Classic King Crab

DinnerGluten-FreeLow CarbShellfish

Alaskan King Crab steamed briefly and served with melted butter.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

Please welcome Hank Shaw as he serves up some Alaskan king crab! ~Elise

One of my early memories as a kid was eating piles of Alaskan king crab legs in restaurants. Dipped in lots of melted butter and served with a lemon wedge I rarely used, it was tons of fun pulling big chunks of rich, luscious crab meat from those enormous legs. I grew up in New Jersey, where the much smaller blue crab reigns supreme, so the idea of gigantic crabs up to six feet long wandering around on the bottom of the ocean was both exotic and slightly scary. Eating these crabs was like traveling to a different world.

As I later learned, it was a different world back then. Our family was not particularly wealthy, and I never remember king crab even being in the same class as Maine lobster. King crab was what you got when lobster was too expensive. If you look at the history of the Alaskan king crab fishery, you’ll know why: At precisely the same time I was enjoying mountains of king crab, the fishery was reaching the high-water mark of unsustainability: In 1981, fishermen hauled up 130 million pounds of kings. Two years later, the fishery collapsed.

It took years, but crab stocks did recover. Since then, king crab has been fished sustainably throughout Alaska. And while it will never be inexpensive again, it’s still one of the world’s great luxury foods. Rich, soft and briny, king crab is reminiscent more of lobster than of crab. The meat is also easy to extract and fills the shells, which gives you a good amount of meat per pound — unlike most other crabs.

King crab is best served simply. To do too much to it would be like stuffing caviar into a burrito. Steam it, grill it or even microwave it, and then choose a support player and enjoy. The classic is, was and always will be melted butter and lemon. It is a classic for a reason.

As a consumer, you need to keep in mind two things: First, be certain to buy American crab. There is a lot of inexpensive Russian king crab on the market, and the reason it’s so cheap is because the Russians are destroying their fishery for a quick buck. American fishermen work under strict rules of sustainability, which is why U.S. crab is more expensive. We should reward them for playing fair.

The second thing you need to remember is that virtually all king crab is pre-cooked. It has to be, to preserve freshness. Alaskan king crab is cooked and blast frozen right in the harbor. If they did not, the giant crabs would die and rot within hours. This means that as a cook, you are really reheating king crab, not actually cooking it. So be gentle. I prefer to steam it for 5 minutes and call it a day. King crab really needs nothing else.

Classic King Crab Recipe

  • Prep time: 5 minutes
  • Cook time: 8 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4.

You could use olive oil instead of butter, but why would you want to?


  • 3-4 pounds Alaskan king crab legs and claws
  • 1 stick of butter
  • Lemon wedges for garnish


1 Melt the butter in a small pan and keep warm on its lowest setting.

2 Set a steamer tray inside a large pot and pour enough water inside to steam the crab. Remember, you are only reheating the crab, so you will only need about an inch of water, tops. Bring this to a boil before laying the crab legs on the steamer. Cover the pot and steam for 5 minutes.

3 Remove the crab legs and use kitchen shears to cut the shells. You can either totally remove the meat from the shell or just get each one started for your guests. Serve with the melted butter.

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Hank Shaw

A former restaurant cook and journalist, Hank Shaw is the author of three wild game cookbooks as well as the James Beard Award-winning wild foods website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. His latest cookbook is Buck, Buck, Moose, a guide to working with venison. He hunts, fishes, forages and cooks near Sacramento, CA.

More from Hank


King Crab Legs with Avocado Dip, from Eating Richly

King Crab Salad, from La Fuji Mama

King Crab Salad Tacos, from The Pink Apron

13 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  • Mark Downey

    I share the author’s concern for over-fishing, but the crash of the king crab fishery in Alaska in the early 1980s was also caused by a rise is sea temperatures. The shrimp fishery there crashed at the same time. Neither fishery has ever been the same. Conversely, the subsequent vacuum left in the Northern Pacific was filled by bottom fish: cod, halibut, etc.

  • todd hubbs

    Everytime I think about having some delicious king crab legs that have been flown in from Alaska my mouth begins to water. Thanks Hank for the recipe. Maybe you know my friend John. He started ? You should reach out to him and check out his blog and his amazing story.

  • Jo

    Oh Lorraine, Butter is your friend, not your fiend…its a healthy fat, welcome to 2015.

  • Lorraine

    Why not use pure butter? Some of us have enough trouble with cholesterol. I choose to add some olive oil, lemon, white wine or chicken stock, and fresh cilantro. Wonderful flavor and lower in fat!

  • Jono

    Head to the Asian market when the King Crab is in season, and you can get LIVE ones from the tanks, for optimal freshness.

    Steamed with lots of garlic, scallions, ginger, and a dash of cooking wine – DELICIOUS! Make sure you get all the juices with a bowl of rice on the side.

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Classic King Crab