Deep-frying is bullshit. It's messy and labor-intensive and user-unfriendly. It requires a ton of oil, most of which will be wasted, plus—most of the time anyway—dumb annoying messy crap like egg wash and flour and breadcrumbs. In its worst, most diabolical incarnations, it even requires friggin' leavening agents, which, I mean, holy shit, you might just as well just go outside and run yourself over with your car. You might just as well die. Fuck you, leavening agents.
And then there's the matter of managing the temperature. Unless you have a stupid digital thermometer or a specialized deep-fryer—which is to say, unless you are a goddamn Nazi—there's an awful lot of guesswork involved in controlling the temperature of your deep-frying: You test the oil with little tricks like sprinkling water or dropping a pinch of batter into it, and then eventually you get it as hot as you need it, and then you impatiently insert too much food into it and the temperature fucking plummets, and then you have to bring it back up to where it's supposed to be as quickly as possible, but then it gets too hot and turns into this black shit that smells like a bus wreck and the whole fucking enterprise is ruined, goddamn ruined, along with the air inside your home and any chance that you would ever know true happiness.
Too low a cooking temperature and your food comes out slimy and sodden with oil; too high a temperature and it only cooks on the outside (or bursts into flames, if your food happens to be an enormous fucking unthawed frozen turkey, ahem, America). The temperature window for perfect deep-fried food is as wide as a goddamn electron and you are never in it and your deep-fried food always comes out shitty, always always always, because deep-frying is bullshit, bullshit I tell you, the whole goddamn thing is bullshit, the system is bullshit, you're bullshit, no you need therapy.
And then you have to dispose of all that used oil. There is literally nothing worse than deep-frying.
Of course, here is where you say, "But what about deep-fried soft-shell crab?" and I nod and sigh and little glistening pools of saliva form at the corners of my mouth and I stare off into the vague middle distance as if I were thinking about the last days at An Loc. Deep-fried soft-shell crab is tasty enough to justify preparing even if doing so required you to pan-sear your gonads. Not only is the deep-fried soft-shell crab tastier than all the other things, it's about as close to un-fuck-up-able as a deep-fried foodstuff can get. The whole operation's incredibly straightforward, really: You make a tasty batter, you coat your crab in it, you cook your crab in hot oil, and then you eat it and 500 of its brethren in a wild-eyed frenzy, cramming them into your crazed, gnashing mouth by the fistful as though they were baby carrots and not entire freshly molted garbage-eating sea-bugs encrusted in a thick carapace of fried bread. Easy peasy.
With that in mind, hell, let's cook a couple of these things, and see if we can't redeem for ourselves the otherwise very stupid and indefensible activity of deep-frying stuff.
But wait. First, a note on acquiring soft-shell crabs that will bum out ethical vegetarians and the squeamish. Soft-shell crabs, like their hard-shelled siblings and their lobster cousins, must be purchased alive, because they fester and decay very quickly after death, and it can be difficult to determine exactly how recently they departed, since they stink even when they're alive. Don't let any fast-talking fishmonger or scary crabber in rubber overalls or pimply teenage seafood-counter clerk at your local supermarket sell you any soft-shell crabs that do not demonstrate obvious signs of vitality, such as moving when touched, writing unselfconsciously bad love poetry, and enjoying the musical stylings of the Misfits. Crabs that do not do all three of those things are dead, at least spiritually, and will cause you to become dead also, or anyway eating them will probably turn your colon into a crocodile.
So, buy a couple of living soft-shell crabs. You may be imagining that this course of action will result in the grisly, horrifying spectacle of a living, writhing creature being forcefully dunked into a bowl of thick batter and dropped into a vat of shriekingly hot oil even as it vigorously and vainly resists—which, holy shit, no fucking way—but thankfully that's not what's going to happen, because once you have verified that your crabs are alive (and thus have not been killed by any scary, scary, brain-rewiring parasites) and have purchased them, you are going to ask your friendly seafood-counter guy to speedily dispatch them for you. (Ask him to leave the mustard inside. He will know what this means, and your life will be better for it.) This will be a quick, grim, business involving a sturdy and sharp pair of kitchen shears; although it doesn't appear to be torturous or cruel, it's nevertheless sad and kind of awful and will make you feel like shit, but hey: crabs! Let's change the subject now!
(Oh, wait, another note: Because, again, crabs deteriorate very quickly after death, the very best thing to do is purchase your crabs—and have them swiftly rubbed out by the seafood clerk—the same day you intend to cook and consume them. If that's impractical, or circumstances force you to change your plans, it's OK to keep them sealed in their butcher paper in the coldest, lowest part of your refrigerator for another 24 to 36 hours, after which, if you're still not ready to cook them, they probably ought to be tossed. This, should it come to happen, will make the violent scissor-death of the crabs even more of a bummer than it already was. Please don't let this happen. Don't buy soft-shell crabs unless you're confident you can get the poor little fuckers cooked and appreciated in the ensuing day-and-a-half.)
Sad? Not hungry anymore? Sitting in a darkened room, your expressionless face lit starkly and unflatteringly by the glow of your computer screen? Me too! Let's cook and eat some smelly crustaceans. On your stove at home, heat up some oil in a medium saucepot. Use a sturdy oil (like canola or vegetable) and put, oh, maybe a little bit more than three inches of the stuff in the pot; you'll want at least an inch or two of clearance beneath the rim of the pot to protect against overflow and spattering, but you'll also need enough oil that a single batter-coated crab, when gently dropped into the pot, will submerge fully without thudding hard against the bottom. Don't use an enormous Dutch oven here; just a regular medium saucepot ought to do nicely. And just use medium heat; you'll wait a little while to get the temperature exactly where you want it, but that's OK, because doing this slowly will reduce the odds of your oil roaring right past its smoke point and turning into liquid tire-fire.
Now your oil is gradually heating on the stovetop; while it's doing that, unwrap your pair of soft-shell crabs and coat the crabs with a dusting of flour or cornstarch. Doesn't really matter which. This will absorb the surface moisture of the crabs and prevent the batter from sloughing off during cooking. Just let 'em sit there with their flour coating for a while, while you ...
... make batter. There are a couple of ways to go here. The first is to whisk together, say, a cup of flour, an egg, a tablespoon of baking powder, a bunch of Old Bay Seasoning, a couple small glugs of oil, and however much milk (added in increments) it takes to produce a result that is maybe just a little bit thicker than your typical cake-mix-in-a-box batter. The second, if you do not happen to be June Cleaver and therefore do not possess either baking powder or the faintest idea what baking powder might be, is to nix the baking powder and milk from the above list of ingredients and replace them with club soda, or lemon-lime seltzer, or cheap canned beer. Again, add in increments. You're looking for a result that is a little bit thicker than typical cake or pancake batter, but is also definitely batter and not dough. Thick enough to coat and cling to your soft-shell crabs, but liquid enough that they can be dunked into the stuff with no wrestling required. If your batter has the consistency of peanut butter, that's far too thick; if it's in the neighborhood of ketchup, that's more like it; if it's perfectly translucent and has the consistency of water, that is a glass of fucking water you fucking idiot what are you doing.
Batter ready? Good. Test the oil to see if it's ready for cooking, which is a thing that you must do because you do not own an instant digital thermometer, because "find and purchase instant digital thermometer" rightly falls lower on your list of life priorities than "own home" and "visit all 21 of the United States' UNESCO World Heritage sites" and "build a full-scale Millennium Falcon out of gold coins." There are a couple of ways to do this. The simplest is to dunk the tip of a wooden spoon in the oil and watch closely; if little bubbles form on the wooden spoon as though it were cooking, the oil is ready. If you don't have a wooden spoon, another way to test the oil is to scoop out maybe a tablespoon-sized dollop of your batter and gently drop it into the oil; if the oil is hot enough for cooking, the dollop of batter should start visibly cooking right away—sizzling and bubbling and so on—and be golden brown and crispy and cooked in less than 90 seconds. With a slotted spoon, get that wad of fried batter out of the oil and onto a paper towel, so that a few minutes from now you can furtively eat it even though it is just an Old Bay-flavored wad of fried batter and that's kind of a sad and weird thing to eat.
So now your oil is hot enough for cooking, your batter is ready, and your crabs are ever so steadily decomposing in a drift of flour over there, but let's not dwell on that part too much. Dunk one of your crabs in the batter, coating it thoroughly; give it a moment to drip off any outrageous excess of batter, then gently place it into the hot oil so that the oil does not splash all over your arms and cause your skin to slough off and go looking for a more responsible owner. Don't be ridiculous here and lower your crab into the oil one millimeter at a time; just bring the crab down to the surface of the oil and insert it in one smooth motion, and get your fingers the hell outta there.
You'll notice that the crab starts to cook immediately, as your wad of batter did. It'll sink down to the bottom of the pot and then promptly bob back to the surface, thanks to the air inside it. Give it, oh, maybe a minute or so? a little bit more than that?—and then gently roll the crab over in the oil with that slotted spoon of yours, just to make sure it's getting crispy and golden brown on all sides. Let it cook for maybe another minute, keeping an eye on it. Once it looks golden brown all over, it's cooked. Retrieve the crab from the oil and move it to a paper towel or a cooling rack or wherever, but not to your mouth or else your head will burst into flames and that will be a bad deal for you, buddy, even though it will be pretty funny for the rest of us. Repeat with your other crab.
A few minutes later you'll have two crispy, golden-brown, deep-fried soft-shell crabs sitting on a paper towel or cooling rack on your countertop. They're still awfully hot and could probably use another minute to cool. You can use this time to make tartar sauce. Now, there are fancy (or, well, fancier, anyway) versions of tartar sauce out there, involving horseradish and capers and tarragon, parsley and chives and olives, dijon mustard and lemon zest and gold-leaf and sailing to Monaco and playing polo with well-tanned people who speak in affected Euro accents. These tartar sauces are delicious, every snooty, tarted-up one of 'em. With that in mind, dump some stupid mayonnaise into a bowl with a scoop of sweet-pickle relish, give it a fucking stir with a fucking spoon, and try not to get any on your Queensrÿche half-shirt from 1988.
Pull out and open a couple of hamburger buns. Drop a soft-shell crab on each of them. There. You are done. Serve with beer.
So that was a pain in the ass, wasn't it? The stupid batter-making and oil-testing, the sad plight of the poor little crabs, and now a pot full of useless, mildly Old Bay-scented oil that you have to deal with*, and now this stupid little sandwich with a bunch of weird breaded legs sticking out of it can't possibly be tasty enough to justi—oh. Oh my. Ohhhhhhh. Mmmmmmmmmm. Crispy and crunchy and briny and sweet, rich from the crab mustard and tartar sauce, with just enough piquant heat from the Old Bay and hot sauce to coax your palate to full attention. Gloriously sloppy and intoxicatingly indulgent. You are crunching and chewing and smiling and making a low, indecent noise in your throat, and whuzzat about oil? I unno whumgonna mmmmmmmcrab.
*OK, but seriously, about that oil: You do need to deal with it. When it's fully cooled, pour the oil into an empty milk carton (the kind with a screw-on lid), screw the lid on, and
pummel Darren Rovell with it save it for the next time you want to deep-fry some soft-shell crabs, or put it in the trash.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
Image by Jim Cooke.