How to clean and cook Dungeness crab

Out of the Kitchen
This week marks the beginning of San Francisco’s Dungeness crab season. Starting mid November and ending in May, you’ll find seafood lovers celebrating the return of their favorite 10-legged creatures with crab parties and a myriad of crab-centric meals.

If you’ve never split open a claw and tasted the bounty of this Northern California ocean treasure, it’s time to tie on a bib and get cracking. Once you get past the Dungeness crab’s hard shell, you’ll find its sweet white meat–delicate and undeniably decadent. How to prepare Dungeness crab is up to you, but many chefs agree: Dungeness crab meat is so tasty it shouldn’t be hidden underneath competing flavors.

Where to buy:
The best time for crab is in December and January, when supplies are plentiful and the meat is sweetest. Dungeness crab can be purchased live from your local fishmonger or bought pre-cooked at the market. Whole Foods Market currently offers whole, cooked Dungeness crab for $11.99/lb. *PS, if you’re buying Dungeness Crab from Whole Foods in Los Angeles, they get their delivery every Wednesday!

If you plan on buying your crab live and cooking it at home, make sure that the crustacean is alive when you buy it. To cook it, fully submerge the crab in a pot of boiling, salted water and cook for 10-12 minutes.

Prep made easy

Out of the Kitchen

The best place to prep Dungeness crab is outside. If you plan on making more than a few crabs (one large crab per person is a good idea), create a prep station in the back yard, near a hose. This is a great job for kids or curious adults eager to pull up a lawn chair and get their hands dirty. You’ll need a bucket of water for cleaning, a container to hold the crabs and trash can to discard shells in.

Out of the Kitchen

You might even want to consider having a really tasty beer nearby.

Out of the Kitchen

Step 1: With the crab belly side up, pull off the triangular shaped belly flap, or apron.

Crab how to

Step 2: Turn over the crab and remove the top shell by inserting your thumb between body and the shell at the rear of crab. Pull up.

Out of the Kitchen
Out of the Kitchen

Step 3: Twist off claws and legs.
Step 4: Using a nutcracker or hammer, crack open the legs and claws.
Step 5: With the top shell removed, break off the hard mouth of the crab. Discard the colored connective tissue and the inedible, finger-like lungs surrounding the body.

Out of the Kitchen

Step 6: Rinse the crab thoroughly. The inside of the crab should appear mostly white, with only gems of pale meat and shell remaining.

Out of the Kitchen

Step 7: Using either a knife or your hands, split the body in half (vertically). Pick out the meat.
Step 8: Use a nutcracker or small hammer to crack open the leg shells.
Step 9: Pick out meat with a lobster pick, fork, or tip of a crab claw.

How to eat
To truly enjoy the flavor of Dungeness, serve it in the rough, with just the simplest of ingredients. Dip crab meat into warm butter, aioli (oil, egg, and touch of garlic for seasoning), or a spicy horseradish dip (add horseradish and soy to your favorite ketchup for an easy sauce).

And, if you’re looking for a fun way to keep clean, here is a beautiful and environmentally friendly alternative to pre-packaged wet napkins:

Citrus wipes
a fresh citrus and cucumber water for cleaning dirty fingers

3 lemons, thinly sliced rounds
2 limes, thinly sliced rounds
1 orange, thinly sliced rounds
1 cucumber, thinly sliced

Mix fruit in a large container. Add enough water to cover. Serve in a beautiful serving bowl or prepare individual finger bowls for guests. Present with cloth napkins.

Go on! Get some Dungeness crab and enjoy yourself!

PS, thanks to Chef Stephen Gibbs from Hands On Gourmet for showing me how to clean a crab!


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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.


  1. Leah Greenstein
    November 18

    Wow! I’ve had Dungeness crab before, but never like that! Thanks for the tips! When’s crabfest?

  2. white on rice couple
    November 20

    Beautiful! How informative and delicious!
    My family used to drive down a to seafood market in Ensenada,Mexico early in morning, then drive back and cook a whole trunk load of crab. This was our family crabfest!
    We’re doing that very soon again and making a trip down there!
    We talked about it with Leah at her party and she’s want to come…you too?!

  3. Brooke
    November 20

    are you kidding me? of course!

  4. DocChuck
    November 20

    My wife (Dr. E.) and I LOVE Dungeness crab (and as Marylanders, that is quite a compliment).

    We visit the PNW (Pacific Northwest) at least twice a year, and when in Seattle, Liz has the guys at the Pike Place Market’s fishmarket send a dozen of their largest D’s over to the chef at the Crowne Plaza (our favorite hotel).

    The chef has made us some simply wonderful dinners from these magnificent crabs.

    Thanks for reminding us that it’s almost time (early Spring) for another trip to the PNW!

  5. pamipoo
    November 20

    Or get married to a portuguese-sit back and watch him get every morsel out of the shell in minutes. I swear it’s genetic.

  6. Beeachathome
    November 21

    I live in the Tomales which is as close as you can get to the crabs without getting wet. You were right in saying it’s an outside project. I never cook less then 15 crabs at a time.It helps that we have our own crab nets. We give a few away but my husband and 2 sons and I can put away 8 to 10 crabs in one sitting,(their big guys). You clean crabs the way most people do,Im with you up to step #3after that point theres a much faster and cleaner way. I was shown many years ago by an old crab boat owner the right way to clean crabs(so he said)so if your ever up to a challenge. LOL I bet you I can clean and shuck them faster and have less shell pieces in with the meat. A small hammer is the only tool you need. Email me if you want in on my tip.
    The Citrus wipes is a great idea, never seems to be enough paper towels.Thanks

  7. MrsDocChuck
    November 21

    Sadly, my husband and I are now on a fixed income now and cannot travel, except via the internet.

    Your post and pictures brought back fond memories of better times. Thanks.

  8. Brooke
    November 21

    Beachathome, I would love to hear your tips! Feel free to leave them here in the comments, as I have no way to email you.

  9. jesse
    November 21

    Oh my goodness, I used to have Dungeness crabs thrice a week when it’s crab season in SF!! This post brings back so many sweet memories… thank you for the amazing pictures!

  10. Viola Cudd
    January 27

    Love dungeness crab!

  11. […] You don’t need a fancy seafood cracker.  I used a rolling pin.  Start with the claws and just give them a good smack and they’ll crack really easily. If you don’t have a rolling pin, you can also use the non-sharp side of a big chef knife or cleaver, though this is slightly less effective.  You could also use a rock or something.  No need for special tools.  If you’ve never done this before,  I found this post here with good instructions for cleaning… […]

  12. […] techniques. The following recipe is a great example of how learning an invaluable and time-tested cooking technique can make cooking at home so much […]

  13. Doc Barton
    March 30

    cooking/cleaning can crabs be ok overnight in frig…serving,how long 24 hrs ok?

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