garlic-pepper dungeness crab

garlic-pepper crab in a cast iron skillet

Dungeness crab season has started in Oregon! The commission made us wait for an additional month to get our crabs, but that wait was a good thing: crabs are larger, with sweeter meat and thicker shells. You'll have better crab this season than you did for the last several years.

But just because the crab is better out of the pot, doesn't mean you can't improve on nature through creative cooking. In fact, this week I started thinking of one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, PPQ Dungeness Crab House, and I decided to re-create their famous garlic crab. I didn't, quite, but what I got was maybe even more delicious.

Now, before I get to the recipe, I need to give you some warnings:

  1. This recipe requires buying a live crab, meaning you need a source for live Oregon crab, and be OK with killing and cleaning it yourself.
  2. It is a saturated fat bomb, not suitable for folks with heart conditions or severe acid reflux. Consult your physician before attempting.
  3. After eating crab like this, you may find it hard to enjoy plain cold cracked crab from the fish counter again.

The recipe below is for one large (2.3lbs/1kg) live crab. It will scale up to as much as four crabs fairly well, and you can make it with smaller crabs. I offer cooking time recommendations for small (1lbs-1.5lbs) and medium (1.5lbs-2.0lbs) crabs below, but be warned that I have only actually tested the cooking time for large crabs. If increasing the number of crabs, add +50% ingredients for each additional crab. If your crabs are small, subtract 25% from ingredient quantities.

I'm also going to assume that you have never dealt with a live dungeness crab before, so if you have, you can skip parts of the instructions.

garlic-pepper roasted dungeness crab

  • one large live dungeness crab (2lbs+) (see notes for smaller crabs)
  • 1 large/2 small lemons, sliced thin
  • 1 and 1/2 heads of garlic, about 20 large/40 small cloves
  • 1 small to medium yellow or white onion
  • 2 Tbs whole peppercorns
  • salt
  • 3 tbs butter
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 tsp fresh, coarsely ground black pepper (yes, really)
  • Lots of water
  • 1 large stockpot, 1 medium-large ovenproof pan, some big bowls, and one pair of large metal tongs

Time: 70 minutes to 105 minutes, more for multiple crabs

Buy the live crab(s). Keep them somewhere they can breathe, but will be cold (below 50F but above freezing) so that they are dormant. If they do warm up, they should be lively/fighty; if they're not they may not be fresh/healthy. Since crabs need seawater to live, you can only really keep them in your fridge/shed for around 8 hours, so buy them the day you roast them. If the fishmonger put rubber bands on the claws, leave them in place, those claws are nasty.

Peel all the garlic. Whack 1/3 of the cloves with the flat of your knife, so they split but don't smush. Mince the rest of the garlic; it should make around 3/4 cup. Mince the onion small (should be aroud 1 cup), but reserve the ends/peel.

Fill the large stockpot 2/3 of the way up with water. Add enough salt to make it very salty, like 2 Tbs for a 6-qt stockpot. Add half the lemon slices (the small end/mostly peel ones), the onion ends, the smacked cloves of garlic, and the whole peppercorns. Bring to a roiling boil.

Using the tongs, transfer the crab(s) to the pot (this is why you want them cold & sluggish). Cooking time will be 4-6 minutes, but the exact timing is tricky. Smaller crabs require less time (4 min), medium a little more (4.5-5min), larger crabs more (5-5.5min), and multiple crabs might require still more. Also, you want the water to return to at least a simmer after putting the crab in, so if your stove is anemic or your pot very large it might take longer. Your best guide is probably color; as soon as the crab(s) turns orange, you want to take it out. What you're shooting for is "just barely cooked enough to clean it".

If doing more than one crab, you can either do them all at once, or one at a time. Since there's some sitting time, the latter is probably easier.

Once the crab is done, take it out with the tongs, shake the water off, and drop it in a big bowl to let it cool for 30-45min, until just barely warm. Once it's cooled, you will clean/dismantle the crab. This will be unpleasant; since the crab is barely cooked, it's going to be extra-slimy inside. But it's worth it! Consider disposable gloves.

So flip the crab upside down. Find the "apron", a triangular piece of shell on its rear end, pry it up with the tip of a knife, and break it off. Then grab the back edge of the main shell and pry it off the rest of the body like opening a huge Tupperware container. Keep the crab upside-down when you do this! You want the slimy bits to fall into the shell for easy disposal. Lift the body and pry off the lungs/gills, which look like rubbery white feathers, and any dark-colored slime. What remains on the body should be all white or translucent, and a bit gelatinous. Rinsing with cold water is OK, but better skipped if it's not necessary.

Here's a pictorial guide to dismantling a dungeness.

Put all the waste crab bits in a big, heavy plastic bag and seal it shut. You do not want this in your compost bin or open trash.

Now, break the body in half and snap off each of the legs. Then, using a heavy spoon, small mallet, or crab crackers, lightly crack the major leg sections. You're not trying to split the shell, just crack them enough that the sauce can get in. Set aside with the body pieces.

Heat the oven to 450F. Get out a large pan: skillet, baking pan, roasting pan, whatever you want. The key is that it has to be good at 450F, which means no plastic or silicone handles, and no nonstick. You want it just barely large enough to fit the crab pieces.

Put the butter and oil in the pan. Place it in the oven for 4-6 minutes, until the butter melts and starts to foam. Add the minced garlic, onion, and 2 tsp of the ground pepper. Put it back in the oven for about 5 minutes. Pull out, stir up the onion and garlic, and then put back in the oven for another 5 minutes or so. You are looking to get to the point where the onion and garlic just barely starts to brown.

Pull the pan out again, add the crab pieces, and toss them to make sure that all pieces are covered in the onion-garlic-butter mix. Use a spoon to spoon some sauce over big crab pieces; you want stuff coated (this is why you don't want the pan to be too big). When done tossing, sprinkle the crab with the rest of the ground pepper, and place the lemon slices on top of the crab pieces. Put the pan back in the oven to cook.

Cooking times are going to vary by the size/number of crabs, again. My large crab and hot oven took 10 minutes. A small crab might take 7, but if you have several crabs together add a couple minutes. Fortunately, you have some leeway here.

Serve hot, with crab crackers, picks, aprons, a stack of paper towels, and bread to mop up the sauce. Unlike cold cracked crab, you won't need or want any cocktail sauce or drawn butter here; the garlic-pepper sauce has all the flavor you need.

Variation: you can add 1-3 tsp of crushed red pepper, or even 1/4 cup of minced fresh hot peppers, to the garlic/onion mix to make it spicy. You could add ground Sichuan peppercorn and a splash of Shaoxing wine or sake to make it Chinese-style.