The science of soft shells
The blue claws just did their big summer shed and softies are about as good as they get.
Last summer, we took a look at softies and they’re fleeting deliciousness.
This time around, we’re going to look a little more into the salty science of these mysterious crabs.
All crustaceans “molt.” That is, they shed their exoskeletons when they grow out of them. Blue claw crabs shed about two or three times during their lives, which usually only last a few years. When they molt, they can grow up to 30 percent bigger than their previous size. It’s directly after. The creatures in the bay love them as much as we do.
Within an hour after shedding, the shell begins to harden and can quickly feel like a normal crab again. At this point they’re referred to as “tinny.” They’re not nearly as good, hence the importance of getting them to the kitchen in a very timely manner. If they are quickly stored in a 35-degree refrigerator, they can stay soft for four to five days.
Our crabber, Richie Szelc is one of the few true baymen in our area. He is a full time crabber and provides all of our restaurants with those amazing crabs from our bay. We’re very serious about locally and responsibly source seafood, making Richie one of our most important partners we work with.
As he harvests each morning, Richie picks out the crabs that are likely to shed. He has a very trained eye and can tell when they’re ready to go.
“The females are easy to spot as their u-bottom starts to change color. Also, the lines on their flippers turn blood red,” says Richie, “The males are much tougher to gauge when they are going to shed, and since the mortality rate can be high, like 80 or 90 percent if they don’t shed right away, I only take the females that will be shedding within the next day or day and a half.”
Richie puts the shedders into a tank in his yard. There, he is able to watch them and easily grab them as they shed. The crabs puff up in the back and essentially crawl out the back of their former bodies. At that point, he grabs them and packs them for the restaurant.
During the summer, this is a 24-hour job. He gets up in the middle of the night and checks for softies. He’s had runs in the past where he’s barely gotten any sleep for days.
Richie gets a good indication of when the blue claws will shed, as they start in the south.
“They’ll start to shed in Maryland. And then the next week in Delaware, and the following week here. So we can generally count on two to three weeks after Maryland.
The crabs have a big shed in late May or early June. Then there’s another shed in July and then a three-week long shed in August. It slows down into September and by late September, the goodies are done for the year.
“It’s been a good year for softies because it’s been a good year for crabs overall. Even after the freeze we had last winter, this is as good as it’s been since before Hurricane Sandy,” Richie says.