Crabs and crab-based dishes have always been restaurant food to me. Maybe that’s because I used to let crabs intimidate me. But after my recent foodbloggers trip to the J.M Clayton Co. crab processing operation, I got courageous and set out to make my own crab cakes.
Our hosts told us that J.M. Clayton sells fresh-cooked crabmeat to the MidAtlantic Whole Foods stores. Sure enough, there it was, in the seafood department of my local (Northwest DC) Whole Foods. At $22 a pound, backfin crabmeat is an expensive treat. Still, a home-cooked crab cake dinner would be much less expensive than a restaurant meal, so I gulped and forged ahead.
After I did the math I felt better. A pound of backfin crabmeat makes 6 good-sized crab cakes, so each one costs about $4 to make. My 2 crab cake per person dinner, with salad, wine, and dessert cost us about $15. Even compared to the prepared Whole Foods crab cakes, I was still saving money. Those cost $6, 30% more than homemade. I've tasted them and (not to brag) they aren't as good as the ones you can make using this recipe.
Maryland-style crab cakes are easy to make. All you need is good crabmeat (fresh or canned), binding ingredients, seasonings, and a small amount of butter or oil for frying or baking. Although you can make them without any breading, I prefer to add a small amount.
My only caution on crab cake-making is to approach the task with a light hand. If you mix them calmly and just a little, the crab cakes will be light and yet stay together. If you attack the mixture with a vengeance, they will come out hard-packed instead. They will stay together if you flip them carefully; being rougher is likely to yield a crab hash – still delicious, but not exactly the presentation you sought.
After reviewing at least 10 crab cake recipes I drew up this list of ingredient variations:
Maryland Crab Cake Ingredients
Binding ingredients to hold the crabcake mixture together – Egg (1 egg per 12 -16 oz of crabmeat), Optional - mayonnaise – as little as 1 tablespoon per pound (in the Old Bay recipe) up to as much 2/3 cup per pound (in the recipe from Karson’s Inn in Baltimore)
Bread (all the recipes had at least ½ cup, and a few had over 1 cup) - Saltines, breadcrumbs whether homemade or store-bought (including Panko, Japanese-style crunchy breadcrumbs) or cubed or torn apart shreds of white bread
- Bell pepper
- Lemon juice
- Old Bay seasoning
- Worcestershire sauce – 1 teaspoon or so in most recipes, up to 1 tablespoon in the Old Bay recipe
- Mustard – ½ - 1½ teaspoon of dry or prepared
- Horseradish (prepared from a jar) – ½ - 1 teaspoon
- Chopped parsley
- Hot sauce – a dash or two
- Jalapeno pepper
- Salt and pepper
Odd hint – The company that makes Old Bay recommends adding a tablespoon of baking powder per pound of crabmeat to make the crab cakes light.
Most inventive substitution – A gluten-free reviewer of the Bon Appetit version suggested using tortilla crumbs instead of a wheat-based bread product. (I had never heard of them before but found them online – they are made with corn and lime.)
Here is my recipe:
Laura’s Cross Border (DC-made, Maryland-style) Crab Cakes
- ½ cup breadcrumbs (I used a mixture of homemade and panko) + ¼ to ½ cup more for rolling them finished crab cakes in before frying.
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon horseradish
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped red bell pepper
- 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
- 1 pound of fresh or canned Maryland crab meat
- 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
- Cutting board
- Measuring cups
- Measuring spoons
- Cookie sheet (I lined with it foil to make it easier to clean)
- Large fork
- Pancake turner or metal spatula
- Mix the ½ cup breadcrumbs, egg, and seasonings.
- Gently pry the crabmeat pieces apart. Don’t mash it up – leave pieces large and uneven.
- Gently mix the crabmeat into the breadcrumb/egg/seasoning mixture with a fork, then form crab cakes with your hands. You should press the meat slightly to get the crab cakes to stick together, but don’t be rough. It’s like meatballs, only the “meat” is not uniformly shaped and the cakes are more delicate. You can leave the crab cakes in a ball shape - there is no need to flatten them.
- Put the crab cakes on a plate or cookie sheet, cover with plastic wrap and let them rest n the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, preferably 1-2 hours. This step is essential or there is a good chance the crab cakes will fall apart!!
- After they have rested, gently roll the crab cakes in remaining breadcrumbs to coat them.
- Heat a pan. Add 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and fry the crab cakes on medium heat for approximately 5-7 minutes per side until heated through and both sides are golden brown. If you are doing batches and need to add additional oil, let it heat in the pan before adding more crab cakes. Remember to be gentle when turning the cakes over. Although you may flatten them slightly, do not press them down.
Serve with lemon wedges and seafood cocktail sauce.
Note: If you prefer to bake the crab cakes, lightly brush them with oil or butter, sprinkle a dash of paprika and bake for 15-20 minutes at 400 degrees F on an oiled sheet. A few recipes suggested broiling them on an oiled sheet for 10-15 minutes but I thought that would overcook them, and I definitely wasn’t interested in another suggested cooking method - deep fat frying. I did both pan fried and baked crab cakes for a taste test; we voted unanimously (2-0) for the lightly fried version, which was more tender and had a nice crunchy outside.