Steaming and boiling face off in annual crab cook-off

It's steamed vs. boiled at an annual party that pits Maryland crustacean cookery against Mississippi's

  • Jay Shiba, left, and Nick Thomas, right, hold some of their crabs at the annual crab cooking challenge called "War By The Shore" at the home of Jay Shiba. Guests choose which is better: Maryland steamed crabs or Gulf Coast-style boiled crabs. Jay's crabs were steamed; Nick's were boiled.
Jay Shiba, left, and Nick Thomas, right, hold some of their crabs… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
July 18, 2011|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

Along most of America's coastline, crustaceans get boiled. Sometimes in plain old Yankee water. Sometimes in spicy Cajun stock. Whatever the liquid, there's a whole pot of it bubbling away. Whatever the seafood — Maine lobster, Carolina blue crab, Louisiana crawfish — it takes the plunge.

And that's just wrong.

Ask anyone in Maryland, where there's just one way to cook a crab. That way is steaming.

"I think we're pretty much the main steamers as far as I know," said John Shields, chef-owner of Gertrude's restaurant and author of several books on coastal cooking, including "The Chesapeake Bay Crab Cookbook." "Florida, the Carolinas, the Gulf, they all boil. … [New England], they're big on the boiling, too. We've evolved culinary, and some of them are just left in the Dark Ages."

Which hasn't stopped the occasional boil, baby, boil chauvinist from inflicting unenlightened crab cookery on the Boil-Free State.

Mississippian Nick Thomas did just that Saturday in Riva in Anne Arundel County, at an annual party that puts steamed and boiled crabs to a festive taste test. The gathering, known as "War by the Shore," grew out of some office chit-chat about cooking crabs.

Thomas, from Ocean Springs, Miss., told co-worker Jay Shiba he boils his.

"I said, 'You do what?'" Shiba, a Marylander and steamer, replied. "'Why would you boil a crab?'"

They decided to have a cook-off, where friends could compare crabs and vote for their favorite. Thomas and Shiba have kept the party and rivalry going for five years now. No matter that they no longer work together, nor live in the same state. (The party location alternates each year between Riva and Ocean Springs.) About 100 friends from around the country come every year to taste, vote — and settle nothing.

"When it's time to vote, nobody can remember what they ate, nor are they capable of voting," go the words to the party's theme song, penned by James Anton of Fairhope, Ala., who used to work with Thomas and Shiba and made the trip to Riva for this year's party.

As an electoral exercise, the party has been an unmitigated flop. Hanging chads. Dead voters. Relatives lurking near the ballot box. Jimmy Carter himself couldn't straighten it out. So they've quit counting ballots, which allows both sides to declare victory. And concentrate on eating. Which they did quite contentedly at paper-covered tables in Shiba's leafy backyard.

Crab-lovers seem to cling to their favorite cooking method like barnacles to a rock. This is true for professional crab cookers as well as civilian eaters.

Jack Brooks, a partner in J.M. Clayton Company Seafood, considered switching from steaming to boiling at the Cambridge crab processing plant started by his great-grandfather in 1890. Until he tasted the results.

"It left a lot of moisture in the crabs, which we found undesirable," he said. "You don't want dry meat, but you only want moist meat, not wet meat. Those folks from Mississippi and the Gulf, they certainly know their food as well. It's all about personal preference. Being a Marylander and eating crabs in Maryland, I know ours are better. I'm not biased at all."

Rob Cernak, co-owner of Obrycki's in Baltimore, is right there with Brooks in the pro-steam camp.

"I've had boiled crabs before, and I'm not a fan," Cernak said. "We tried them ourselves over somebody I knew's house and never wanted to do it again."

Cernak thinks boiled crabs are not only too wet, but too evenly seasoned, which might not sound like a problem, but Cernak will tell you it is. With a boiled crab, the seasoning goes into the water and flavors the meat through and through. With a steamed crab, the seasoning sticks to the shell, then to fingers and meat as it gets picked and eaten.

"You get a little bit of spiciness and then you get the sweetness of the crab behind it," he said. "The crab boil just kind of gives it, I don't know, let's say a homogenous kind of flavor."

On the other side of the steam-boil divide is David Fouché, chef de cuisine at Deanie's Seafood in New Orleans' French Quarter. The restaurant serves seafood "just about every way you can think of," Fouché said. "Fried, broiled, sauteed, blackened, pan seared, oven roasted. You name it."

Except steamed.

"When you steam an animal, it loses flavor," said Fouché, who boils his crabs in a brine with pepper, granulated garlic and celery, Worcestershire sauce and lemon. "It really turns out flat, boring. That really doesn't have any appeal to me."

He also thinks steaming makes the meat dry and rubbery because the method is hotter.

"Water boils at 212," he said. "When you're steaming, it's way hotter. … It can get as hot as 600 degrees."

Pat Taranto, owner of Taranto's Boiler restaurant in Ocean Springs, Miss., is also sure boiling is the way to go.

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