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.

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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 butter: Melt the butter in a small pan and keep warm on its 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.

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.

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King Crab Legs with Avocado Dip, from Eating Richly

King Crab Salad, from La Fuji Mama

King Crab Salad Tacos, from The Pink Apron

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

19 Comments / Reviews

No ImageClassic King Crab

Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. Matt

    Plain, simple and easy, and delicious!! (As long as they aren’t freezer-burned)
    I never knew that ALL king crab legs are previously cooked, so I have always overcooked them.
    Thank you AR!!


  2. Jeff McNeal

    Actually a better method is to wrap it in damp paper towels and microwave for a minute or two.

  3. Denise Staten

    Your simple recipe is the very best for King Crab. I lived in Alaska over 30 years and the only other tip I have is to go ahead and cut each leg in half (claws by themselves) then go ahead and make your lengthwise slits. This is easier than dealing with it when it’s hot and then you’re ready to eat!


  4. Suzanne

    It was delicious & it was easy to prepare


  5. Darren

    Made it and came out great.


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Classic King Crab