According to The Grocery's online countdown, Wed. April 8 should be the first day of soft-shell season. Right before a full moon every spring, if the water is 68 to 70 degrees, blue crabs begin to molt. And that's when local chefs begin to make calls.
"It's an inexact science," says The Grocery's Chef Kevin Johnson, who tracks the soft-shell cycle annually. "What you're looking for is a full moon or new moon. There was a full moon on April 4th. But the fear is maybe the water temperature locally isn't high enough to get them shedding." For the chef, staying on top of the molting process — a brief two-day window when the crabs shed their shells in advance of mating — means getting the best softies. "Persistence pays. You want to be the one watching the moon cycles and water temperature," says Johnson. He keeps his phone lines to local providers like Crosby's Seafood and Low Country Seafood open to be sure he can place an order as soon as soft shells are available.
But of course Johnson isn't the only chef in town on the lookout for the best softies. FIG's Jason Stanhope posted an Instagram of softies being fried up last week, which means that someone's got the scoop on a local source. And a dozen restaurants just downtown are in on the game too. If you've followed former editor-in-chief Stephanie's Barna's epic softie crawls the past two years, you know one night last year she hit up nine restaurants and consumed 23 softies with her crustacean-eating posse. With that many local chefs competing for the best crabs, is it any wonder chefs like Johnson track softies like NORAD tracks Santa?
Like anything in demand, the trick with getting your soft-shell fix is to have the right intel. Here are five things to know about soft shells and their fleeting appearance on Charleston menus:
What the hell is a soft shell?
First off, a soft shell is a blue crab in the midst of molting their exoskeleton, a process that happens around mating. Just as Miley Cyrus began trading her Hannah Montana persona for a more revealing pop star look once she hit puberty, most female crabs shed their shells for a final or terminal molt when they reach sexual maturity. Sensing a female crab is ready for action, the male blue crabs then emit pheromones and perform a sashaying dance to woo the "naked" crabs.
A Labor of Love
Capitalizing on the traditional crab mating ritual, shredders (crabbers who catch softies), will often place a cage filled with male blue crabs into an estuary to lure out the females who are days from molting. "What the crabbers will do is they have a trap called a peeler trap and they'll put half a dozen male crabs in there nice and tight so they can't eat each other," says Dan Long of Crosby's Seafood. The pheromone force field of the concentrated pack of males causes the females to crawl into the peeler trap.
Watch and Wait
But crabbers, Johnson says, don't really catch softies. "Crabbers catch crabs that are ripe for shedding," he says. Most of the crabs you'll find on local menus have been allowed to molt in a tank at a shredder's headquarters. "Basically they have these shedding rooms set up. Imagine like maybe five, six, seven pools and water running through them and filters," explains Johnson. "They watch the crabs around the clock and move them into a different tanks based on how far away they are from shedding. The second they shed, they'll pull them out. Otherwise crabs might attack."
Sell It or Smell It
If you hear that softies are on the menu of your favorite restaurant, act fast. Within hours of a blue crab shedding its shell, it begins to harden the new one, and you want the freshest available. Normally sold in packs of three dozen, 36 come in a single layer with newspaper on the bottom and covered in hay. "They're alive when they come in. Like other crustaceans once they die, they die quickly," says Johnson. This makes for what he calls a sell it or smell it scenario — what they don't sell quickly, they have to chuck. Thus The Grocery's countdown clock. Once Johnson gets in soft shells, he tries to let diners know fast.
While fried is arguably the most popular way to serve soft shell crabs, you can get them sauteed or roasted. "We do a dish called Old School, Old South, Old World dish," says Johnson. "Deep fried is old South, pan sauteed with lemon and butter is old school, and old world is cooked in our wood oven." But if you want to cook softies at home, Johnson recommends the sauteed approach. "I despise frying at home," he says "It's not worth the method or mess."
- Jonathan Boncek file photo
- Edmund's Oast serves up a mean soft-shell crab
Instead, Johnson says the pan saute option is easy. "Sear it, flip it, and you're done five minutes," he says. Of course, you'll have to overcome any fear of snipping off the crab's face. "There are three things you need to remove, then the rest is edible: cut the eyeballs, then lift the sides of the crabs and you can get to the lungs and snip those. Then flip the crab over and snip off the bib of the crab." Pop it in the pan with some lemon and butter, and it's soft serve time.Find Soft Shells Here
Cypress is currently offering fried softies as both appetizers and entrees until the season’s over. The Macintosh will be serving them on their daily menus throughout the season. Marvin’s Seafood in North Charleston said they would be serving them whenever they get their shipment, and are trying to start serving them by this Friday. Edmund's Oast plans to serve softies beginning today or tomorrow and will dish them up sautéed with brown butter, Meyer lemon, cauliflower, creamed cabbage, and parsley. Barony Tavern will have soft shell crabs as soon as they're available and chef Bob Carter will be serving them tempura-style with toasted pecan butter, steamed asparagus, and grilled spring onion-parmesan grits. Halls Chophouse plans to add soft-shell crabs to the menu next week. The preparation will be crispy soft-shell crabs on bed of black-eyed peas, tri-bell peppers, and watercress, finished with a buttermilk peppercorn dressing. Eli's Table will be offering softies with crispy fingerling potatoes, frisee with stone ground mustard aioli, and a pickled green tomato and andouille salsa. Social Restaurant + Wine Bar will have a softie special starting Thurs. April 16 through this weekend, or as long as supplies last. It will feature fried Carolina soft-shell crab, braised fennel, stuffed piquillos, pickled green tomato chutney, and house tartar sauce. We'll update this list as we receive more soft shell intell.