Every summer, Maryland’s coast becomes a hotspot for crab enthusiasts eager to indulge in the region’s famous blue crabs. Here’s everything you need to know about the crab season in Maryland.
Summer in Maryland is synonymous with crabs, specifically the succulent blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay. Known scientifically as Callinectes sapidus, which translates to “beautiful swimmer,” these crabs are a true Maryland delicacy. Locals eagerly anticipate the arrival of crab season, where they can savor bushels of red-shelled crabs seasoned with mouthwatering spices or delight in the exquisite taste of fried soft-shell crabs, all while sipping on a chilled Natty Boh.
In Maryland, the preferred method of cooking hard-shell crabs and other seafood is steaming, as opposed to the boiling technique commonly used along the East Coast and in Louisiana. Marylanders argue that boiling makes the crabmeat soggy, while steaming retains the perfect level of moisture. Interestingly, Marylanders also prefer the uneven seasoning that comes from the spice rubbing onto the crabmeat from their fingers, rather than the uniform seasoning achieved through boiling.
What Makes Maryland Crabs Special?
Blue crabs are found in waters from Nova Scotia to Uruguay, but they are most closely associated with Maryland. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports that about 50% of the nation’s blue crab harvest comes from Maryland waters.
Blue crabs are a cornerstone of Maryland’s culinary heritage, forming the “holy trinity” of Maryland seafood alongside oysters and rockfish, according to chef Spike Gjerde of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen. Gjerde, a James Beard Award-winning chef and Baltimore native, believes that blue crabs from Maryland are unparalleled in taste and quality due to the unique estuary conditions of the Chesapeake Bay.
While larger Dungeness crabs from the West Coast may be easier to eat, and many restaurants use cheaper pasteurized crab from Asia, Gjerde insists that no other crab species can match the depth of flavor and delicate texture of blue crabs. He attributes this to the seasonal nature of blue crab harvesting, which typically begins in April and lasts until the cold weather arrives in November. This seasonality has shaped Marylanders’ appreciation for blue crabs over the years and solidified their place in the Chesapeake way of life.
Steve Vilnit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Services, explains that the need for hibernation is what sets Maryland crabs apart in terms of taste. Crabs build up fat stores to sustain them through hibernation, giving Maryland crabs a distinct buttery flavor. Captain Frank Updike Sr. of Natural Light Charters adds that the color of the fat, or “mustard,” is a darker shade of yellow in Maryland crabs. To ensure you’re getting authentic Maryland crabs, ask the restaurant or look for the True Blue certification, which verifies that at least 75% of the crabs or crabmeat used came from Maryland.
What Are Soft Shell Crabs?
Soft shell crabs are a sought-after delicacy, offering a way to enjoy crabs without the laborious task of picking them. Soft shells are crabs that have molted within the last 12 hours, during which their shells are soft and edible. Crabs typically molt 18 to 23 times in their lifetime and can only mate when a female is molting. Pre-molting crabs, known as peelers, are identified by a colored line on the paddler fin and are held in shedding tanks until they molt. Once molted, the valuable softies are removed from the water to prevent shell hardening and are then cooked and eaten.
Soft shells are usually fried with seasoned batter or sautéed, both of which preserve the fatty mustard inside and result in a juicy crab. In Maryland seafood restaurants, soft shells are often served as sandwiches with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato or plain on a platter.
When to Eat Crabs Hard shells:
The Maryland crab season runs from April to December. Crabs served in April and early May are usually those that stayed north during the winter. The best time to get the largest and fattest hard crabs at the best prices is in September and October.
The Maryland soft shell season typically runs from mid-May to September. As a delicacy, the best time to eat them is whenever they are available, though they are usually least expensive at the beginning of the season.
Where to Feast Many traditionalists believe that the best place to enjoy a crab feast is in one’s backyard. Chef Gjerde agrees, noting that crab-eating is a communal activity meant to be shared with family or a large group. For those without access to a backyard or who prefer not to deal with the cleanup, there are plenty of options for enjoying crabs and other seafood, along with summery sides like corn, hush puppies, and coleslaw.
Near the Cities:
- L.P. Steamers: Known for selling crabs by weight, ensuring meaty crabs.
- Conrad’s Seafood: Offers crabs caught by owner Tony Conrad and other Maryland crabbers.
- Cantler’s Riverside Inn: A traditional go-to spot for a true crab feast on the banks of Mill Creek.
Near the Shore:
- Suicide Bridge Restaurant: Celebrates Maryland’s culinary traditions with a view of Cabin Creek.
- Waterman’s Crab House: Offers an all-you-can-eat crab feast with a west-facing deck for sunset views.
- Fisherman’s Inn and Crab Deck: A family-owned spot with a history dating back to 1930.
Whether you’re a seasoned crab enthusiast or new to the experience, Maryland’s crab season offers a feast for the senses that you won’t want to miss.