Chef Renee Erickson Shows How to Grill Dungeness Crab at Home

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Over the last decade, Renee Erickson has emerged as one of Seattle’s preeminent chefs and restaurateurs. Her knack for delicious food in beautifully designed spaces has let her branch out across the city with concepts that draw inspiration from some of her favorite places in the world. There’s her ode to Rome at Willmott’s Ghost, the Parisian wine bar vibes of Bistro Shirlee, the Pacific Northwest cuisine-driven The Whale Wins and more. For her new cookbook Getaway: Food & Drink to Transport You, she channels the best eating and drinking of her favorite places too, dividing the book into sections devoted to those locales. For the recipe she’s sharing from the book, she looks to her own backyard by showing you how to grill up Dungeness crab.

My dad, Jim Erickson, is a major reason I see food as an adventure. He loves harvesting food from the wild. Especially crabs! I grew up eating crab we caught all together in the Salish Sea. A lot of crab. So much that I remember getting a little tired of eating crab: crab toast, crab omelet, crab quiche, cold crab and mostly crab melts. These days, I don’t get to go crabbing as often, and so I’m completely ready to dig into a crab any time I have the chance. I especially love the smoky fragrance that comes when buttered crab hits a hot grill. I like to garnish it with big fennel blossoms that bloom all over Seattle roadsides and parking lots in the middle of the summer—lovely blooms and extra fennel fragrance all at once. (If you are really industrious, you can dry your own fennel blossoms and sift out their pollen so you don’t have to splurge on the Italian stuff. But for mere mortals, order some from World Spice or Zingerman’s, and know that you will have profound flavoring power in that spendy little jar.)

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Grilled Dungeness Crab with Fennel Butter

Getaway, Renee Erickson
Getaway, Renee Erickson

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer, 2 as a main course

  • 12 oz. (340 g) unsalted butter, softened

  • 4 tsp. fennel pollen

  • 1 tsp. salt

  • 2 tbsp. lemon juice

  • 2 whole cooked Dungeness crabs, gills, carapace and brown bits removed, quartered

  • Lemon juice, to garnish

  • Crusty bread, to serve

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, fennel pollen, salt and lemon juice until fluffy and silky. Set aside.

Crack the claws and big joints of the crab. Brush the crab all over with butter, patting it on any exposed flesh particularly.

Prepare a charcoal grill by heating until the flames die away and the coals are ashed over. (Since the crab is so buttery, you will have an inferno if you rush this process.) Spread the coals, replace the grate and wait for the grate to heat up, about 10 minutes.

Place the buttered crab on the grate and cover the grill. Cook for 3.5 minutes, then remove the crab pieces to a serving platter, making sure not to tip the juices from the belly sections into the fire. Spoon any remaining butter over the hot crab. Serve with lemon and bread.

How to Cook and Clean a Dungeness Crab

Dungeness crab on ice for sale
Dungeness crab on ice for sale

Tell me what crab you eat, and I can tell you where you are from. In my world, there is really only one crab: Dungeness, with its orange shell after cooking and its mild, succulent meat. If you want to try other crab in this recipe, I’m sure the fennel butter will taste great with it, but I don’t spend time cooking other crab. It’s Dungeness or bust in my kitchen.

I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve recently changed my tune on how to cook live crab. And my new method is intense, but it’s so good. If you don’t have the heart for it, by all means stick with my old standard of plunging one or two crabs into a pot of boiling water for 8 minutes (7 if you are planning to make the grilled crab on page 331) and then icing them off to stop the cooking.

But, if you are feeling brave, and you want crab that is meatier and less watery, then try this: First, chill the crabs by placing them on a bed of ice and covering them with ample ice for 15 minutes or so; this will make them sluggish. Meanwhile, assemble a large steamer (like your pasta pot, with a steamer insert set inside). Fill with water to just below the bottom of the insert and bring that to a rolling boil. Cover the pot with a snug lid. You can keep it on simmer while you prep the crabs and then get it rolling again.

Now for the hard part. Get a screwdriver, or something similarly hard and pointy. Turn a live crab on its back and position the screwdriver right above the center of the segmented tail flap at the bottom of the belly. Stab the crab, quickly. You will kill it immediately.

Now, stick your finger or a butter knife under that segmented tail flap and use that leverage to crack the back shell of the crab off. Remove the feathery gills and scoop out the guts inside the body of the crab.

Break the legs off the crab, making sure to include the meaty bits where the legs meet the crab body. I like to hold both sides of the crab legs and fold the crab in on itself. There is a seam in the middle of the body where it will naturally break. Make extra sure all the guts are removed (even the light yellow stuff). It will turn black and taint the meat if you leave it there. Keep the legs on ice while you process any other crabs.

Get the steamer fully boiling again, place the legs in the steamer, cover snugly and steam for 8 minutes. Cool the legs immediately by placing them on a tray and right into the fridge.

We have a house rule that if it’s a crab feast, you crack your own. But if you are preparing a dish with crabmeat (like crab melts or crab salad), here’s how: Use hands to pull meat from the place where the legs meet the body, being careful to pry away all of the bits of papery shell (they look a lot like crabmeat). Use a cracker to gently crack the thicker leg shell and remove the meat by hand. Keep the crabmeat cold, cold, cold before serving.

Reprinted from Getaway: Food & Drink to Transport You. Copyright © 2021 by Renee Erickson. Photography by Jim Henkens. Published by Abrams.

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