Summer's Fleeting Soft Shells

There are several types of fare that truly define summer at the New Jersey Shore. Of course there are the tomatoes that came into season a few weeks ago, sweet and juicy all over the state. There’s boardwalk pizza, favorite ice cream parlors, and the smell of peppers and onions on the grill. But at least as far as seafood is concerned, that most fleeting and delicious plate is the softshell crab.

Fried soft shells with a cold pint at the Black Whale Bar & Fish House.

“Of all our dishes, this is the one I look most forward to in our restaurants. It’s not really something we can serve in the off season. So it represents pure summer and its pure deliciousness,” says co-owner Mel Magaziner.

While some folks think it’s a different species all together, the softshell we eat is the blue claw, that iconic species found from New England down to South America. Take a look. They’re the same, one just has a softer exoskeleton.

Soft shell crabs are simply blue claw crabs that have recently molted out of their shells. The shells will turn hard again in a few days.

The soft shell is a result of the crab’s growth cycle. Since the internal body grows faster than its shell, it essentially has to grow a new one. Known as a “shedder,” the crab cracks the exoskeleton and slowly backs out of the old shell. The crab pumps water into its body and the new shell begins to form. Within three to four days, the shell is completely hard.

This is what makes the softshell such a fleeting delicacy. Soft shell crabs are best as soon as they molt. They’re not often caught in traps because they stop eating during the molting process. That would explain why you don’t randomly get a softy in the trap off your dock. We get our crabs from shedder boxes, often right here on our bay.

The Blue Claw is the only crab that is eaten during the molting process in North America, which makes is that much more special. There are well-known shedder delicacies in Asia. Their Spider Rolls and Chu-chee dishes served in Japanese and Thai restaurants hold up very well with our local blue claws.

Cleaning blue claws should be done as close to cooking them as possible. They aren’t going to pinch at this state, so they’re easy to handle. Actually, you want to be delicate with them. To clean the softy, cut off the front quarter inch of the top shell with scissors. Then lift up the points on either end of the crab. You’ll notice they come up nice and easy. Cut out the gills on each side. Then on the bottom of the crab, you can very easily pull off the apron.

So easy.

At most of our restaurants, we generally serve them fried or sautéed. Fried, they go into a light batter and into the deep fryer. With lemon, tarter or cocktail sauce, a piece of jersey corn and some coleslaw, this might be one of the most time honored East Coast seafood traditions ever.

When we sauté them, it’s in a bit of garlic, butter and white wine. We do have some variation among our chefs, Rich Schobel at the Black Whale uses some secret herbs. And at Mud City, you can get them over pasta, which some folks go crazy for. Here at Old Causeway Steak & Oyster House, we get creative with soft shell specials.

Softies and fresh Jersey corn at Mud City Crab House.

Sautéed is generally for that most hardcore of seafood lovers. There’s nothing between you and that tender-shelled crab. This is what the purists come for.

Either way, they also make for an amazing sandwich with romaine lettuce and Jersey tomato, as the crab’s juices are soaked up by the bun. Occasionally, Ship Bottom Shellfish likes to serve up the particularly tender ones we get in June as its own sautéed appetizer.

At our newest establishment, Parker’s Garage, Chef Kyle has been experimenting with the softies. This summer, he’s been serving up a softshell summer succotash special, fried softshell with pancetta and an Old Bay aioli.

Across the board, let’s just say we don’t have many left at the end of the night.