California’s Dungeness crab season off to a promising start

Dungeness crab season kicked off Nov. 15, and there’s plenty of good news for those who crave this tasty crustacean.

The commercial season started on time, the crabs are looking pleasantly plump, and prices remain stable. So if you were planning to boil some crabs plucked fresh from the San Francisco Bay – or looking to add some cracked legs and claws to a pot of cioppino – keep a bib, fork and some drawn butter on standby.

Last year, Central California’s Dungeness crab season, which starts annually in November and winds down in March, endured some rocky moments by comparison. Crab fishermen underwent an 11-day mid-season strike after haggling with wholesalers over prices, and bad weather in Northern California led to temporary shortages in an industry that generates an average $24 million annually in dock sales.

California’s home to many species of crab, including yellow rock crab and slender crab. But the Dungeness crab reigns as king due to its heartiness – about 25 percent of its weight is meat – and abundance near the California coast.

This year’s opening weekend wasn’t all smooth sailing. High winds prevented many fishing boats from setting the pots that capture crabs. The tide has since turned for the better, and most local seafood retailers are flush with crabs. That includes midtown’s Sunh Fish market, a leading seafood supplier for Sacramento restaurants and a favorite spot for home cooks.

“So far it’s a great season mainly because it started on time and the pricing is fair,” said Nguyen Pham, owner of Sunh Fish. “Judging from the first shipment we received, a lot of the crabs are good sized. More importantly, they’re available. Even with the rough weather we were able to get what we wanted for a fair price.”

Expect fresh Dungeness crab prices to start around $4.99 per pound, which about matches the best prices seen in 2012.

The 2013-14 Dungeness crab season also includes recently installed regulations that seek to level the playing field for commercial fishers. A new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown set trap limits between 175 and 500 pots, depending on a fisherman’s catches from previous years. Advocates for SB 369, as the bill was known, said the limits would prevent large out-of-state boats with thousands of traps from decimating the crab population early in the season.

Now that some of the fishing politics have been settled, let’s talk about how to pick a fresh crab from the tank. A spunky crab will always be a better choice than one that’s playing wallflower.

Either way, go the fresh route over pre-cooked crab when possible.

“If it’s swimming in the tank, you know it’s fresh,” Pham said. “When you buy a cooked crab you don’t know how long ago it was cooked. It could’ve been sitting there for a week, or even come from last season.”

Most home cooks want a plump, meaty crab that weighs 2 pounds or more. If possible, some like to pinch the crab legs first to determine the quality.

“The old-school belief was that if the leg feels squishy, it’s watery and not full of meat,” Pham said.

Dealing with a live crab can be a little tricky once it’s home in the kitchen. But here’s something you can do to prevent the situation from turning into a battle royal of Cook vs. Crab.

“You want to throw the bag (with the crab) in the freezer for 15 minutes,” Pham said. “That makes them tense up so they don’t move as fast.”

Cooking a whole crab doesn’t take much more than about 12 minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, plus cracking and cleaning the guts. Be mindful of over-salting the boiling water, since the crab essentially comes pre-salted from its time in the sea.

Once cooked and cleaned, it’s time to eat. The sweet and rich crab meat certainly can be turned into the centerpiece of a pasta dish, salad, or a key ingredient for mac ‘n’ cheese. But Dungeness crab is perhaps enjoyed straight out of the shell, dipped in a bit of drawn butter and accompanied by fresh sourdough bread.

That’s close to the Dungeness crab preparation that was recently added to the menu at Tuli Bistro. Peppers and other aromatics are also added to the cooking process, and the cracked crab pieces also get re-heated in a wood-burning oven for a smoky touch. Otherwise, the crab meat remains fairly un-doctored.

“It’s one of the local products that’s so good on its own that you don’t have to mess with it,” said Adam Pechal, chef and co-owner of Tuli Bistro. “That’s the way I like it: Crack and eat.”

Crab meat also lends itself to a glass of white wine. Chardonnay’s the traditional go-to choice in California, but look for a wine style that doesn’t go overboard. A highly stylized domestic chardonnay that’s laden with significant amounts of oak and buttery overtones can be more of a mouthful than intended with rich crab.

Opt for a chardonnay with prominent acidity, or even consider dry riesling or a bit of albarino.

Then get those crab claw crackers ready and dig into this signature seafood of the season.

“California Dungeness crab, it’s so sweet and good when you get it,” Pechal said. “It’s great Northern California dining.”


Whether you’re looking to boil a fresh crab whole, or use the parts for a sumptuous cioppino, Dungeness crab is plentiful this season. Here are a few favorite local spots to score some tasty crab:

Sunh Fish

1900 V St., Sacramento; (916) 442-8237

This family-run fish shop serves many of the area’s finest restaurants, and its mighty-sized fish counter is available for the general public, too. The holiday season, especially around New Year’s Eve, marks its busiest time of year for its top-notch selection of fresh, live crab and other seafood.

Vinh Phat Market

6105 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 424-8613

South Sacramento, with its high concentration of Asian markets, remains a go-to area for folks who seek fresh fish at reasonable prices. You’ll find live crabs teeming in tanks, along with plenty of other fish that’ll make for a tasty pot of cioppino. Other south Sacramento markets to consider for your crab needs are SF Market (6930 65th St. #123, Sacramento; 916-392-3888) and 99 Ranch Market (4220 Florin Road, Sacramento; 916-429-8899).

Davis Farmers Market

4th and C streets, Davis

Along with surveying its bounty of local produce, you can swing by the Davis Farmers Market on Saturdays to score fresh crab. Mission Fresh Fish of San Leandro is the market’s featured seafood vendor.

Ricotta-crab bites

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Makes 30 bites

Recipe from The Associated Press.


Two 1.9-ounce packages frozen mini filo dough cups (15 cups per package)

½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese

2 eggs

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

½ cup crab meat, finely chopped

Grated Parmesan cheese


Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the filo cups on a rimmed baking sheet.

In a blender, combine the ricotta, eggs, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Blend until very smooth. Stir the crab meat into the egg mixture.

Carefully spoon a bit of the mixture into each filo cup, filling each about three-quarters full.

Sprinkle a bit of Parmesan over each cup, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the filling is set and starting to brown.

The quiche bites can be served hot, room temperature or chilled.

Per serving: 30 calories (33 of calories from fat); 1 g fat (0 sat.); 15 mg cholesterol; 65 mg sodium; 0 fiber; 2 g carbohydrates, 2g protein

Crab and hearts of palm gratin

Start to finish: 45 minutes

Serves 2

Recipe from The Associated Press.


One 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained

One 14-ounce can hearts of palm, drained

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

Zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup grated Fontina cheese

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

12 ounces lump crab meat

1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs

1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon butter, melted


Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place 2 shallow individual-sized casserole or gratin dishes on a baking sheet.

Chop the artichoke hearts and hearts of palm into 1/2-inch pieces. In a medium bowl, gently stir together the artichokes and hearts of palm with the thyme, lemon zest, cream, Fontina, white pepper and crab. Spoon the mixture into the gratin dishes.

In a small bowl, stir together the breadcrumbs, paprika, salt and melted butter. Sprinkle over the gratins. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until bubbling and golden.