“Gently pinch it.” he says. “Softly…Tenderly.”
“It’s not a baseball! You can’t force the shape. Imagine you are holding a little baby bird.”
Chef George Betz of Boatyard Bar and Grill, located near downtown Annapolis, is showing me how to properly form a traditional Maryland-style crab cake. His hands are massive and rough, fashioned by years in the kitchen. Originally from Baltimore, Betz has that characteristic regional accent that belies a working knowledge of just what a Maryland crab cake should be.
At the Edgewater Restaurant in Mayo, a tiny township near Edgewater, Maryland, crab cakes have been on the menu since 1948. Chef/Owner Don Davis has an almost rabidly loyal following of crab cake admirers, with over 95,000 views on his blog. His restaurant isn’t sophisticated or fancy: it is a smallish building on a busy road lined with dozens of other aged stand-alone shops and strip malls. But at his restaurant, cakes are made the old-fashioned way, with ingredients that have been used for generations, and it is this simplicity and familiarity that his fans praise again and again.
I am amazed that with so few basic ingredients, there could be so many different crabcakes. Betz, Davis and other area cooks at G&M, Hella’s, Timbuktu, Cantler’s, et cetera, are all long time Chesapeake natives. All claim to make a traditional, old-fashioned crab cake. And yet their cakes are totally different from each other in both taste and texture. Proof positive that a chef’s approach to food and slight of hand can make a huge difference in the final product.
Each chef does agree on the basic ingredients needed for a Maryland-style crab cake. Their best advice in my lesson of last week was “focus on the crab”. Too much of anything else takes attention away from the crab, which besides being expensive and increasingly difficult to find, is also sweet, delicate and easily overwhelmed.
- Use jumbo lump crab, colossal if you can find it. Claw meat and back fin aren’t ideal, although some folks find the claw meat to be sweeter than the lump. Pasteurized meat is fine in an extreme pinch, as long as it is jumbo.
- A binder, which is traditionally mayo. Betz insists on Hellman’s, Edgewater uses a heavy duty mayo not readily available to consumers and others say it doesn’t matter. Some chefs recommended Duke’s because it is lower in sugar.
- Seafood seasoning, most often Old Bay or JO
Suprisingly, it is the fillers that affect the taste and texture of individual crabcakes the most. Some restaurants insist they use little or no filler. “All Killer, No Filler” states Boatyard’s menu.
Davis says any restaurant that claims to not use any filler may be hard pressed to prove it. Most places use at least some stale bread crumbs or crushed crackers to give body and lift. In reality, the filler helps the crab stretch a little farther. Crab meat is expensive, and restaurants have to make margin….
Some places also use egg or butter as a binder. The butter melts into the bread crumbs or crackers and combines with the mayo and eggs to hold everything together and impart a rich, luxurious flavor.
Lift is important in achieving that characteristic mound—eggs and sometimes baking soda help with this. The original Old Bay recipe uses baking soda but it is a practice many restaurant replicate but don’t readily admit to.
Some recipes also call for yellow mustard and Worcestershire, which are traditional ingredients, but not absolutely necessary.
True Blue Marylanders eat crabcakes with French fries, slaw or pasta salad on the side, but nothing on top. I suppose some folks use Tartar sauce. Only tourists use cocktail sauce.
Classic OLD BAY® Crab Cakes from OLD BAY® Trivia players, take note: this is the original recipe that appeared on the back of the OLD BAY® can. (It’s a keeper.) Baking powder makes the crab cakes light and fluffy, while OLD BAY Seasoning adds personality. Serves four lucky folks.
- 2 slices dried bread, crusts removed
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon McCormick® Parsley Flakes
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon OLD BAY® Seasoning
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1 pound lump crabmeat
In a large bowl, break bread into small pieces. Moisten with milk.
Add mayo, Worcestershire sauce, parsley, baking powder, OLD BAY, salt, egg and crabmeat. Mix lightly and shape into 4 patties. If time permits, refrigerate patties 30 minutes to help keep them together when cooking.
Broil or fry until golden-brown on both sides.
Crab Cakes from Chef Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. Originally printed in Garden and Gun Magazine, August/September 2011.
- 1 lb. jumbo lump crabmeat, “picked over”
3 tbsp. mayonnaise (Gjerde uses Duke’s)
¼ cup fresh bread crumbs (trim a stale hamburger bun and pulse it in the food processor until it looks like fake snow); reserve extra crumbs
¼ tsp. ground moderately
hot red pepper, such as Aleppo or Marash, or ½ tsp.
Scant 1 tsp. ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
Scant 1 tsp. lemon juice
½ tsp. saltMethod
- Transfer the cleaned crabmeat into a bowl and keep cold.Whisk the egg with the mayonnaise, and then add remaining ingredients, mixing well. Scrape egg mixture over crab and fold gently with a rubber spatula or your hands. Let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for ten minutes.Sprinkle reserved bread crumbs on a plate. Divide crab mixture into quarters; gently form each portion into a loose ball and gently press onto plate to form a disheveled patty. Repeat with remaining crab, cover, and refrigerate until ready to cook, up to several hours.In a skillet over medium heat, warm about ½ inch of neutral oil (flavorless oil with a high smoking point such as canola or grape seed) or clarified butter until it is shimmering hot but not smoking. Carefully add crab cakes and turn when nicely colored, about 3 or 4 minutes. Continue cooking second side until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Serve immediately.
Crisfield Crabcakes from Boatyard Bar and Grill. This is a traditional Eastern Shore style crab cake that Chef George Betz serves as a Monday Night Special at Boatyard. Makes about 10 cakes
- 1 lb backfin or lump crab meat
- 1 lb claw crabmeat
- ½ cup crushed crackers
- 1 TB Old Bay
- 1 TB chopped fresh parsley
- ½ cup Hellmann’s Mayonnaise
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 large kitchen spoon yellow mustard
- ½ ts Worcestershire sauce
- Juice from ½ lemon
Gently fold crabmeat, crackers, Old Bay and parsley together, being careful not to shred the crab meat. Cover with damp paper towels and store in refrigerator at least 30 minutes.
- In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients and mix well
- Pour sauce into crabmeat mixture and GENTLY fold sauce and crabmeat together, being careful to not shred the crabmeat and ensuring ingredients are well blended.
- Portion cakes into 4 oz mounds. Mold carefully and DO NOT PRESS into balls.
Lightly sprinkle with Old Bay seasoning.
To cook, broil in pre-heated oven for 15 minutes or until crabcakes are golden brown.
Crab Cakes from Crab Feast Mania: A Cookbook for Crab Lovers. This recipe is from a woman I greatly admire, Alice Neily Mutch, current President of the Annapolis Rotary and owner of Capital Consultants and BaySmart Gardening.
- 1 lb backfin crabmeat, picked
- 3 TB dried stale breadcrumbs
- ¼ ts Worcestershire sauce
- 1 egg
- 1 TB parsley
- 1 TB prepared mustard
- ½ cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise
- ½ ts seafood spice
- vegetable oil
- Place crabmeat in a bowl. Gently fold in remaining ingredients except the oil, mixing gently so as not to break up the crabmeat lumps.
- Form into cakes using an ice cream scoop.
- Heat one inch of oil in a frying pan. When a drop of water splatters on the oil, place crab cakes in the skillet, frying until golden brown on the first side. Turn cakes and fry on the second side until golden. Remove and drain on paper towels.
- Makes about 6-8 cakes.
- ½ cup Yellow Onion, small dice
- ½ cup Red Pepper, small dice
- ½ cup Green Pepper, small dice
- ½ cup celery, small dice
- 2 TB butter
- 3 cups Panko bread crumbs
- 1 TB Old Bay
- 4 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 ts kosher salt
- 2 ts black pepper
- 2 ts Tabasco
- ¼ cup parsley, chopped
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1 TB + 1 ts Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 TB dry mustard
- 1 TB vanilla extract
- 2 ts nutmeg, ground
- 3 lbs lump crab meat
- Sauté onions, peppers and celery in butter until clear. Set aside to cool.
- Mis all the rest of the ingredients except he crab with the cooled vegetables until incorporated well.
- Gently fold in the crab, then form into 3 oz. cakes.
- Saute in 1 ts butter until cooked through and golden.