What is a crab cake?
A crab cake is a variety of fishcake that is popular in the United States. It is composed of crab meat and various other ingredients. Crab cakes are traditionally associated with the area surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, in particular the states of Maryland and Virginia.
France may have its foie gras, New Orleans its gumbo, and Spain its paella, but the folks living along the shores and far-reaching tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay have their own signature dish: the crab cake. No dish is more closely associated with the Chesapeake and the Blue Crab than the mighty crab cake.
What is the origin of crab cake?
The Chesapeake crab cake has been a staple of the local diet dating back to at least the sixteenth century. Crab cakes were made by local Indian women who mixed the crabmeat with herbs, vegetables, and cornmeal, forming them into small cakes that were fried in sizzling hot bear fat. They were called “cakes of crab”.
However, they were called crab patties or crab croquettes before the term crab cake appeared in the 20th century. The preparation technique has changed only slightly over the centuries, with the exception that bear fat is not used for frying these days.
There are numerous recipes for crab cakes from the 19th century, and many of them combined bread crumbs and spices, while some of them were fried. Today, crab cakes are the most popular in New England, the Gulf Coast, the Pacific Northwest, and the Northern California coast.
What remains true of Bay crab cakes today is that different regions of the Chesapeake have their own style of cakes. On the Eastern Shore, folks prefer their crab cakes prepared simply so that the flavor of the crab is allowed to shine through. This happens by moistening the crab just slightly with lemon butter and adding virtually no filler, or what locals sometimes refer to as “sawdust.”
Since there is little binding to hold the cakes together, they must be broiled and handled with great care. The end result for a crab purist is sheer bliss: an absolutely pure, unadulterated crab cake.
Folks from other parts of the Bay, particularly near the big cities, scoff at this notion and find these cakes bland. They prefer the style of cake that is flavored by a spicy, mayonnaise-enriched batter with a bread or cracker binding.
Another version of a crab cake, which is common in the southern parts of the Bay, is made by using a lightly seasoned cream sauce to hold the crabmeat together. The cakes are then chilled to firm them up and later lightly coated in breadcrumbs and gently fried.
Maryland vs Louisiana crab cakes
Crab cakes are among the favorite food for many people, especially along the eastern coast. They have many different styles of making them, which are all special in their own little way. It really depends on your taste preferences but within every home and every restaurant there is that slight special something that makes each crab cake all their own.
Crab cakes are most known in the Maryland area, especially Baltimore. Since the Blue Crabs are most abundant in the Chesapeake estuary, crab cakes are easily made with the freshest meat. The only requirement for the Maryland version is that the crab meat is from Blue Crab and it is fresh.
There are two different styles of Maryland crab cakes, the restaurant style and the boardwalk style. The restaurant style of crab cakes are also called gourmet style and are not breaded. They are broiled on an open flame or cooked in a pan with butter. They don’t have many types of filler and use large chunks of the crab meat. The meat is not shredded like other styles of crab cakes, so you taste a lot of the crab meat. This is the reason that Blue Crabs are most favored for this style.
The other style and most popular is the boardwalk style. This style is filled with egg and breadcrumbs and includes a lot of seasoning. The Maryland style crab cakes use Old Bay Seasoning, which is very common and popular in the eastern portion of the United States. It is then breaded and deep fried to make the rich crusted texture most desired.
Another style of crab cake is the Louisiana style, which uses the same Blue Crab, which is also found around bayous, rivers and inlets in the Louisiana area. The specific style of cooking from Louisiana requires that the cakes are floured, then covered in an egg wash and then coated in breadcrumbs.
Not only are the cakes breaded but they are mixed with the fiery spices common to the Louisiana area, like Cajun spice and hot sauce. This style provides the crunchy outer layer coating the crab cake and is a very delicious and rich style of making them. It is not deep fried but fried in a pan using a little bit of oil.
The reason the Maryland and Louisiana style crab cakes are so popular is that they use the meat from the Blue Crabs, which reproduce at an exponential rate along the south and eastern coast of the United States. The meat has a very sweet taste, which makes the cakes the best in the country.
How to choose the right crabmeat for crab cakes
Jumbo lump crabmeat is the very best that money can buy. Crab cakes made with all jumbo lump are best sautéed or broiled rather than deep-fried. These big, beautiful lumps, with absolutely no shell or cartilage, come from the backfin on either side of the crab. In the old days of the crab business, this type of crabmeat was aptly known as “backfin”.
Lump crabmeat is a blend of one-third jumbo lump and two-thirds flake (smaller pieces of crab from the chambers of the body). This type of crabmeat makes a beautiful cake of large, delectable lumps of crab combined with flavorful body meat. Just a touch of binding holds the lump cake together nicely. This meat is perfect for any style crab cake you may wish to prepare.
Backfin crabmeat is all flake from the center body cavity of the crab. While it does not make a particularly nice crab cake on its own, it works quite well when mixed with jumbo lump or lump. Higher in shell content than jumbo lump and lump, this type requires careful picking over to remove small bits of cartilage. It’s a great way to bring the price of the crab cake down and still produce a high-quality crab cake.
Claw meat provides dark, sweet meat and a less expensive crab cake. These cakes, while not regarded as top of the line, are what are served in many coffee shops and neighborhood taverns, as well as at local fairs and carnivals. They are quite tasty and economical for large gatherings and parties. Claw meat tends to have a higher moisture content, which requires a tad more binding to hold the cakes together.
Various methods of cooking crab cakes
Frying is the most common cooking method for crab cakes. They can be pan-fried in hot cooking oil about ½ inch deep, or deep-fried, with the oil heated to 375°F.
Sautéing is high-class crab cake cooking, generally using clarified butter, olive oil, or a combination of the two. When sautéing crab cakes, it is best to form the cakes just a tad thinner so that they will heat all the way through.
Broiling is one of the best ways to cook cakes, because the flavor of the crab does not have to compete with that of the cooking oil. All you need to do is brush the cakes with a little melted butter, if desired, and place them about 3 inches from the heat in a preheated broiler until nicely browned.
There are crab cake recipes for a full spectrum of tastes, yet people continue to experiment and discover even more.
Now, what’s all the fuss about? They’re just little balls of crab all mushed together, right? Wrong. Here’s a guide to the structural makeup of a crab cake.
These are the ingredients used to hold together and season the crab cakes. The wet ingredients are mixed with various seasonings, tossed with the crabmeat, and held together with breading. The principle is to try to use the least amount of breading possible to get the cakes to hold together without exerting pressure to compact them. Some traditional binding ingredients are eggs, mayonnaise, cream, cream sauces, seasonings, breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs, and bread soaked in milk.
Old Bay Seasoning is virtually synonymous with crabs. It is the most recognizable of all the Chesapeake seasonings on the market. Other commonly used seasonings include fresh lemon juice, mustard – Dijon is especially popular, and parsley with a dash of hot sauce are all sometimes used to make crab cakes.
How to make a perfect crab cake
Pick the crab meat carefully for shells. Be gentle, as lumps of crab meat are a thing of beauty and must not be torn apart while picking through or mixing.
Mix the batter (eggs, mayonnaise, seasonings) in a separate bowl from the one that holds the crabmeat. Sprinkle the breading (breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs) over the crabmeat and then pour the batter on top of the breading. Gently toss or fold the ingredients together with a rubber spatula or your hands, again taking great care not to break up the lumps of crab.
Form the crab cake mixture into slightly flattened, rounded masses. Some folks recommend gently packing the mixture into an ice cream scoop and then tapping it out. It can, of course, be formed by hand or molded into small, rounded cups. Again, gently is the key word when describing how to form a cake. Do not compact the crab cakes too much. They should be held together loosely.
The size of the cake depends on the maker. Most cakes weigh about 2 to 3 ounces each. Veteran crab cake makers feel it is best to refrigerate the cakes for at least an hour before cooking. This allows the binding to absorb some of the moisture so that the cakes hold together better.
No matter which state you are in, you can find a wealthy array of recipes online that will show you the many different styles and ways to make the best crab cake to suit your taste buds.
- 5 oz. panko or breadcrumbs
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon hot mustard
- ½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
- ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground red pepper
- 1 large egg slightly beaten
- ½ lb crab meat pieces
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil
- 1 lemon quartered
In a bowl, vigorously mix 3 oz. panko (or breadcrumbs) and all the other ingredients except the crab, olive oil and lemon.
- Add the crab and stir gently with a spatula until everything is incorporated.
Add the remaining panko (or breadcrumbs) into a shallow dish.
- With wet hands, shape the crab mixture into 4 balls of equal size.
- Roll them in the panko.
- Gently flatten the crab balls to form 4 patties of about 4 inches in diameter.
- Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add the patties and cook 3 minutes per side or until golden brown.
- Serve with lemon wedges.