I grew up in Maryland, and crab cakes really remind me of summer. Here in Austin, I occasionally see a crab cake on a menu. It usually ends up being a crab fritter or croquette, which is like getting Sanka when you were jonesing for an espresso.
Fortunately, making crab cakes is super simple, as long as you follow a few simple rules:
Secret No. 1 – Old Bay
Every Marylander has a tin of Old Bay in the pantry. It’s a seasoning manufactured by McCormick that is mostly celery salt and paprika. It is salty, so watch how much salt you add when you use Old Bay as a seasoning. It’s a wonderful complement to the subtle sweet crab flavor, without being too much. If you’re wondering what to do with it when you aren’t making crab cakes, throw it on french fries along with a healthy splash of malt vinegar.
Helpful hint: I almost lost my mind trying to find Old Bay at HEB. It’s not on the spice aisle, but at a special kiosk over by the seafood counter.
Secret No. 2 – Be Gentle
Let the crab be the main attraction here. In order to make that happen, you must go light on the filler & binder, and you must be gentle with the meat. It might fall apart on you. That’s okay. We are not making a meatloaf here. Too much filler & binder and you won’t taste the crab.
Secret No. 3 – Crab cakes are balls, not pucks
It absolutely KILLS me when I see “crab cakes” that are shaped like tuna cans that have been rolled in bread crumbs. Don’t eat these. They are not crab cakes. As you will see, crab cakes are loosely formed balls of lumps of crab meat. You’ll kill the meat and have to use a lot of binder to get them pretty like the pucks, and they will taste like garbage.
Your shopping list for crab cakes
Since we aren’t going to complicate a great crab cake with a bunch of junk, shopping for them is pretty easy. In fact, you probably have most of the ingredients already.
Crab meat: I use lump blue crab meat. It comes in a clear plastic tub, typically around $10-15/pound and goes on sale from time to time. You need the lumps, so don’t get “special” or anything that doesn’t specifically say “lump” on the label. I don’t care for claw meat, so I avoid it as well.
If you are down to splurge, get jumbo lump blue crab meat. It’s probably around $25-30 a pound, since it has to be picked by hand, and there are only two backfin lumps per crab. If it doesn’t come out right, it doesn’t get to be jumbo lump.
Phillips Seafood has helpful diagram explaining different types of crab meat you can see here.
Old Bay: See above.
Saltine crackers: You’re going to need some sort of bread that will help hold the cakes together. I use plain old saltines. Some people use stale bread, or bread crumbs, or panko. Breadcrumbs are fine, but I think panko is getting too fancy.
The rest of the ingredients:
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp lemon juice
1 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1 heaping tsp prepared mustard
Optional ingredients (I can take it or leave it)
Make your crab cakes
In a decent sized bowl, mix together the egg, mayo, Worcesteshire, lemon juice, Old Bay, dry mustard and prepared mustard. Whisk it nice and smooth, it’s essentially a dressing to help keep these cakes together.
In a separate bowl — or a Cuisinart if you thought it through better than I did — crush up about 15 of your saltines into a fine grain, as uniform as possible. We don’t an oyster cracker sized hunk polluting our crab cakes.
Now, in a third bowl (I know, I know, bowls don’t grow on trees), gently examine your crab meat for bits of shell. When I say “gently”, think of looking for a lost earring in shag carpet. Or a contact lens. Don’t break up those lumps! The last couple tubs I’ve gotten have been pretty clean, but it’s nice to sift through the meat to make sure.
Now that you have clean crab meat, start adding the dressing, and very lightly tossing it with your hands. This last time, I actually used all the dressing, and they were great. Once all the crab meat has a light coating, add in the cracker meal a handful at a time. You probably won’t need all of it. You may only need half of it.
The key here is to be gentle, don’t fuss too much, and add just enough cracker meal to help bind the lumps together. To see how it’s coming, take a handful of meat and carefully ball it between your hands. If it holds, put it on a plate or dish and make more balls, about the size of an orange or slightly smaller. It’s entirely up to you, I’ve even made them golf ball size for mini crab cakes.
Cover your crab cakes and refrigerate for an hour. This will help them hold.
Now, once your hour is up and you are ready to cook, you have a couple options. You can fry them on the stove in oil, which is delicious, less healthy and risky when it comes to flip them over without breaking them; or, you can broil them.
This most recent time, I actually went a third route:
The hybrid broil/fry
I put the crab cakes on a baking sheet lined with foil (a bit of Pam is nice to keep them from sticking). I put them under the broiler for 5 minutes or so, until the top was nice and brown. Your crab meat is already cooked when you buy it, so you are just warming & browning here.
While they were broiling, I took the iron skillet and added a pat of butter. About the time the butter was foamy, the crab cakes were done in the broiler. Rather than flipping them and possibly breaking them to pieces, I took my fish spatula, lifted each cake and gently set them in the hot buttered iron skillet to brown the bottoms. It will only take a few minutes. When they look good, you’re done. Plate them up and sprinkle with more Old Bay on top.
If you are looking for a couple other variations I recommend, John Shields has Miss Shirley’s crab cake recipe on his website. John is a Maryland food historian and public television personality whom I got to work with when he emceed the Crab Soup Cook-Off at the Maryland Seafood Festival a few times. Andrew Zimmern’s wife is also from Baltimore, I believe, and his recipe is a good one as well.