How To Make Crab Cakes That Actually Taste Like Crab

The first step is preheating your oven. Yes, that's right: not your deep-fryer, not your skillet, but your oven. Because you are going to bake your crab cakes.

Perversely, the reason you're using this cake-iest of cooking methods for your crab cakes is that you're making crab cakes that are far less cake-y than the ambiguously crab-flavored bread wads that are the products of most crab-cake preparations. Your crab cakes will contain just enough binding to justify calling them crab cakes and not crab piles or crab puddles or the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of Crabs. This means that your crab cakes will be too delicate to drop into a deep fryer, and far too delicate to be turned over with a spatula in a pan. And the reason for that is that crab is delicious, and bread is boring.

The crab cake exists because, for as delicious as blue crabmeat is—and, just so we're on the same page here, it is the most delicious thing there is or so help me I will fucking cut you—when outside its hideous chitinous prison, it comes in a million annoying little pieces that can seem preposterous to eat when you're not extracting them by hand (and also when you are). Even the portion referred to as "colossal" or "jumbo lump" when pasteurized and sold in tubs is small enough—maybe an inch across at its biggest—to render it kind of silly as a thing to eat on its own. At crab's prices, you're not going to, say, snack from a popcorn bag of jumbo lump crab meat unless you're a millionaire.

And so, somebody out there invented the crab cake, as a way of holding enough of this delicious stuff together to make the eating of it seem less like a creative afterlife punishment for an ancient Greek famous for taking immoderately large bites of things. That is to say, the crab cake exists as a way to make crab easier to eat—not as a way to make wads of bread marginally more seafood-flavored. Since the point of the whole enterprise is the crab rather than the cake, and since the cake doesn't need to add much of anything but binding to the finished product, the smart way to proceed is to minimize the cake, emphasize the crab, and find a cooking method that won't reward you with a sad smattering of dissociated crab shrapnel. Like, say, baking! Isn't that a convincing argument? No? Shut up!

As for how you acquire your crabmeat, suit yourself. Wanna buy some actual crabs, cook 'em, clean 'em, and reserve some meat for crab cakes? Go for it. Wanna buy a one-pound tub of the pasteurized stuff from the seafood counter at your local supermarket? That's fine, too. If you're going that route, do yourself a favor and fork over a few extra bucks for the jumbo lump stuff. The backfin variety is perfectly OK, but the shit labeled "special" is actually just a tub of jagged crabshell shards and parking lot gravel that someone held over a steamer pot for a minute so that it would smell like seafood. Jumbo lump will give you big (or, y'know, bigger), exciting bites of crab in your crab cake, and you will drool and roll your eyes and make a weird gross spectacle of yourself, which is really what any food ought to do.

Let's get started. As we agreed [stares daggers], preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Now, get a big bowl out of the cupboard, and combine a bunch of tasty stuff in it. A cup or so of real mayonnaise, a teaspoon or so of powdered mustard, a couple of teaspoons of Old Bay seasoning, maybe a pinch of paprika, and a splash of worcestershire sauce. Also, several generous splashes of hot sauce. Now, you could use sriracha here if you like, but in this one instance I'm recommending that you use salty, vinegary, Tabasco-type hot sauce instead, for the minor reason that sriracha's flavor would upstage the other stuff in your crab cake, and for the less-minor reason that it would turn your crab cake pink, and that's just kind of weird. If all you have is sriracha, that's OK, go ahead and use it, but add a couple of splashes of some non-balsamic vinegar, too.

Take a small taste of this mixture once you've got all the ingredients blended into it; it's going to taste tart and bitter and spicy and salty and very, very fucking intense, and you're going to think, Christ, I don't want my crab cakes to taste like this—I want them to taste like crab!, and you're going to rend your shirt and smash the bowl against the wall and punt your cat out the window. Don't punt the cat. Crab is an extremely resilient flavor, and crab is what your crab cakes are going to taste like. This stuff's just there to balance it out, and to slap your lazy palate to attention. It will do that beautifully, and you will be glad you used it.

Adjust the proportions if you need to—if, say, the stuff tastes overwhelmingly like mustard, or if all you can taste is salt. Once you've got it where you want it, mix in one beaten egg, and, say, half a sleeve or so of saltine crackers that you crushed in a food processor or packed into a sturdy plastic bag and beat to shit with your bare fists like you just heard them talking about Tim Tebow's "intangibles." Those crushed crackers are going to absorb a bunch of the tasty dressing stuff you just made, and, together with the egg, they are also going to bind your crab cakes together. Stir the mixture until the crushed saltines are fairly evenly distributed into the wet stuff.

Now, using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula and working very gently, fold a pound of crab meat into the bowl. Folding is kind of an annoying technique: You just want all this shit to hurry the fuck up and get mixed together, and the quickest way to do that would be to just grab a goddamn fork and stir it vigorously for 15 seconds like you're making a tuna salad sandwich, but instead you're just gently turning it over, again and again and again, and that's infuriating. Stick with it, though. The payoff will come in the form of crab cakes composed mostly of big, intact, coherent hunks of by-God crab, rather than sad mushy crab-mash, and this is what you want. Fold and fold and fold. You're not going for a perfectly even distribution of things, or anything close to it; you just want to get the crab and other stuff reasonably well acquainted, so that when you portion this mixture out into individual crab cakes, they're not all depressing little heaps of dressing-soaked cracker crumbs.

So, now that your crab is all folded into that other stuff—Ruined, goddamn ruined, 20 goddamn bucks worth of crab you sonofabitch, you are thinking—slap some plastic wrap or aluminum foil or a plate or a pair of clean underwear over the top of the bowl and refrigerate it for a half-hour or so. You're just giving the cracker crumbs time to soak up the liquid stuff. You could use this time to get a side-dish started—corn on the cob, say, or a salad, or asparagus if you're feeling fancy. Or, hey, no, you're right, what was I thinking, this is a perfect opportunity for you to change into your salty sea-dog costume, go right ahead and do that. What a lovely hook you've got there.

OK, so, it's been a half-hour or so. If you were to remove the bowl from the refrigerator, peel back its covering, and, say, manipulate its contents with some kind of utensil to (just thinking hypothetically here) make a bunch of crab cakes, you would notice that those contents are considerably stickier and coherent than they were a half-hour ago. Hey, maybe you should do that! No seriously, just fucking do it. Using a big spoon, or your hands—and, again, working gently there, Rambo; no rolling or molding or compressing or juggling—divide the stuff in your bowl into 9 or 10 crab cakes on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Each one should have roughly the diameter of, what, a clementine? A tennis ball? Something like that. They should look precisely like sloppy little heaps of crab, studded here and there with cracker crumbs, which, hey presto!, is what they are.

Now you've got a foil-lined cookie sheet with 9 or 10 crab cakes on it; slide that sucker into the oven and set a timer for 20 minutes. (If you want to brush them with clarified butter before you do that, that's not a terrible idea, but it's also not necessary.) Now, while your crab cakes are cooking away and beginning to fill your home with the scent of cooking crab and seagulls are spattering off your windows like hailstones, take a few minutes to whip up a sauce that is not rémoulade but that we are going to call rémoulade because it is vaguely rémoulade-y and because it is funny to watch cooking purist types get all het up and pop their toques. This will be similar to the dressing you made for the crab—they both contain mayonnaise and mustard—but different enough to add something to the finished product. Mayonnaise, a wee teaspoon of brown or dijon mustard, horseradish (from a jar or, hell, shred your own if you must), and—yes, this time—sriracha. Combine and taste, then adjust. Some lemon juice might taste good in there. You think?

That took, what, five minutes? That leaves 15 until you'll get to haul your hot and golden-brown and incredible-smelling crab cakes out of the oven and serve them. This should give you time, for chrissakes, to go change into some fucking non-lunatic clothes, OK?

Plate each crab cake atop a small dollop of the sauce you made. Whatever side dish you went with, the one thing you must serve with your crab cakes is: lots and lots of cold beer. And now, dig in. What does your crab cake taste like? Vaguely crab-flavored bread? Salty mayonnaise dressing? Cake? No! It tastes like crab, gently held together and flatteringly accompanied by some other shit. Sweet and piquant and tart and briny. Vivid and rich but not overbearing. Holy cow, that first one sure went quickly, didn't it hey whoa look over there eight more of them and no one is looking.

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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at albertburneko@gmail.com. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.

Illustration by Devin Rochford.