot or else the crabs won't steam evenly. Work in batches (or with a second pot, just double the amount of liquid needed)
  • Cover the pot with its lid and steam the blue crabs for 20-25 minutes, until the shells are bright orange. If you see some mustard starting to push out of them before the allotted time, they're ready to be removed from the pot!
  • Repeat Steps 2-5 for the rest of the crabs, after removing the batch of steamed crabs from the pot, until all your crabs are steamed and bright orange.
  • Serve the crabs
  • Remove the crabs from the pot and either dump them onto a brown paper or newspaper covered table, or into a paper-covered tray for serving.
  • Let the crab cool for a couple of minutes until they're cool enough to handle but still hot. Eat with wooden mallets, crab crackers, clean fingers (that'll get covered in seasoning), and plenty of napkins.

Notes

Don't know how to eat a steamed crab?

I have a step by step guide with photos on how to break apart and eat steamed blue crabs in my post. It's a lot easier than you think!

Nutrition

Serving: 1gCalories: 64kcalCarbohydrates: 5gProtein: 3gFat: 1gPolyunsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 11mgSodium: 3001mgFiber: 1g
Tried this recipe?Leave a star rating and let us know!

Other Juneteenth Recipes

The Great Migration (Soul Food Classics)

Amid the Great Migration, countless African Americans departed from the Southern states. They relocated throughout the United States, carrying vibrant culinary traditions, which they adapted to suit their new homes. Some remained the Soul Food Classics, such as Southern Baked Beans and Old-Fashioned Candied Yams, while others, like Chesapeake Bay Crab Feast and Strawberry Sweet Iced Tea, were new renditions of old favorites.

Sweet Tea + Thyme- Chesapeake Bay Crab Feast

Meiko And The Dish - BBQ Beef Plate Ribs

Good Food Baddie - Grilled BBQ Spatchcock Chicken

Kenneth Temple - Southern Potato Salad

Pink Owl Kitchen - Southern Baked Beans

Britney Breaks Bread - Old Fashioned Candied Sweet Potatoes

Britney Breaks Bread - Classic Red Velvet Cake

Pink Owl Kitchen - Strawberry Sweet Iced Tea
You can find a list of all recipes from the 2023 Juneteenth Virtual Cookout on the Eat the Culture website.

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