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How to buy, cook and eat Florida blue crab

Not sure where to start? Go from market to table with guidance from local sellers.

While Florida’s beloved stone crab is weeks away from making its annual debut, the season for Florida’s other crab — blue crab — lasts all year. Click here to read more about blue crab, including where you can get it in Tampa Bay.

How to buy

Florida blue crab is sold all over the Tampa Bay area. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Though it’s not illegal to catch female crabs, it is prohibited to harvest egg-bearing females, and conservationists encourage throwing back all female species unharmed. That means most of the blue crabs you’ll find on the market are male.

Males can be identified by their claws, which are blue, while female crabs have red-tipped claws. Male crabs also have a narrow, T-shaped “apron” on the back of their shell, while females have a wider one.

Crabs are graded using a scaling tool that measures the widest part of the crab’s shell to determine what size, and price, it can be sold for. Crabs are graded in-house at most smaller markets, which usually get the crabs from either a local crabber or from a wholesaler.

READ MORE: Stone crab season is near, but Florida’s other crab has a following, too

CJ Hnilica, manager of Key West Seafood Company, sorts through a box of fresh blue crabs. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

In general, crabs are scaled as follows. Small: 5 to 5 ½ inches; medium: 5 ½ to 6 inches; large 6 to 6 ½ inches; extra large 6 ½ to 7 inches (and larger).

Prices will vary depending on the outlet, and are usually priced either per crab, by the half-dozen or dozen, or by the bushel, which is usually about 40 pounds.

Depending on the size and appetite of your group, the quantity you need will vary, but a safe approximation is about 2 pounds in the shell, or six to eight crabs, per person.

How to cook

The seafood boil at Tampa Blue Crab and Seafood contains steamed crab, shrimp, mussels, corn and potatoes, and is seasoned to your liking. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

The two most common methods of preparing blue crab at home are steaming or boiling, which takes anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes, depending on the amount of crab and size of cooking vessel.

When steaming, use a pot with a boiler basket, and take care that the liquid (usually some combination of beer, vinegar, water and seasoning mix) doesn’t touch the bottom of the basket.

To boil crabs, add live crabs to a pot of barely boiling water with lemon, seasoning mix, salt and any additional fixings (corn, potatoes, sausage) and boil for 10 to 15 minutes, until the crabs are cooked through, or have turned orange.

How to eat

CJ Hnilica, manager of Key West Seafood Company in Gulfport, picks apart blue crab meat. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Picking blue crab meat can be daunting at first, but all it takes is a little practice and patience to master this craft. The crabs have white lump meat in the bodies and darker, slightly sweeter claw meat. All of it is worth digging for. Here’s how.

  • If the cooked crabs haven’t been cleaned yet, start by flipping them on their backs and, using your fingers or a paring knife, peel back the “apron” and remove it.
  • Pull out the gills, which are located on both sides of the crab, and remove any other gunk that might look unappetizing. (The yellow-looking “mustard” is part of the crab’s digestive system.)
The meat of a blue crab can be found behind the lungs in the main torso of the crab and in its claws and legs. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
  • Once the crab has been cleaned, start by breaking it in half using your hands, and pick out as much meat from the larger pieces as possible. Then, twist the crab legs away from the body. (Discard the smaller ones, but save the larger claws for later.)
  • Using a mallet or nutcracker, gently crack the claws open and use a small fork or pick to pull out the rest of the meat. The crab’s claws are finger food once they’re peeled, and still have the pincers attached and cartilage in the middle, so use your hands to hold the claws and eat the rest of the meat right off them.
Steamed blue crabs at Key West Seafood Company. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]