If the east coast of the United States has claimed the Maryland blue crab, the west coast has the Dungeness: a leggy, heart-shaped crustacean with delicious meat. The Dungeness is so important to west coasters that gets its name from a Pacific coast town, Dungeness, Washington. This crab’s season starts in the late autumn, making the crustacean an excellent lean option for holiday meals, warm crab cakes, or for enjoying on its own. If you’re interested in purchasing Dungeness crab for your next special meal, the guide below explains all you need to know.
Habitat, Sourcing, and Features
Dungeness crabs have been caught and consumed along Pacific Northwest shores for hundreds of years; the Native American tribes throughout the crab’s range incorporated the Dungeness into their diet and harvested them every year. These crabs remain the most commercially important variety in the Pacific Northwest (and the western United States, generally), which means prices are highly subject to industry fluctuation and the size of the year’s catch. Interestingly, Dungeness crabs were recently been found in the Atlantic Ocean, raising concerns about their possible effects on wildlife.
Dungeness crabs can live for more than ten years but often reach harvest size at around four years old. Adult crabs can reach a width of around ten inches, though 7 inches is more common for commercially available options. Most crab are caught in depths between 30 and 300 feet, making them a relatively easy catch for most experienced fishermen. Dungeness crabs are a winter seasonal catch, which means you should only be able to find fresh meat and crabs from December through March.
Dungeness crabs have long, wide, hard shells and five pairs of legs. The legs are often short and thick, and the claws are small and narrow. This is an excellent alternative to the sought-after king crab, which is often much more expensive. The Dungeness has a sustainable seafood rating of ‘Good Alternative,’ so you can feel good about your purchase.
What Does Dungeness Crab Taste Like?
Dungeness crabs often have a moderately sweet flavor and a medium texture, making them an excellent option for eating either whole or in other dishes, such as crab cakes. Be aware that Dungeness meat has a higher natural oil content than other meats, which means it will spoil in the refrigerator faster than a dryer crab.
While prized for their delicate flavor, the Dungeness crab’s taste will depend on a variety of factors, such as the saltiness of the water where it was caught, how it was processed, and how it will be cooked. The claw and leg meat will have a more intense flavor than large body pieces, so ask your provider about sourcing dates and harvesting methods before you buy.
Best Cooking Methods for Dungeness Crab
The Dungeness crab’s natural sweetness makes it an excellent candidate for boiling and steaming. To steam a whole crab, bring water to a boil, place the crab in the steamer basket, cover, and steam for between 15 and 20 minutes. Remember to let the crab rest until cool enough to handle, then rinse the yellow liquid from the body as you pull the meat out of the shell. If you’re planning to boil your live or fresh purchase, 15 minutes is enough time for crabs weighing between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds.
If you are preparing frozen crab meat, do your best to avoid overcooking, as it will alter the naturally sweet flavor. The trick with frozen crab is to heat the meat just enough to be pleasant, so keep a close eye on the crustacean while cooking. In most cases, steaming or boiling frozen crab should take around 5 minutes or less. You can also find general tips for cooking crab.
Buying Dungeness Crab Online
If you want to buy Dungeness crab online, you’ll need to be aware of a few industry tricks and scams. Crab processed in early December will typically have a lower meat yield, as they have not likely filled out after molting. Crabs landed in January often have higher meat yields.
Remember that Dungeness season runs through the winter. If you find fresh Dungeness crab meat from March through November, be aware that this is often picked from frozen crab sections that were sourced during the previous season. While this is not the case for all providers, we recommend asking questions about sourcing and whether the meat needs to be cooked prior to consumption.
If you want to buy live Dungeness crabs, do your best to ensure they are active and responsive. Fresh crabs should be clean with most parts intact, have a bright orange-red shell, and have no fishy or unpleasant smell. Dungeness crabs are usually sold as fresh clusters, live, fresh meat, fresh sections, whole cooked, and frozen (parts, meat, and whole). At a 25% yield, Dungeness crabs have a lower meat content than other crustaceans of comparable size. Use this metric when buying for your next meal.
- Learn more about cooking the different types of crab on our main page for buying crab.