Depending on where you are in the States, a seafood boil might focus on crabs, crawfish, shrimp, and sometimes lobster – or all of them together. The shellfish are cooked with special seasonings – everyone has a secret blend and everyone thinks theirs is the best – along with additional components, like corn on the cob, sausage, and red potatoes. Tackling this mess of deliciousness can be intimidating the first time, so we scored tips from a pair of experts: Kevin Duong, co-founder and chief of communications of Shaking Crab, which has 10 locations in the northeast, including Boston, Massachusetts, and Ky Phan, chef and partner of Crab Hut Restaurant, which has a trio of locations in San Diego, California. Can’t make to any of these spots? Find a restaurant for a seafood boil near you on OpenTable and dine like a pro.
The night you go out for a seafood boil is not the night to show off your latest clothing purchase or a hot new accessory. “You’re going to make a mess,” says Phan. The restaurant provides bibs, which they recommend you wear. Some restaurants also provide gloves upon request.
Bring some friends
Though you’re welcome to tackle a bag of shellfish on your own, it’s best to have a group of four or more diners. “That way you can try a variety of food,” says Duong. “Think of it like a barbeque. Yes, you’re getting great food, but you’re also there to spend time with great people.”
This is food you eat with your hands. “Don’t ask for a plate or a knife and fork,” says Phan “That’s a no-no.”
Try out the tools
“There are purists who say you don’t need crackers, slicers, or hammers to open the shellfish, you just need your hands,” says Duong. “I think that’s pretentious. Do what feels best.”
Add a pop
“Squeeze a little lemon or lime onto the seafood,” recommends Phan, “because the acid really brings out the flavor.”
Opening up snow crab legs
“The best way to get into them is with your hands,” says Duong. Break off a leg section and hold onto each end of the tubular piece with your hands. Starting with the hard, red top of the shell, push your thumbs down at the center of the leg section until the shell cracks. Then turn it over and repeat that action on the softer white underside. Once the shell has been cracked on both sides, it’s easy to slip the meat out using your hands.
Handling Maryland blue crabs
A lot of people outside of mid-Atlantic are unfamiliar with how to best get into one. Break off each of the legs, which will expose a succulent chunk of meat that can be sucked out right out. To get into the main meat, Phan recommends turning the crab upside down and ripping off the bottom flap, known as the apron, and then popping off the top shell. This exposes the gills running around the edge, which you should remove. If you have a female crab, there will probably be eggs. These are absolutely edible, possessing a buttery, rich flavor not unlike uni. Then you crack the crab in half and break into each of the channels along the sides of body that hold the bulk of the meat.
Getting into King Crab legs
The cracker tool won’t get you very far because these crabs have a very soft shell. Instead, use the slicer tool. “It’s like a letter opener,” explains Duong. “You shove it down the inside of the leg with the sharp side against the shell – watching your hand, so you don’t poke it – and then pull it outwards to cut it open.”
How to go beast mode on crawfish
First, you remove the head. Twist it off to one side – not up or down – while pointing it away from you, so the juices inside don’t squirt on you. “Don’t forget to suck the head,” says Phan. “There’s a lot of flavor in there.” To get to the meat in the tail, remove the top portion of the shell that has two legs on it. Then remove the bottom portion of the shell. Pinch the tail along the top to break the meat’s connection to the shell, and then wiggle the meat out.
There’s a lot of melted butter involved in a seafood boil. If you take too much time to eat your meal, it will all congeal. “That’s why we serve everything in a bag, which helps keep the food warm and ensures the sauce stays runny,” says Duong. “But that can only work for so long.”
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Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.