Simple Crab Cleaning for Beginners

Dungeness crabs are a delectable treat for many people, particularly on the West Coast. They can be used in many seafood dishes and grow to a relatively large size.

Like most seafood, though, dungeness crabs are best when they are as fresh as possible. If they are really fresh, this often means that they will need to be cleaned. What’s more, it isn’t an uncommon practice for crabs to be frozen whole, very soon after they are caught, and before they are cleaned. Thankfully, dungeness crabs aren’t difficult to clean.

Initial preparation

If the crab is cooked and frozen, it should first be thawed out. Hot salted water is good for doing this and it usually takes less than a half hour. However, if the crab is live or hasn’t been cooked before freezing, it should be cooked. For live crabs, this is done by heating a pot of salted water to boiling, placing the crabs in the boiling water for about seven to eight minutes or so per pound of the average crab in the pot. The crabs should turn an orange color as they cook. They should then be removed from the water and immediately put into cold or iced water. This stops the cooking process, so the crabs don’t end up becoming over-cooked.

As a tip, the crabs will usually be easier to put in the pot if they are upside-down to prevent the crab from putting its legs out to stop the action. If the back is down and the belly is up, the legs tend to easily bend in the right direction. 

First steps of cleaning

It might seem to be a bit strange to cook something before cleaning it, but this method works well with Dungeness crabs. In part, this is because the cooking makes it a lot easier to clean the crab (not to mention the fact that it can be a little hard to clean if it is still alive).

Once they have been boiled and cooled, though, the cleaning becomes easy. Turning the crab onto its back, an inverted V shaped structure should be easily noticeable near the rear of the lower shell. Note that in female dungeness crabs, this structure is more noticeably rounded than on males.

Slip a thumb under this structure and pull it up and then toward the back of the shell, and the upper shell should crack free. Some people advocate breaking the triangular piece of shell off, and putting the thumb in the opening that this normally creates, however this can create extra steps in what can be a relatively easy process. Similarly, removing the back first and then removing the triangular piece of shell can be an extra step, though some people do it this way.

Once the shell pops free under moderate pressure, remove and discard it. It can be used for other purposes, if that is desired.

Finishing cleaning steps

With the top shell removed, turn the crab right side up. The lungs and viscera should be easily visible. These can be washed away under running water with just a little effort using your fingers. A few people actually save and eat them, but this normally isn’t the choice for most people. Additionally note that cleaning out this part of the crab can be a bit easier if the crab is split in half, from front to back. Usually, this is easy to do by simply breaking it in half, by hand, in this direction. 

Cleaned crab

At this point, the crab is cleaned, though it isn’t shelled. Shelling is optional, though usually necessary before eating, and it is the determination of a person, depending on the desired results, whether the shell needs to be immediately removed or not. Shelling a crab doesn’t necessarily have much to do with cleaning one. Still, the cleaned dungeness crab can be shelled by cracking the legs with nutcrackers or pliers and picking out the meat with nutpicks or similar. The shell fragments in the body section can usually be removed by hand, since they tend to be less rigid.

The task of cleaning a dungeness crab, particularly if it is live, which is arguably the best dungeness to work with and to eat, may seem daunting. However, it is far easier than a person doing it for the first time might think. Once cooked and cooled, the whole process rarely takes more than five minutes per crab, so it also doesn’t take much time. The result, though, is so delicious and succulent that it explains why so many people in the western US and elsewhere eagerly look forward to crabbing season in the Pacific or flock to restaurants to have crab meals.

Recommended Reading