I love crab so much. And in cake form—sweet, warm, buttery, and tender with the aroma of the ocean and just a touch of tartar sauce, it’s even better. There are two distinct styles of crab cakes. The most common are deep-fried discs of crab dressing. The other is lump blue crab meat, broiled, baked, or pan-sautéed into a browned cake of irresistibility. Crab Cakes can also be called “stew crabs,” “fry crabs,” “dress crab,” “crab patties” or “crab croquettes.” So what makes for the best plump crab cakes? Crab cakes that have big lumps of fresh crab and very little filler.
The sad truth is that most crab cakes stink. The vast majority out there are made with canned, pasteurized crab meat which instantly takes them out of “sweet and mouthwatering” territory and into “fishy and please get that smell away from me.” Then there’s crab cakes that are more cake than crab, packed with bland fillers, and so heavily coated in bread crumbs that they may as well be called crab scented croquettes.
Without good crab to start with, you can’t make good crab cakes. Finding picked blue crab meat is usually easy but most of the time it is fishy smelling, wet, and already overcooked. You want to look for fresh-picked lump or jumbo lump crab meat. Crab season in the East runs from spring through late fall. The price of lump blue crab meat can be high so a good alternative is crab claw meat. The less expensive but still flavorful meat acts, along with spicy homemade mayonnaise, as a kind of binder for the lump meat.
Fresh-picked crab meat does not bind with itself and working with binders is not easy. You can press it together all you want and all you will succeed in doing is turn it into mush that still won’t hold together. What you need is something that makes it stick together. The classic choice is an egg which adds moisture and panko breadcrumbs or crushed up crackers. Reduced heavy cream with panko crumbs is also a great choice.
Most crab cakes are a meal unto itself, served over roasted potatoes, onions, or a bed of arugula. Want to make it into a sandwich? Use lettuce instead of a bun, and serve with a squeeze of lemon. We spent the last two weeks trying crab cakes from Tennessee down to the gulf coast of Florida. Here are some of our favorites: