Crawling around the mud banks just below the water along the edge of Jarvis Creek in Hilton Head Island while kayaking or canoeing, you may see Blue Crab. While you kayak in Jarvis Creek on Hilton Head, you may notice floating markers which may go to someone’s crab traps. Many enjoy eating Blue Crab in various forms, but one way some enjoy them is during the molting stage. This is when the blue crab losses its shell (becoming a soft shell crab) in order to grow larger since they are exoskeleton. Also during this time, is the only time they are able to mate is when the female is a soft shell crab. The male will help feed and defend her during this time until her new hard shell develops and they separate ways.
The situation might seem perplexing to the novice. The crab looks like, well, a crab. And the expectation is to eat it. All of it. Even the legs.But don’t fear. It is a crab. But a crab mallet won’t be necessary. This is a special kind of crab. It is a soft shell crab.
The soft shell crab can look intimidating at first. After all, a blue crab isn’t the friendliest looking creature. But if you can get over any initial reluctance, a treat is in store that, when you get down to it, isn’t all that difficult to make yourself.
“Some people do get nervous,” said Craig Reaves, owner of Sea Eagle Market. “The majority, though, understand the delicacy that soft shell crabs are.”
The opportunity for soft shell crab is quick. It only comes once a year. And that time is now. The ninth annual Soft Shell Crab Festival on April 21 in Port Royal is a chance to savor these delicacies. But if you’re unfamiliar, let us introduce you.
What the heck is it?
A soft shell crab is just a blue crab that has lost its shell. It needs to do this to grow. When the water starts to warm in the spring, the crab sheds its old shell. In a matter of days, it will have a new hardened shell to fit its body. So, timing is of the essence to get the crab after the molting before the new shell begins to form.
Try them yourself
Many restaurants offer soft shell crab on the menu this time of season, but cooking them yourself is doable. Pick up crabs at Port Royal Seafood, Bluffton Oyster Company, Sea Eagle Market or any number of seafood markets in the Lowcountry. First you’ll have to clean them. Cut off the eyes and mouth, the gills and the tail fin. A cleaned crab can be ready to prepare. Reaves recommends just pan-frying or sauteing them. Soak in evaporated milk beforehand. Dredge each crab in flour and then cook with butter in a pan. The cooking process only takes about six minutes. Easy enough.
As evidenced at the festival, soft shell crab doesn’t just have to be that. Crab grinders, crab BLTs, crab and grits … the list goes on. Patricia Branning, Beaufort author of “Shrimp, Collards & Grits,” grew up eating soft shell crabs. She recommends buying fresh, local soft shells. The crabs can be frozen, but they will lose a bit of their sweet flavor. Branning suggests a simple preparation, dressed up depending on your taste. Below is her recipe for sautèed soft shell crabs