Dungeness crab season in California is officially underway. The season usually begins in December, but 2020 saw a delay to protect migrating whales and some drawn-out negotiations over wholesale prices. An industry agreement earlier this month brought the official start of the Dungeness crab season. Crabbing boats are hauling in these delicious crustaceans from Fisherman’s Wharf down to Morro Bay, to the delight of seafood lovers across the state. Alas, we must sacrifice dining at seafood restaurants at this time, but there’s always take-out as well as the option to prepare your own Dungeness crabs at home.
Dungeness Crabs are a West Coast Delicacy
Dungeness crab is a species native to the west coast of North America, and one of the largest edible crabs found along the coast. They are at their most abundant between Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and the Central Coast of California, where the crabs live on sandy bottoms and eelgrass beds. The species is named after the port of Dungeness in Washington, itself an homage to a headland called Dungeness in southern England.
While the East Coast adores its smaller blue crabs plucked from the Chesapeake Bay, West Coast foodies feast on the delicate, sweet flesh of the hard-shelled Dungeness crabs. Port Angeles in Washington hosts an annual festival to celebrate the Dungeness crab, and Oregon made it the official state crustacean. California claims the biggest share of the global catch, followed by Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska, according to Seafood Watch.
San Francisco has the oldest commercial fishery for Dungeness crab, dating back to 1848. The crustacean features on the iconic Fisherman’s Wharf sign, and the city’s tourists and locals can buy freshly steamed and cracked crabs from waterfront venders there. During California’s Dungeness crab season, crab sandwiches and whole cooked crabs rival those steaming clam chowder bread bowls as the most popular foods sold on the wharf.
Populations are generally healthy, and Seafood Watch calls Dungeness crab a “Good Alternative” to overfished species. Monterey Bay, Half Moon Bay and Morro Bay are also significant fishing ports for Dungeness crabs. If you live in any of these spots, now is the time to head to the fish markets. The Dungeness crab season in California will be over before the end of spring.
How to Buy and Cook Dungeness Crab
Buy Dungeness crab either fully cooked, preferably cleaned and cracked, or alive and still putting up a fight. Crab meat deteriorates immediately after the creature dies, so still-living or already-cooked are the only safe options. If you’re buying live Dungeness crab, make sure they move when you touch them, and cook them immediately. Any short-term storage should be in an open container lined with wet newspaper, kept inside a refrigerator or cooler, according to Epicurious.
Drop live crabs in boiling salted water and cook them for 15 to 20 minutes, then plunge into cold water before cleaning. That step involves removing the back, breaking the crab in two, shaking out the guts and removing the gills. (The Fish Market Guys make it look easy in this video. The Kitchn also has a handy guide here.) With cooked crab, you can eat them cold or reheat by steaming, boiling, roasting, grilling or adding directly to a dish. Keep fresh cooked crab refrigerated and eat or freeze it within two days.
How to Eat Dungeness Crab
A minimalist approach – some melted butter and a squeeze of lemon – is an excellent way to enjoy fresh Dungeness crab. A crab cracker and pick make it easier to get the meat out of spindly legs. You can add the picked meat or legs to a seafood linguine dish or classic cioppino. Pile the delicate crab meat onto a Louie salad or a green goddess salad, inside tacos or as a crab-melt sandwich on garlicky sourdough. Crab cakes are always a good idea, as is a lavish crab eggs Benedict for brunch.