Most often, crab legs are boiled or steamed, but those methods will never compare smoking them. Some may argue the smoke can’t penetrate into the shell, that it’s a waste of time. Nothing farther from reality. Just try it. Once you try smoking crab legs… I promise you will never go back to boiling nor steaming.
Snow crab or king crab?
First of all, you may not even know who these two are so let’s talk a little about them. The most popular crab in the U.S. and the one you most probably have seen is the snow crab.
“Snow crab” actually refers to a genus (I don’t know what that means either) of crabs that comprises seven different species. They typically inhabit the northern, cold oceans, hence their name. Our Canadian friends may also know them as “queen crabs”.
The king crabs are also actually a taxon (yeah, me neither) but we mostly use “king crab” to refer to the red king crab or Alaskan king crab. This one is way rarer —and difficult to catch— than snow crabs and thus way more expensive.
Which one to choose?
The snow crab is smaller but has longer legs. Its shell is weaker and easier to crack, in contrast to the spiky and hard shell of the king crab, which will usually require tools to break it open.
When it comes to budget, the snow crab is the way to go. It can be hard to even find somewhere to buy king crab depending on where you live. But don’t let its lower price fool you, it will deliver an amazing flavor when smoked.
They taste quite different. The snow crab has a flakier, more fibrous meat with a lightly sweet and salty flavor. The king crab has a richer, sweet meat that is often compared to lobster because of its soft texture. It is not about “the best one”. They just taste different, your choice will depend on the situation and your personal preferences.
In both cases, go for about one and a half to two pounds per person if served alone. Lean towards a pound per person if they are served with a side dish. The cooking times are very similar, too, so you can use these guidelines for both.
Preparing the crab legs
You have already chosen and bought the crab legs you wanted. Now you have to know all crab legs in the U.S. are sold cooked and flash frozen. Most of the time they are even cooked immediately in the boat. The process of smoking will impart flavor on the meat and cook it slightly further, but it will take very little time as they’re precooked.
Now, we will prepare some delicious basting butter. Start by melting some butter, either microwaving it or on the stove. Go for about a pound for every 10 pounds of crab legs.
Once it has completely melted, you will see a thick, white, foamy layer has formed on the surface. These are the milk solids, which can slightly alter the flavor of the butter.
Grab a spoon and take it all out. Once you’ve finished, your butter should look yellow-transparent with no white at all. This is called clarified butter and it’s a bit better for basting meat and dipping, but it’s completely optional. You can leave the white there if you want.
Then, put your clarified butter in a bowl and start throwing in the spices. As always, this depends on the flavor you want in the end. Different dishes and different tastes will require different spices, so don’t be afraid. You can always throw a little in and taste until you find your perfect mix.
Here you have an example of a seasoning mix for crab legs:
- 1/4 cup salt
- 1/2 tablespoons mustard seeds
- 1/2 tablespoons peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon celery seeds
- 2 teaspoons whole allspice berries
- 2 teaspoons dill seeds
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 4 bay leaves
Throw it all in a spice blender or a food processor until they become powder and you’re done! Of course, you can use a store-bought mix if you want.
Once your melted butter and your spice mix are combined, pour it in a baking tray or similar. Now, take each crab leg and soak it in the butter. Flip it over to make sure it’s completely covered and set it aside. Once you’re done with all your crab legs, move on to the next step.
Choosing the right wood
Most seafood requires a lighter hardwood because of its soft flavor. Crab legs aren’t an exception. Hickory or mesquite should be reserved for tougher and heavier meats like beef and pork.
In the middle ground, we have mild-tasting woods like most fruitwoods (apple, cherry, peach). These are more versatile and go well with lighter meats like poultry, but can be used with almost anything.
For these crab legs, we want soft or mild woods, from alder (lighter) to oak (mild-strong). Between these two, you can use whatever you want, as I said before, most fruitwoods will offer a mild and sweet flavor.
Citrus woods are fine too, they taste similar to other fruitwoods. Other examples are apricot and mulberry.
Stay away from mesquite, hickory, and acacia. These are too strong and will overpower the flavor from the crab meat. Also, by no means use any softwood, they are not suitable for smoking anything. They are resinous and will ruin your food.
As we’ve learned, we are not cooking the crab but rather heating it, so it’ll take just about half an hour at 225-235F. Make sure the temperature is right before putting them in, as you can easily overcook them if it’s too hot. It could take some more or less time depending on the size of the legs.
While they’re cooking, baste them a few times with the remaining butter, once every 10 minutes. Just open the lid and use a basting brush to coat the crab legs in butter. Midway through, at about 15-20 minutes, you should turn them over.
You can check if they’re done by breaking a leg open. You can crack it with your hands or use a crab leg cracker. Hold one piece of the shell while taking the other off. It should separate from the meat effortlessly. Then take the meat out of the other piece of shell. It should also slide off easily.
Now, the best part of cooking:
Crab legs are tasty and can be served with just some dipping sauces (tartar sauce, brandy mayonnaise, diablo sauce, cocktail sauce…). Most people will dip them into the basting butter you just made, it’s really delicious. Some lemon can bring out its very unique flavor, too.
Talking about butter, you should try serving them with corn on the cob. They are just made for each other. Other side dishes include roasted or fried potatoes, coleslaw, salad, or, going crazier, mac n cheese, or the always wonderful surf and turf (serving it with steak).
Whatever you choose to enjoy your smoked crab legs with, I am sure you will never steam one of them once again.