Explore Key West

Florida Stone-Crab Claws

Now, you Yankees can brag about your blue crabs, and you West Coasters may boast of Dungeness. But here in the Florida Keys we crow about crab claws like none other—those of the Florida stone crabs.

The stone crabs, large non-swimming crabs found in deep holes and under rocks in the waters surrounding the Keys, have the unusual ability to release their legs or pincers if caught or when experiencing extreme changes in temperature. The separation always occurs at one of the joints to protect the crab from further injury. What is unique about this situation is that the stone crab regenerates the severed appendage, a feat it can accomplish three or four times during its lifetime.

The stone crab’s two claws serve distinct purposes: The larger claw, or crusher, is used to hold food and fight predators. The smaller claw, known as the ripper, acts as a scissors for cutting food.

The crabs are harvested commercially in the Florida Keys with baited traps. One or both of the crab’s claws are removed (it greatly improves the crab’s chances of survival if only one claw is taken). The forearm must measure at least 23⁄4 inches to harvest it legally. The live stone crabs must then be returned to the water, where in 18 months a new claw will have grown to legal size. It is illegal in the state of Florida to harvest whole stone crabs. They are one of our precious resources.

A stone-crab claw has a hard, heavy, porcelain-like shell with a black-tipped pincer. Seafood markets sell stone-crab claws fully cooked. When cooked, the meat inside the shell is sweet and firm-textured. A mild sweet odor indicates freshness.

The shells must be cracked before serving. If you plan to eat your stone-crab claws within an hour of purchase, have the seafood market crack them for you. It is not recommended that you crack the claws until you are ready to eat them. If you crack the claws yourself, lightly tap the crockery-like shells with a hammer, a small wooden mallet (available at seafood markets), or the back of a tablespoon. The shells also will crack like a fine china teacup if you hit one claw against the other. Pick the meat from the shell using a small cocktail fork and serve with mustard sauce (cold claws) or clarified butter (resteamed claws).

Stone-crab claws are in season from October 15 until May 15. They do not freeze particularly well, but most seafood markets listed in this chapter will ship iced, fresh stone-crab claws anywhere in the United States.