The Best Softshell Crab Sandwich

The Best Softshell Crab Sandwich

  • Course

    Main

  • Duration

    30 minutes

  • Season

    Spring, Summer

  • Serves

    4 to 6
Chef’s notes

Softshell blue crabs are one of the only ingredients that physically make my mouth water. They’re a perfect food in my book—sweet crab meat held together with a soft, thin, edible shell. They’re kind of like chicken wings in some regards, the perfect balance of crispy exterior to tender, delicate meat. If you’re into crab meat and crispy stuff, fried softshells are something you have to try.

fried softshells

While this ephemeral ingredient is great cooked in just about any high-heat application, it’s hard to beat a classic deep-fried Chesapeake Bay softshell sandwich. You can find softshells in seafood markets in the late spring through the early part of summer, but you can also catch your own by working pilings and docks with a dip net. As much as I take pride in procuring my own food, I’ve never caught enough softshells in an outing to satisfy my lust for these things.

I buy most of my softshells directly from watermen with peeler tanks. Getting them directly from the source ensures that they’re fresh, alive, and in prime condition. The larger the crab, the more expensive it is. “Jumbos” and “whales” command the highest price, but the smaller “primes” and “hotels” are usually cheaper, and in my opinion, have a better ratio of meat to crunch. I like to try to get the smallest ones I can find. Also, bring paper money when procuring soft crabs; cash is king at these establishments.

raw soft shell

The devil is in the details with this sandwich. A fried soft shell crab is almost always great, but there are a few key points that can make it exceptional.

First, the batter. I prefer to use a really thin beer batter, similar to a tempura, with softshells. A 50:50 mix of flour and corn starch makes this coating crispy and flakey. Thick batters mask the exterior texture of the crab and will trap in moisture, making the shell soggy faster than a thin batter.

Second, the frying oil. You want it hot and you need to work in batches to keep the temperature high. I prefer to fry softshells (and most seafood) in beef tallow—it’s got a high smoke point and it’s the tastiest fat to fry protein in.

Last, use a rolling pin to lightly roll out the crabs (after cleaning them) before seasoning and battering. This breaks up some of the structure, but also pushes out some of the water in the meat. This will lead to less splattering in the frying oil and a crispier crab.

The rest of the sandwich is minimal. A little Old Bay mayo (JO is fine too), lettuce, tomato and a light bun. The crabs are the star of the show, so you don’t gain anything by overwhelming the sandwich with fixins.

the best softshell crab sandwich

Ingredients

  • Dozen softshell crabs
  • Half dozen buns
  • Lettuce
  • Tomato
  • Salt and pepper

Old Bay Mayo

  • Duke's mayo
  • Old Bay or JO seasoning
  • Lemon juice

Batter

  • ⅓ cup flour
  • ⅓ cup corn starch
  • ½ cup beer
  • 1 egg

Preparation

  1. Lightly mix the flour, corn starch, and egg with a fork or chopsticks. It’ll be clumpy. Add the beer slowly and gently mix until the batter is mostly mixed and barely coats the fork. There will be clumps in it, which is fine. Don’t over-mix the batter; it’ll build up gluten and make it stickier than it needs to be. Keep cold until use.
  2. Preheat tallow or frying oil to 375°F. Use enough oil to completely submerge the crab.
  3. Clean the softshells. Use kitchen shears to cut off the face. Next, lift the “points” of the shell to reveal the gills and snip them out. Finally, flip the crab over and cut off the apron. Using a rolling pin, gently but firmly roll over each crab a few times to break up the shell a little bit and release some water. Lightly season with salt and pepper.
  4. Dip the crab into the batter, shaking off any excess. Carefully lower into frying oil. These things spatter like crazy, so be forewarned. If possible, fry outside. Cook for 60 to 90 seconds total, flipping halfway through. You should be able to see the shells turn bright red underneath the batter. Remove from oil and allow to drain on a wire rack.
  5. Assemble your sandwich. Add mayo to the bun, lettuce on the bottom half (it’s mainly there to keep the bun from falling apart), a slice or two of seasoned tomato, and pile on as many softshells as you can. Eat while it's still hot. Repeat as many times as you can during the season because there’s a short window for this perfect ingredient and life's too short to be skimpy with softshells.
Chef’s notes

Softshell blue crabs are one of the only ingredients that physically make my mouth water. They’re a perfect food in my book—sweet crab meat held together with a soft, thin, edible shell. They’re kind of like chicken wings in some regards, the perfect balance of crispy exterior to tender, delicate meat. If you’re into crab meat and crispy stuff, fried softshells are something you have to try.

fried softshells

While this ephemeral ingredient is great cooked in just about any high-heat application, it’s hard to beat a classic deep-fried Chesapeake Bay softshell sandwich. You can find softshells in seafood markets in the late spring through the early part of summer, but you can also catch your own by working pilings and docks with a dip net. As much as I take pride in procuring my own food, I’ve never caught enough softshells in an outing to satisfy my lust for these things.

I buy most of my softshells directly from watermen with peeler tanks. Getting them directly from the source ensures that they’re fresh, alive, and in prime condition. The larger the crab, the more expensive it is. “Jumbos” and “whales” command the highest price, but the smaller “primes” and “hotels” are usually cheaper, and in my opinion, have a better ratio of meat to crunch. I like to try to get the smallest ones I can find. Also, bring paper money when procuring soft crabs; cash is king at these establishments.

raw soft shell

The devil is in the details with this sandwich. A fried soft shell crab is almost always great, but there are a few key points that can make it exceptional.

First, the batter. I prefer to use a really thin beer batter, similar to a tempura, with softshells. A 50:50 mix of flour and corn starch makes this coating crispy and flakey. Thick batters mask the exterior texture of the crab and will trap in moisture, making the shell soggy faster than a thin batter.

Second, the frying oil. You want it hot and you need to work in batches to keep the temperature high. I prefer to fry softshells (and most seafood) in beef tallow—it’s got a high smoke point and it’s the tastiest fat to fry protein in.

Last, use a rolling pin to lightly roll out the crabs (after cleaning them) before seasoning and battering. This breaks up some of the structure, but also pushes out some of the water in the meat. This will lead to less splattering in the frying oil and a crispier crab.

The rest of the sandwich is minimal. A little Old Bay mayo (JO is fine too), lettuce, tomato and a light bun. The crabs are the star of the show, so you don’t gain anything by overwhelming the sandwich with fixins.

the best softshell crab sandwich

Ingredients

  • Dozen softshell crabs
  • Half dozen buns
  • Lettuce
  • Tomato
  • Salt and pepper

Old Bay Mayo

  • Duke's mayo
  • Old Bay or JO seasoning
  • Lemon juice

Batter

  • ⅓ cup flour
  • ⅓ cup corn starch
  • ½ cup beer
  • 1 egg

Preparation

  1. Lightly mix the flour, corn starch, and egg with a fork or chopsticks. It’ll be clumpy. Add the beer slowly and gently mix until the batter is mostly mixed and barely coats the fork. There will be clumps in it, which is fine. Don’t over-mix the batter; it’ll build up gluten and make it stickier than it needs to be. Keep cold until use.
  2. Preheat tallow or frying oil to 375°F. Use enough oil to completely submerge the crab.
  3. Clean the softshells. Use kitchen shears to cut off the face. Next, lift the “points” of the shell to reveal the gills and snip them out. Finally, flip the crab over and cut off the apron. Using a rolling pin, gently but firmly roll over each crab a few times to break up the shell a little bit and release some water. Lightly season with salt and pepper.
  4. Dip the crab into the batter, shaking off any excess. Carefully lower into frying oil. These things spatter like crazy, so be forewarned. If possible, fry outside. Cook for 60 to 90 seconds total, flipping halfway through. You should be able to see the shells turn bright red underneath the batter. Remove from oil and allow to drain on a wire rack.
  5. Assemble your sandwich. Add mayo to the bun, lettuce on the bottom half (it’s mainly there to keep the bun from falling apart), a slice or two of seasoned tomato, and pile on as many softshells as you can. Eat while it's still hot. Repeat as many times as you can during the season because there’s a short window for this perfect ingredient and life's too short to be skimpy with softshells.
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Save this recipe

The Best Softshell Crab Sandwich

Recipe by: Wade Truong
The Best Softshell Crab Sandwich
  • Course

    Main

  • Duration

    30 minutes

  • Season

    Spring, Summer

  • Serves

    4 to 6
Chef’s notes

Softshell blue crabs are one of the only ingredients that physically make my mouth water. They’re a perfect food in my book—sweet crab meat held together with a soft, thin, edible shell. They’re kind of like chicken wings in some regards, the perfect balance of crispy exterior to tender, delicate meat. If you’re into crab meat and crispy stuff, fried softshells are something you have to try.

fried softshells

While this ephemeral ingredient is great cooked in just about any high-heat application, it’s hard to beat a classic deep-fried Chesapeake Bay softshell sandwich. You can find softshells in seafood markets in the late spring through the early part of summer, but you can also catch your own by working pilings and docks with a dip net. As much as I take pride in procuring my own food, I’ve never caught enough softshells in an outing to satisfy my lust for these things.

I buy most of my softshells directly from watermen with peeler tanks. Getting them directly from the source ensures that they’re fresh, alive, and in prime condition. The larger the crab, the more expensive it is. “Jumbos” and “whales” command the highest price, but the smaller “primes” and “hotels” are usually cheaper, and in my opinion, have a better ratio of meat to crunch. I like to try to get the smallest ones I can find. Also, bring paper money when procuring soft crabs; cash is king at these establishments.

raw soft shell

The devil is in the details with this sandwich. A fried soft shell crab is almost always great, but there are a few key points that can make it exceptional.

First, the batter. I prefer to use a really thin beer batter, similar to a tempura, with softshells. A 50:50 mix of flour and corn starch makes this coating crispy and flakey. Thick batters mask the exterior texture of the crab and will trap in moisture, making the shell soggy faster than a thin batter.

Second, the frying oil. You want it hot and you need to work in batches to keep the temperature high. I prefer to fry softshells (and most seafood) in beef tallow—it’s got a high smoke point and it’s the tastiest fat to fry protein in.

Last, use a rolling pin to lightly roll out the crabs (after cleaning them) before seasoning and battering. This breaks up some of the structure, but also pushes out some of the water in the meat. This will lead to less splattering in the frying oil and a crispier crab.

The rest of the sandwich is minimal. A little Old Bay mayo (JO is fine too), lettuce, tomato and a light bun. The crabs are the star of the show, so you don’t gain anything by overwhelming the sandwich with fixins.

the best softshell crab sandwich

Ingredients

  • Dozen softshell crabs
  • Half dozen buns
  • Lettuce
  • Tomato
  • Salt and pepper

Old Bay Mayo

  • Duke's mayo
  • Old Bay or JO seasoning
  • Lemon juice

Batter

  • ⅓ cup flour
  • ⅓ cup corn starch
  • ½ cup beer
  • 1 egg

Preparation

  1. Lightly mix the flour, corn starch, and egg with a fork or chopsticks. It’ll be clumpy. Add the beer slowly and gently mix until the batter is mostly mixed and barely coats the fork. There will be clumps in it, which is fine. Don’t over-mix the batter; it’ll build up gluten and make it stickier than it needs to be. Keep cold until use.
  2. Preheat tallow or frying oil to 375°F. Use enough oil to completely submerge the crab.
  3. Clean the softshells. Use kitchen shears to cut off the face. Next, lift the “points” of the shell to reveal the gills and snip them out. Finally, flip the crab over and cut off the apron. Using a rolling pin, gently but firmly roll over each crab a few times to break up the shell a little bit and release some water. Lightly season with salt and pepper.
  4. Dip the crab into the batter, shaking off any excess. Carefully lower into frying oil. These things spatter like crazy, so be forewarned. If possible, fry outside. Cook for 60 to 90 seconds total, flipping halfway through. You should be able to see the shells turn bright red underneath the batter. Remove from oil and allow to drain on a wire rack.
  5. Assemble your sandwich. Add mayo to the bun, lettuce on the bottom half (it’s mainly there to keep the bun from falling apart), a slice or two of seasoned tomato, and pile on as many softshells as you can. Eat while it's still hot. Repeat as many times as you can during the season because there’s a short window for this perfect ingredient and life's too short to be skimpy with softshells.