Breaking the Code on the “Soft Shell” Oxymoron
Soft shell lobsters? Soft shell clams? Soft shell crabs?
The subject is totally confusing, and the term, “soft shell”, has a totally different meaning in each tasty case, all of which are currently in season.
As readers may recall from a blog on crabs last fall (Everyone Deserves Their Crabby Moment, November 21, 2011), soft shell crabs have slipped out of their hard, protective shells in order to grow larger, at which point the shell re-calcifies to rock hardness. It is possible to find these treats in the wild, but difficult, since the animal, very vulnerable to predators, hides away in a sheltered spot, trying to keep invisible until the shell has re-formed.
Today, commercial crabbers take some of the crabs from their regular catch and keep them alive and healthy while awaiting the magic moment in the dark new moon (no moon, in other words) when they will naturally shed, have nowhere to hide, and then be carefully packed to go to market. The shell should be paper thin, and the little beast is completely edible (less the gills and the eyes/head clipped off when cleaning).
Those of us who live on the East Coast can find the crabs still alive in good fish markets; even the best shops in the rest of the country rarely have them still kicking. Like any seafood, soft shell crabs are at their peak of flavor if only seconds elapse between being cleaned (a euphemism for killed) seconds before hitting the pan. The blue crab is top of mind for this dish in the United States, but other varieties are used in other places, such as Japan and Venice, Italy.
My first experience with these wonderful treats was many years ago in Baltimore in the heart of blue crab country. We visited a huge market on the waterfront, and my hosts were raving about these things, which sounded totally bizarre to my naïve ears, and looked even worse: sizzling deep fried sea monsters slapped between two slices of wonder bread. Always the intrepid eater, I took a bite and was in heaven. The sweet delicious flavor of the crab burst out of the super crispy, yet chewable shell, hot and a little messy. I probably had a second one.
So, do lobsters molt, too? Yes! And have clever lobstermen created the same system for their related crustacean catch?
Nope. Soft shell lobsters should probably be called “sorta soft shell” because these shells are most definitely not edible. But they are lightweight and easy to crack open, their meat being extra sweet, and considered a real delicacy. Because of their fragile shells, they don’t ship as well, and so have traditionally been most common in shops and restaurants areas close to the sea, although this is changing with modern shipping techniques and consumer demand elsewhere.
And soft shell clams are another story entirely. They are a totally different species from the hard shell clam types (also known as quahogs, littlenecks, cherrystones, as well as manila clams, razor clams and giant clams which are all different).
The soft shell clam is also known as a steamer, and is known for its succulent belly, wonderful steamed, dipped in butter, or deep fried. A real staple in New England, these are the clams traditionally used in clam bakes, although some chefs and consumers are substituting hard shell clams (usually littlenecks) for this purpose.
The delicious quahog family is a story for another day.
I love soft shellcrabs but cooking them is a little perilous. The body is filled with fluid and when hitting the hot fat will splatter. Very good, but even more precarious then deep frying is pan frying. The critters dredged through light cream or milk first and then lightly coated with flour. They are delicious with a little lemon juice and brown butter. Interestingly, the light cream or milk will curdle quickly. Apparently there is some acid in the liquid.
I remember that day at the Lexington Market in Baltimore. You were indeed very skeptical about eating a whole crab, shell and all. I was so glad to see your expression change after that first bite!