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Blue crabs can be found in waters as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Uruguay, but the crustacean's strongest association has always been with Maryland. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, approximately 50 percent of the country’s blue crab harvest comes from Maryland waters. And they are an essential part of the region’s culinary heritage. "Blue crab is part of the holy trinity of Maryland seafood, made up of oysters, rockfish, and blue crab," says chef Spike Gjerde of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen. Gjerde is the first Baltimore chef to win the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, and was raised in Baltimore. He knows his crabs: "Blue crab is really unlike any other crab in the world, thanks to the growing conditions, and the type of estuary we have here," he says. "They are superior to any other crab in my opinion." The lazy might prefer larger Dungeness crabs from the West Coast, which are much larger and easier to eat. Many restaurants use cheaper pasteurized crab from Asia for their dishes. But not all crabs are made equal. Gjerde notes that other species of crab lack the depth of flavor and delicate texture of blue crabs. "The seasons have a lot to do with it," he says. "The season typically starts around [April] and lasts until the cold weather comes around in November. The seasonality has certainly affected our appreciation for blue crab over the years, and it is why it holds the place that it does in the Chesapeake way of life." From a scientific perspective, the need for hibernation is the main reason Maryland crabs taste better than other types of crab — and also tastes better than blue crabs from other waters, according to Steve Vilnit of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Services. He explains that just like other creatures that hibernate, crabs need to build up fat stores to sustain them through the dormant period. "This gives our crabs a buttery flavor that you won’t find anywhere else," Vilnit says. "To someone that knows what they are looking for, it is possible to tell by eye which ones are from Maryland, but most likely it will be by taste." So how does one look at a crab and know if it’s from Maryland? One of the ways is the color of the fat, often called mustard by locals, which is a darker shade of yellow, according to captain Frank Updike Sr. of Natural Light Charters, who leads chartered crabbing and fishing trips with his son Frank Jr. The easiest ways to ensure you’re getting Maryland crabs are first to ask, and second to visit restaurants that are True Blue-certified by the state of Maryland. The certification verifies through the restaurant’s receipts that at least 75 percent of the crabs or crabmeat used during the year came from Maryland. But as Updike says, "Yes, Maryland crabs do taste better. But even if a blue crab isn’t from Maryland, it’s still going to taste pretty good."


Many consider soft shell crabs to be a delicacy, and a way to enjoy crabs without the arduous task of picking them. Soft shells are any crab that has molted within the last 12 hours. During that time the shells are soft and papery, so they can be eaten whole, claw to claw, with the exception of the gills and parts of the abdomen. These parts are removed prior to being cooked, so diners can eat with abandon. Crabs typically molt between 18 and 23 times during their life, and they can mate only when a female is molting. Because the crab spends only about 12 hours as a soft shell, crabbers look carefully for the sign that a crab is about to molt — the development of a line on the last leg, known as the paddler fin, that starts out white and progresses to pink and then red as it grows closer to molting. These pre-molting crabs, known as peelers, are usually held in a special shedding tank until they bust out of their old shells. The then-valuable softies are removed from the water to prevent hardening of their shells before they are cooked and eaten. Before finding their way to a plate, soft shells are typically fried with a seasoned batter or sautéed. It’s hard not to love something deep fried, but many natives consider sautéing the better option to not overwhelm the sweetness of the meat. Both methods preserve the fatty mustard inside and typically lead to a crab gushing with juice. At most Maryland seafood restaurants, soft shells are served as a sandwich with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato or plain on a platter to enjoy with a fork and knife. But obviously many chefs have taken the classic further, putting them in the pervasive soft shell sushi roll, as well as in tacos and on top of pizzas


Mustard/Tomalley: Found in all crabs, the tomalley, known as mustard in the mid-Atlantic, is the crab’s fat. It can range in color from white to dijon mustard yellow to a greenish color. It is included with most pre-packed crabmeat to enrich its flavor.

Roe: Found in mature female crabs, crab roe is a bright orange

Size classes: There are no industry standards for crab sizes, so they may vary from vendor to vendor. Most are categorized by the distance from point to point on the top shell and sometimes by sex. There are two systems of size classification. The first uses numbers, with #1 being the largest, heaviest males, #2 signifying smaller color. When steamed it solidifies, and is often used as a topping in Chinese cuisine for dishes like pork and crab soup dumplings, or tofu.

Jumbo lump: These are the large chunks of meat connected to the swimming fins of the crab. It is favored for its presentation and size, and is accordingly more expensive.

Backfin: Backfin meat comes from the body of the crab and broken chunks of lump. It tends to have a more shredded texture than lump and is less expensive.

Apron: This is the flap on the white underside of a crab, which terminates in a point. They can be used to judge the sex and maturity of the crab.

Jimmy: These are male crabs; the point of the apron is long and narrow. Adults have locking spines that allow them to open and shut their apron for mating. These are typically the favorite for consumption due to their size and have higher availability due to higher catch limits.

Sally: Also known as she-crabs, these are adolescent female blue crabs. Their entire apron forms a triangle, and their blue claws are tipped with red. The aprons do not open since they are not ready to mate or carry eggs. Typically these are thrown back due to their small size and reproductive potential. males, and #3 labeling the females and smallest crabs. The other system classifies them by small, medium, large, and jumbo; smalls are usually four-and-a-half to five inches across, while jumbos are typically larger than six inches.

Old Bay: The spice served up from the iconic blue and yellow box has become a pop icon. McCormick, the owner of Old Bay, doesn’t publicly disclose all 18 herbs and spices that are in the recipe, but the box lists celery salt, red and black pepper, and paprika. Speculators note the likely ingredients as bay leaves, cloves, allspice (pimento), ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika. Locals sprinkle it on just about anything, and it’s found in consumables like Baltimore ice cream parlor the Charmery’s Old Bay caramel ice cream, or in Flying Dog Brewery’s Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale. Some locals contend that McCormick changed the spice blend recipe when they purchased it from German immigrant Gustav Brunn in 1990. They claim that since the transition Old Bay has lacked the heat of the 1939 original made by Brunn’s Baltimore Spice Company. But a McCormick spokesperson denies any changes to the recipe since it was purchased.

J.O. Spice: Odds are at a crab house, what's seasoning the crabs is made by J.O. Spice Company, not Old Bay. Established in 1945, the company supplies more than 800 restaurants in the mid-Atlantic, often creating custom blends that vary in saltiness and heat. The easiest way to discern if a restaurant is using J.O. is to examine the salt crystals, which are flaky rather than cubical.

Sook: Mature female blue crabs are identified by an apron that is the shape of an upside-down U with a triangular point at the end. She also has blue claws tipped with red. Sooks are usually less expensive and end up in the picking houses due to their smaller size. Some say that sooks have sweeter meat than jimmies.

Sponge crab: Sponge crabs are mature females that have fertilized eggs attached to the bottom of their abdomens. In Maryland, these must be thrown back into the water. 

Peeler: This is the term used to describe a crab as it prepares to molt and to become a soft shell crab. It is distinguished by a colored line on its paddling fin.