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Classic King Crab

Alaskan King Crab steamed briefly and served with melted butter.

King crab legs with melted butter.
Alison Bickel

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.

The History of American Crab Fishing

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.

What Does King Crab Taste Like?

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.

How to Cook Crab Legs

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.

How to Serve King Crab

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.

Dipping king crab legs in melted butter.
Alison Bickel

Tips and Tricks for Preparing Crab Before Cooking

  • If using frozen king cab legs, there's no need to thaw before cooking. Just increase the steaming time to 10 minutes.
  • You can cut the legs into 2 to 3-inch pieces before cooking. Use kitchen shears and snip between joints for easier cutting and eating.
  • Remember that king crab legs are sold already cooked. So, be sure not to steam them too long or you can overcook them.

Best Crab to Buy

Buying red king crabs wild-caught in the U.S. (especially Alaska), is a good choice, because they are sustainably harvested under strict government guidelines. You can buy directly from the fisheries themselves or look for wild-caught or sustainably farmed labels in the store.

More Crab Recipes to Try

Classic King Crab

Prep Time 5 mins
Cook Time 5 mins
Total Time 10 mins
Servings 4 servings
Yields 3 to 4 pounds
You could use olive oil instead of butter, but why would you want to?

Ingredients

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

Method

  1. Melt butter:

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

  2. Steam the crab legs:

    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.

    Krab legs in a pot to show how to cook king crab legs.
    Alison Bickel
    How to cook crab legs in a pot.
    Alison Bickel
  3. Make cuts into crab shells:

    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 and lemon wedges on the side.

    Using scissors for a crab leg recipe.
    Alison Bickel