How to Clean, Prepare, and Crack Crab Legs

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 07, 2022
5 min read

Crab meat is trapped behind a thick shell. The process of cooking and accessing the meat can be intimidating for beginners. 

Luckily, it’s not very difficult to prepare and crack crab legs. With a little patience, you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by a pile of cracked crab legs and your belly full of tasty protein. 

Humans eat more than one species of crab, and crab meat is a delicious and nutritious addition to any diet. Some of the most common species that we eat include: 

  • King crabs
  • Dungeness crabs
  • Snow crabs

Regardless of the species, we eat the meat that’s found in both the crab’s body and legs. The body meat is white and flaky. The leg meat is firm and white with a pinkish exterior. Crab meat tends to have a sweet, delicate flavor.

Most crabs are cooked whole. An effective way to cook a crab is to: 

  • Heavily salt a large pot of water and bring it to a boil.
  • Place the crab in while it’s still alive.
  • Let the water get back up to a boil.
  • Cook the crabs for a set amount of time that depends on the crab’s size and species — for example, average-sized Dungeness crabs are boiled until their shells turn bright orange in approximately 18 to 20 minutes.
  • Immerse them in cold water to use immediately or place them in the refrigerator so they’re cool to the touch when you clean them.

Once you’ve cooked the full crab, you need to clean the meat. To properly clean a crab, you first need to remove the main shell. To remove the shell you:  

  • Firmly grasp the base of the crab with one hand. 
  • Place your thumb under the center of the edge of the shell.
  • Pull it off by prying upwards with your thumb.

Once the shell is off, the leaf-like gills and slimy body meat are exposed. You can gently scrape away the gills with your thumb or the back of a spoon. Then, run the crab under a strong stream of cold water to rinse off all of the slimy viscera on the meat. You should always complete these steps before moving on to the crab legs.  

The meat within the legs is already pretty clean. The real problem is that it’s trapped within each of the spindly legs. Once you’ve prepared the body meat, it’s time to crack open the legs.

Cracking a crab leg is easier than it looks. Many crab lovers claim that the leg meat tastes the best. Make sure to take your time and get every last bit. 

To crack your crab legs, follow these steps: 

  • Remove each leg from the body with a confident twist — don’t forget the ones with the claws on the end.
  • Start with the largest legs first.
  • Use a special crab cracker, a nutcracker, or a cutting board and a small hammer to break open the claws at the joints — it should just require a light hit, not a forceful swing.
  • Use the same method to open the two joints of the largest legs. 
  • The rest of the legs will have one large and one small joint — crack the large ones the same way and crack the smaller ones with your fingers.
  • A nut pick or cocktail fork can help you get the meat out of the crevices, or suck it out if you’re feeling hungry.
  • Move on to the body of the crab. You can pick the meat out with your hands or strike it while it’s on a cutting board to loosen the meat.

Keep in mind that not all crabs are the same. King crabs have sharp bumps along the legs that can cut your hands. To avoid injury, wrap crab legs in a towel before you crack them.

Crab meat can be enjoyed in a lot of different ways. Different methods for cooking crab legs include: 

  • Steaming
  • Grilling
  • Roasting

Once you’ve extracted the meat from the crab, you can serve it cold or warm. The meat goes well with melted butter and a variety of dipping sauces, like cocktail sauce. 

In fact, when it’s chilled, crab meat makes a good cocktail appetizer. You can also put it in a sandwich, on a salad, or turn it into a crab cake. 
When warm, crab meat is a great addition to:  

  • Pasta
  • Casseroles
  • Seafood soups and chowders

Be creative. There are a lot of tasty ways to enjoy this nutritious meat.

Believe it or not, crab legs have health benefits. Crab meat is a great addition to a healthy diet. The meat is low in fat and calories. It’s also a source of high-quality protein that’s rich in many different amino acids. 

In terms of protein options, crab meat is a lot better for you than red meat. This is especially true if you’re concerned about heart health

Crab is also high in zinc — an important micronutrient. You can develop severe, long-term health problems if your diet is very low in zinc. 

Just keep in mind that crabs are shellfish, so you should not eat raw crab when you’re pregnant. But crab meat should be safe if it’s thoroughly cooked. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns. 

Shellfish allergies are also common. If it’s your first time eating a shellfish, you should keep an eye out for any signs of an allergic reaction. These symptoms include: 

Get immediate medical attention if you are having an allergic reaction to crab.

You can buy crab legs and other crab products in a number of different places. You can find crab meat in the freezer section at the grocery store. You can find whole, fresh crabs at seafood markets. 

You can even trap your own crabs in certain designated areas. Just make sure that you’re only harvesting your own during your region’s designated crabbing season. 

It’s always a good idea to know where your crab meat is coming from. Shellfish can cause food poisoning and may contain chemicals, bacteria, and viruses that are harmful to your health. For example, the gills and viscera within a crab’s shell can house the bacteria that cause botulism. Botulism is a severe, potentially fatal illness.  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires every state to issue warnings for areas with contaminated seafood. Before eating fresh crab, make sure to check online for any relevant warnings. Never harvest crabs from areas that are marked with an advisory warning.