I was first introduced to stone crabs as a waiter years ago in Key West. I thought they were pretty tasty, and I also didn’t mind the high price the chef was charging because it helped my gratuities. This was nearly 25 years ago, and they were retailing for $30 a pound for the large size claws back then. When this year’s season opens on Oct. 15, I’m guessing the wholesale price will be more than that.
It seems the most common size ordered is the large ones, but I think the better value is in the medium size. It’s all about the meat-to-shell ratio. The bigger the claws are, the thicker and heavier the shell is.
Why do we harvest only the claws? Stone crabs are very different from blue crabs. Blue crabs need big leg muscles for swimming, so a lot of their meat is inside the body. Stone crabs don’t swim, but they do feed on hard-shelled animals, so most of their muscle is in the claws.
Conveniently, the claws can be regrown, which makes stone crabs a renewable resource. It’s legal to harvest both claws (as long as they are at least 2-7/8 inches from the tip of the non-moving finger to the base of the first joint) and then release the live crabs back into the water.
Here’s what FWC has to say about their survival after being declawed: The only declawing study that has been published (Davis et al., 1978) reported 47 percent of the crabs declawed by double amputation died from the trauma, while 28 percent of crabs with a single amputation died.
It might sound like a cruel practice, going about breaking off a crab’s arms, but stone crabs often lose their claws in nature trying to escape predators. They will give up a claw or two if it means escaping being eaten by a host of predators that think they are just as tasty as we do. Grouper, cobia and even horse conchs will happily have a stone crab lunch if they can find one.
Stone crab season is closed during the summer months for reproduction. The females produce millions of eggs during the summer months. But come Oct. 15, it’s game on, and harvest lasts until May 15. Sometimes a female with eggs is caught during open season. She must be released with both of her claws intact, since stress may cause her to drop the eggs before they hatch.
One unique aspect of stone crab is that the claws are cooked and chilled the right on the boat. That’s done to prevent the meat from sticking to the inside of the shell. It’s also why almost all stone crab claws are served chilled.
From a Chef’s perspective, I wouldn’t personally want stone crab served hot. When you try to reheat the claws, the meat becomes stringy, and you might start to wonder why you just made so much money for stringy meat that is sticking to the shell. So chilled is the only way to go if I am serving them.
Getting at that tasty meat can be a challenge. For cracking the shells, I recommend you place a towel over the claw then lightly tap the middle of the claw until it fractures, then carefully remove the shell.
Be sure to get all the fragments off the meat or you might break a tooth. Stone crab shells are hard and sharp. If I’m shelling the claws for an event, I wear a cut-resistant glove on the hand holding the claws, so I don’t get cut by the sharp edges of the broken shells.
You can eat the meat plain, but it’s usually served with a dipping sauce. The go-to dip for me (and just about everyone else) is a mustard sauce, usually with mayo and lime juice added to it. I’ve written about sauces before like this one and applied them to several different seafood dishes, like salmon and shrimp.
The combination of whole grain mustard and lime juice really pops. I even add some lime zest to get those little explosions of zingy citrus flavor while I’m enjoying the crunch of the mustard seeds in the sauce.
The sauce is simple to prepare and will keep for 30 days in your fridge. It never lasts that long in my fridge because I will happily use it instead of plain mayo for just about anything. All you need is that food processor that I’m always talking about, measuring cups and a microplane zester (a tiny grater that takes just the outer edge of the lime skin and not the bitter-tasting pith).
I think the best beverage choice to accompany your stone crabs and mustard sauce is something with a little sweetness like a pomegranate seed cocktail. Sure, a Grand Cru Chablis would also be great with them, but it’s usually Chateau Busch Light at my house.
Chef Tim Spain is a Florida native and has years of experience cooking professionally, both in restaurants and in private settings. He offers private catering and personal culinary classes. For more info, visit ChefTimSpain.com or call 406-580-1994.