I have a lot of experience with different types of cakes – layer, pan-, sheet, cup-, pops – but there’s one that has remained relatively elusive: Crab. Whether that’s because they’re not of the baked variety or because I’ve always been slightly intimidated by them, who’s to say. (Actually, probably both reasons are true.)
I worried about the prospect of messing up what can be a pricey ingredient, and, honestly, I never knew where to start. One thing I did know: I needed a simple recipe, and some advice.
So I turned to two experts. Here are the tips I found useful as a crab cake novice, which may also help more experienced hands.
“You have to have good ingredients,” says Damye Hahn, daughter of the founders of Baltimore’s Faidley Seafood, which is renowned for its crab cakes. Try to find the best crab you can. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive meat, mind you. That’s usually jumbo lump, prized for its large pieces. But using a mix of jumbo and lump, just lump or even backfin is fine, Hahn says. The most important factor is ensuring your crab is fresh and high quality. Hahn and her family, of course, recommend crab from the Chesapeake Bay (I ordered mine from Stevensville Crab Shack). Nancy Devine, Hahn’s mother and the woman behind the Faidley’s recipes, emphasizes the quality of the mayonnaise. “You don’t want it to roll off your spoon,” she says. “You want it to be thick.”
Let the crab shine. “I try to make it all about the crab,” says Harper McClure, the executive chef of Washington’s Mintwood Place, who was kind enough to share his recipe here. He wants as much crab and as little other stuff as possible. His crab cakes are bright and a little punchy, with mustard, lemon (zest and juice) and cayenne (use Old Bay if you prefer). It is flavorful, but nothing overwhelms the flavor of the crab.
Go light on the binder. McClure prefers to use panko, which I found worked well and was unobtrusive in terms of texture and flavor. Devine likes saltines. You can use the broken crackers, if you prefer. Devine’s tip is to make sure the size of the saltine pieces complements the size of the crab meat morsels – larger for jumbo lump (about the size of a dime), smaller for lump and so on.
Treat the crab right. McClure says crab is very sensitive to temperature, so try to work with a chilled bowl. It will preserve the aroma and keep the crab from getting too fishy. Mixing carefully is key. “I never stir,” Devine says. “I always use my hand.” Gently tossing or folding ensures you don’t break up the lumps of crab and minimizes the possibility of forming gluten by overworking your binder.
Be patient. Allow for at least 30 minutes and up to a day for the crab cakes to chill. This lets them set and gives the binder time to hydrate. The goal is to prevent the crab cakes from falling apart in the skillet. I inadvertently skipped this step in my first test. It was . . . not pretty. Let an attractive golden crust form on both sides of the crab cakes, which lends flavor and means they’re ready to flip and remove from the skillet. Just don’t leave them in too long. In fact, Devine prefers her crab cakes to still be slightly cool in the center (packaged crab meat is ready to eat) so it’s more like a cold salad.
Serve the crab cakes any way you like. McClure said restaurant patrons really enjoy them on top of a nice salad with Bibb lettuce. A butter brioche roll is Devine’s pick for sandwiches. Either way, you’ll still be able to appreciate the crab above all else.
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Crab Cakes With Lemon and Panko
1 pound lump crab meat (see headnote), picked over
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Generous 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
1 teaspoon lemon zest, plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon), or more to taste
Pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
Generous 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon neutral oil, plus more as needed
Place the crab in a large, chilled bowl with plenty of room to fold together the ingredients with your hands. Gently separate the meat, taking care not to break up the lumps.
In a small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, mustard, salt, lemon zest and juice, and cayenne. Add it to the bowl with the crab, followed by the panko and parsley. Gently fold all the ingredients together with your hands until combined. You may use a flexible spatula if you prefer, but take care not to overmix or break apart the crab meat. Taste, and season with more mustard, salt or lemon juice, if desired.
Divide the crab mixture into 5 equal portions of about 4 ounces each. Shape each into a round patty about 3 inches in diameter. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day.
Heat a large skillet, preferably a well-seasoned cast iron, over medium heat. Add the oil and cook the crab cakes, in batches if necessary, until the bottoms are dark golden brown, about 4 minutes. Flip and repeat on the other side, reducing the heat and adding more oil as needed to prevent burning.
Serve warm, as is, on a salad, or a bun or roll of your choice.
NUTRITION: Calories: 130; Total Fat: 4 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 82 mg; Sodium: 710 mg; Carbohydrates: 10 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 0 g; Protein: 18 g.
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Adapted from Harper McClure, executive chef at Mintwood Place in Washington.