Soft-shells No Longer a Hard Sell

by Dave on July 22, 2009

Once exotic, soft-shells have gone mainstream at the beach

REHOBOTH BEACH, DE – When it comes to popular restaurant items, crab cakes have long dominated diners’ top 10 lists. But in the past few years, soft-shell crabs have been coming on strong. “We can’t keep them in the house,” says Bryan Muzik, executive chef of NorthEast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View. “Once people have soft-shells, they acquire a real taste for them.”

And chefs love them. “They’re incredibly versatile,” says Matt Haley, chef and owner of SoDel Concepts, which in addition to NorthEast also owns and operates Fish On in Lewes, Lupo di Mare in Rehoboth, Bluecoast Seafood Grill and Fish Market in Bethany, and Catch 54 Fish House in Fenwick Island. “All of our restaurants have a recipe for soft-shells to meet our customers’ demands; soft-shells lend themselves to so many preparations.”

Indeed, you can serve them Asian-style with soy sauce or perch them on a bun. You can batter and fry them or sauté them with butter. You can do so many things—as long as the end result has a snappy yet yielding shell and rich, sweet-tasting meat.

When Phil Mastrippolito was at NorthEast, he started serving sautéed soft-shells atop baby arugula with shaved fennel and sweet onion, dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. It was so popular, he took the dish to Fish On. (NorthEast still serves it.) At Catch 54, Steve Hagan soaks soft-shells in buttermilk before frying them golden and plating them with soybean-and-corn succotash, mustard tartar and baby arugula. Haley enjoys stuffing soft-shells with crab imperial for a delicious double whammy.

Soft-shell crabs are blue crabs caught between shedding their shell and growing new ones. The process occurs about 20 times during the crab’s three-year life span. Soft-shells are served whole with legs and claws. The eyes are removed before cooking. If you’re making soft-shells at home, Chef Matt offers these tips:

1. Ask the market if the crabs are cleaned. If you’re squeamish, ask the market to clean them.

2. Purchase fresh not frozen crabs, which can get mushy when you cook them.

3. If you do wind up with frozen crabs, or they’re excessively wet, prop them up in a salad spinner and very, very gently give it a few turns, emptying the water frequently.

Chef Bryan Muzik’s

Buttermilk Fried Soft-shell Crabs and Grilled Corn-Heirloom Tomato Salad

Serves 4


Canola oil

4 ears of white corn

1 pint of multicolored heirloom cherry tomatoes, cut in half

½ of a red onion, diced small

1 ounce of basil, sliced into a fine chiffonade (thin strips)

Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)

8 cleaned soft-shell crabs

1 pint of buttermilk

4 eggs

1 quart of flour

3 tablespoons of Old Bay

Extra virgin olive oil as needed

Salt and pepper to taste


Grill corn until a good, even char is achieved. Let cool to room temperature. Cut corn off the cob, and mix with tomatoes, red onion and basil. Add two tablespoons of EVOO to salad and toss with salt and pepper. Set aside.


Beat eggs and buttermilk together. Let the crabs sit in buttermilk for 15 minutes. Mix flour and Old Bay together. Dredge crabs in flour mixture and drop into 350-degree oil for two minutes on each side. Remove from oil and drain on paper towel.

Divide salad evenly onto four plates, top with a little EVOO. Season the crab with a pinch of salt, and place crabs atop the salad.

Article written by and provided courtesy of SoDel Concepts, a sponsor of

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