steamed dungeness with easy garlic butter

Have you ever watched a crab on the shore crawling backward in search of the Atlantic Ocean and missing? That’s the way the mind of man operates. – Henry Louis Mencken

Many home chefs (and restaurants) simply drop live Dungeness into boiling water and serve the whole crab on a platter with a claw cracker and a shellfish knife.

Please don’t do this.

Boiling any animal to death, even a “lowly” crustacean, cannot, by any logical extension, be construed as a “clean kill.” Moreover,  dropping a whole crab into a rolling boil literally cooks the taste of the viscera into the flesh, sullies the cooking liquid (which will inevitably leak out of the shell and onto your plate while you’re eating), water-logs the meat, and makes the meal significantly less user friendly for your dinner guests. Eating crab directly from the shell is, by definition, messy, but fresh Dungeness should be the chin-dripping-finger-food kind of messy, not the crab-guts-sitting-in-a-slough-of-brackish-water kind of messy. Fortunately, said mess can easily be avoided by killing and cleaning your crab prior to cooking.

Once a crab has been killed, the flesh rapidly deteriorates as the digestive enzymes in the liver begin to break down the surrounding muscle tissue… so, do NOT kill your crab until you are actually ready to cook it (as in, the steamer is on the stove with a couple inches of water boiling inside).


In Canada, legally harvested Dungeness are male and must be a minimum of 165mm wide, measured in a straight line across the widest part of the carapace. Gender is easily ascertained by examining the crab’s abdomen; the female (top) has a broad abdomen, the male (bottom) has a narrow abdomen. The thorax, located directly above the abdomen, is your “kill zone.”

Dungeness can be killed easily and swiftly with a single sharp strike to the under shell; simply place the crab on its back in your kitchen sink and direct a swift blow to the thorax (located directly above the abdomen) using  a mallet, small hammer or other blunt instrument. In a pinch, the handle of a chef’s knife will also work, but as the objective here is blunt force, do not use the blade. Merely piercing the thorax will kill the crab, but not instantly, and it will continue to struggle for up to a minute. The blow should be hard enough to break the under shell but not so hard that it breaks the crab in half and cracks the top shell. Unlike lobster, you will know when you have killed a crab because it will actually stop moving and all the legs will relax.

Once you have killed the crab, turn it top shell side up, hold the legs on one side firmly with your non-dominant hand, and use your dominant hand to pry/twist off the top shell. As the shell releases from the body, the crab legs will fall naturally into two parts and most of the viscera will remain inside the shell.


The “body” meat will remain attached to the tops of the legs, encased in a translucent layer of shell. Sometimes the gills will stick to this meat; if this happens, simply peel them off and discard. Rinse the crab halves under running water.

Shake out and discard the innards from the top shells, then give them a good wash under running water. Boil them in a separate pan for 5 minutes, drain and set aside.


While the top shells are boiling, place the crab halves into your steamer basket over two inches of boiling water and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, depending on the size of your crab.


Remove the crab from the steamer and match up the left with the right side on a plate.


Set the cooked top shell back on top of the crab halves and Voilà! Piping hot, fresh steamed “whole” crab, without the mess or the waste. Serve immediately with garlic butter and champagne!


For the garlic butter, using a small saucepan, squash six garlic cloves to pop them out of their skins, then squash them a few more times to release the oils. Melt 1/4 cup of butter in a glass measuring cup in the microwave, then add the garlic. Allow it to steep for at least ten minutes. Briefly reheat to re-melt the butter, remove the garlic (okay, I admit it, I can’t be bothered to pick it out), and transfer the remaining butter to two small dipping bowls (actually, I can’t be bothered to do this either; presentation be damned, it just makes for extra dishes).

2 live Dungeness crabs, between 1 and 1 1/2 lbs each
1/4 cup butter
6 garlic cloves

1. Being careful not to crack the top shell, kill and clean the crab. Scrub the top shells and boil them in a separate pot for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. Steam the crab “halves” until the claw shells are bright red and the meat is white and opaque, 5 – 7 minutes, depending on the crab size. If you’re uncertain, use an instant read thermometer to confirm that the crab has reached an internal temperature of 165º F.
3. Remove the crab from the steamer and match up the pairs on two pre-warmed plates. Place the cooked top shells back on top of the re-aligned crab halves and serve immediately with the garlic butter.

Serves 2

© copyright 2013 ingrid baier all rights reserved