Look, I’m from Maryland and I know crab cakes. I remember my first crab boil as a kid and thinking these adults were crazy for all of this work and mess just for a morsel of – ohhhh….this is amazing! I could never be a full vegetarian mostly because I love crab. I’m convinced that crab cakes are appropriate for all special events, and have made it a part of our Thanksgiving tradition in place of turkey. And now that I am living on the west coast, I have learned to love the Dungeness crab. Learn, I say, because it’s definitely a bit different from the Maryland blue crabs with which I grew up. Blue crab is just a but sweeter, a bit more delicate. I am not trying to be inflammatory when I say: I have yet to taste a good crab cake on the west coast. I wasn’t sure if its from the crab or from the technique, so I was skeptical. So I make them myself, and the first time I made a crab cake with Dungeness, I was horrified to watch them crumble apart in the pan. But I’m now a convert, and in the fall I’d been frantically keeping tabs on the news and hoping that Dungeness season will be a good harvest. But on to the perfect crab cake – you can use blue crab or Dungeness, and you’ll be pleased to know how simple they are to make. But be forewarned, on this subject I have many opinions.
The first thing to know is that good crab needs nothing, nothing, to taste good. Not sauce, not butter, not lemon, not even salt and pepper. Truly fresh, wonderful crab is perfect on its own, so a crab cake is really just gilding that lily – be judicious. Second, crab cakes do not have filler, they have binder – that is, just enough extraneous non-crab ingredients to hold together the pieces of crab and if that ratio is wrong you have a cake with crab in it and not a crab cake. Third, there is no wrong direction to take the seasoning of a crab cake. I am partial to the Maryland standard of Old Bay seasoning myself, but just using salt and pepper, or a curry powder, or southeast Asian flavors, or tropical flavors is not wrong. Wherever there is an ocean, people on the coast eat crab, so who’s to say what’s correct or authentic? Fourth, form the cakes and let them rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour, then add some more bread crumbs before frying. This really helps the cakes keep their shape when you fry them. Fifth, use panko bread crumbs. They are light and keep crispy, I really feel that they make a difference. Lastly, if you fry them, you should use a combination of butter and oil. The sweet, salty butter coats the bread crumbs making a golden grilled cheese sandwich-type crust that is a perfect shell for the tender sweet crab inside.
So, what do you put in them? Well I usually eyeball some mayo, Dijon mustard, an egg, fresh herbs (chives or parsley) and Old Bay with panko – again, just enough to hold the crab together. This is a close recipe to how I make my crab cakes and (according to my years as a self-appointed expert, for whatever that’s worth! [not much]) how they should taste. I’ve been known to add some sriracha, Greek yogurt, capers, or curry powder. I do not add any diced, shredded or chopped veggies of any kind to my crab cakes. I’m partial to pairing the rich, creamy cakes with a bright, peppery side of arugula with a crisp, astringent dressing for balance (like this champagne vinaigrette). You could also serve them on a (soft, slightly sweet) bun with lettuce and tomato or a slaw. Use whatever sauce you want, but no ketchup! What’s wrong with you? Any other sauce will do, really. Creamy? Tangy? Spicy? Vinegary? Even just a squeeze of lemon for that acid contrast is a delicious finish. In the picture above I used a yogurt sauce with some lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper, capers and fresh chives.
There you have it, my missive on crab cakes (I won’t say the perfect crab cake, because that is subjective, but let’s just say really really essential, standard-bearing, you-can’t-go-wrong crab cakes). And if ever you are on the appropriate coast for crab season, get to cracking those meaty claws and try your first bite without a single additional ingredient – then, give thanks for that good harvest.