How to Cook Live Dungeness Crab: Step by Step

Image Credit: Molly Watson via The Spruce 

Whether you are a crab-cooking connoisseur, are switching from frozen crab to live, or are experimenting with cooking live Dungeness crab for the very first time—this article is for you. You will learn everything from the beginning stages of shipping and handling your crab to professionally plating it. Cooking live seafood can be nerve-wracking for some, but we’ll give you tips and tricks from experts to make your experience easier.

Before you do any sort of cooking, it is best to prep; and when you’re working with live crab, you want to make sure you have all the tools and resources necessary to handle and cook it correctly.

Choosing and Handling Live Crab

When choosing a live Dungeness crab (if at the market and choosing yourself), you obviously want to look for a healthy one that will provide you the freshest meat. Crabs that are alert and are stimulated when touched should be healthy; they should even show you their pincers in defense. 

As far as smell, you do not want to choose one that smells overly fishy or that has a sour smell. Live crabs should have a fresh saltwater aroma.

Purchasing live Dungeness crab for sale online, such as these from Fathom Seafood, is a great option for most because the experts will safely choose and ship it right to you within 24 hours. 

If you are bringing the live crab home but are not cooking it for some while, experts at Oregon Dungeness give the following handling instructions:

  • Live crab should be put into a well-aerated chilled-saltwater tank (temp 45°-50° F.) as soon after arrival as possible. Immerse slowly to facilitate gill function.

However, it is recommended that you cook your live Dungeness crab the same day you purchase or receive it. 

If you cannot keep it in chilled saltwater, this is an alternative recommendation:

  • Live crabs should be stored in the bottom of the fridge and covered with a damp tea towel. The coldness of the fridge will keep it sedated until ready to kill and cook.

And right before cooking, they say the following should be typical:

  • Live Oregon Dungeness crabs should show signs of activity and should react to stimulation.

It is best to research or ask the experts, whether you are getting your seafood shipped or are buying at the market, to determine which live crab will get you the best meat for your buck, in case you aren’t sure. 


Image Credit: Turntable Kitchen

Prepping Your Cookspace 

You actually will want to cook the crab before you clean them; therefore, you will initially need anything you are going to use for boiling or steaming your live crab. 

  • one large pot
  • colander 
  • cutting board 
  • gloves for handling live crab and hot crab when finished 
  • crab cracking tool (optional)
  • large tongs
  • salt 

Getting ready is easy!

Next, look over two separate instructional guides to compare the differences between boiling and steaming your live crab.

Live Crab Boiling Instructions—via Williams Sonoma 

  1. You will need…
  • 8 qt. cool water
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 2 live Dungeness crabs, about 2 pounds each (or 12 hard-shelled blue crabs)
2.Fill a stockpot with the water and stir in the salt. Pick up the crabs from behind to avoid their claws and add them to the pot, making sure they are well covered with water. Cover the pot, turn the heat to medium-high, and bring just to a boil. When the water reaches a full boil, turn off the heat, leaving the lid on the pot.

3.Let blue crabs steep in the hot water for about 10 minutes. Larger Dungeness crabs need about 15 minutes. Using long tongs, lift the crabs from the water, turning them this way and that over the pot to drain away any water, and then transfer to a cutting board.

4.Cleaning the crab—keep reading to learn about this step. 

Live Crab Steaming Instructions

  1. You will need…
  • tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 (2-pound) whole live Dungeness crab
  • large pot
  • steamer rack or foil
  • colander 
  1. Fill a large pot with 1 inch of water and stir in the salt. (Be sure your pot has a tightfitting lid.) Place a steamer rack inside of the pot. (If you don’t have a steamer rack, lightly bunch a long piece of foil so that it looks like a rope. Then make a figure eight out of the foil rope and set it in the pot.)

  2. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Using tongs, pick up the crab, grasping it from behind and placing one arm of the tongs on the belly and the other on the back with the legs on either side. Place the crab back side up in the steamer rack. Cover and return the water to a full boil, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium high and steam until the crab is cooked through, about 15 minutes more.

  3. Using tongs, remove the crab to a colander and rinse under cold water until cool enough to handle.

Now that you have learned about two different ways to cook a live crab, you will also need to learn how to break the crab apart and clean it once it is cooked. 

Cleaning Your Cooked Crab

The taste experts at William Sonoma have a very clear step-by-step guide to cleaning your crab after it has been cooked live.

1. Remove the apron

For a Dungeness crab, place it shell side down and lift off and discard the triangular tail flap, or apron. Watch out for the spines on the bottom side of the crab, which are sharp.

2. Remove the top shell

Turn over the crab and, holding it by the legs, lift off and discard the hard top shell. If desired, scoop out and reserve the pale yellow crab fat in the shell. (This fat has a savory, slightly briny flavor and can be used to flavor butter or sauces.) Blue crabs, while smaller, have the same basic structure as Dungeness crabs and can be cleaned in the same way.

3. Remove the gills and intestines

Next, pull off and discard the grayish, feathery gills along both sides of the body, the jaw section at the front, and the intestines in the middle.

4. Twist off the claws and legs

Rinse the body well. Using your hands, twist the claws and legs from the body. Using a large chef’s knife or your hands, cut or break the body into halves lengthwise along its center and then into quarters.

5. Extract the meat

Using your fingers or a lobster pick, tiny fork or paring knife, remove the meat from all the body cavities. Switch to a nutcracker, lobster cracker or mallet and gently crack the claws and any large legs in several places. Break away the shell pieces and remove the meat.

Once you get used to it, the entire process is not as tedious as it looks. There are a variety of resources online, such as how-to videos, that go into even more detail with cooking and cleaning live crab.

Read the next article to learn about both quick and easy and more elaborate crab recipes, such as seafood boil recipes, crab cake recipes, and more. 

And of course, go to Fathom Seafood to browse their selection of fresh, live Dungeness crabs—you might be cooking live crab very soon in your future! 

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