How to Cook Crab Legs
Crabs are a very popular seafood choice in the U.S., with different varieties scattered all over the country.1 While there are many ways you can prepare and eat crabs, consuming crab legs is popular as an appetizer or main course.2 If you want to learn how to cook king, snow or other types of crab legs without fail, check out this guide.
What Are the Most Popular Ways to Cook Crab Legs?
Some of the most popular methods of cooking fresh crab legs include boiling, steaming, baking or grilling. Prior to attempting any of these, however, make sure the crab legs are extensively washed under cold running water and cleaned with a bristle brush to discard dirt, seaweed or sand. You may consider snapping crab legs at the joints, especially if they won’t fit in your pots or pans. Leaf.tv suggests bending the legs in the opposite direction the joint normally bends. Once your crab legs are ready, you can cook and/or prepare them:3
How to Cook Crab Legs on the Stove by Boiling
- Prepare a large pot. Fill around two-thirds of it with high-quality filtered water, and add 1/8 cup of Himalayan or sea salt.
- Heat the water until it’s boiling vigorously, and add the crab legs.
- Let the legs boil for six to eight minutes (for small legs like snow crabs), or for around 12 to 14 minutes (for larger legs).
- Using tongs, gloves or oven mitts, remove crab legs from the pot once done boiling.
How to Cook Crab Legs on the Stove by Steaming
- Prepare the steamer. Make sure to add enough high-quality filtered water to the bottom of the pot.
- Heat the steamer until the water is boiling vigorously. Add crab legs to the steamer and cover as soon as you can.
- Steam crab legs for 12 to 14 minutes (for smaller legs), or for 20 to 24 minutes (for larger legs).
- Using tongs, gloves or oven mitts, remove crab legs from the steamer.
How to Cook Crab Legs in the Oven
- Get a baking pan and add a half-inch of water in it. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Place crab legs onto the baking pan and cover with foil. For small crab legs, bake for 20 to 24 minutes. Meanwhile, large legs should be baked for 30 to 36 minutes.
- To see if the legs have finished baking, cut one of the larger legs open at its thickest points using heavy shears. Once the meat is hot, firm and not translucent, and bordering on opaque (check for a bright red color over the crabmeat), the legs are cooked and can be removed from the oven.
How to Cook Crab Legs on the Grill
As unconventional as it sounds, grilling, either by using a charcoal or gas grill, can be a quick and easy way to cook crab legs. Grilling is said to provide better temperature control, although using the charcoal method can deliver a smoky flavor to the crab legs. Here are instructions on how to cook crab legs on the grill:
An Easy Way to Grill Crab Legs
- Preheat a gas grill to 350 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit on direct heat. While the grill heats up, take frozen crab legs out of the freezer and rinse them in cold water or let them rest on the counter so they can thaw. The good thing is you won’t need the crab legs to be thawed completely before grilling, since they warm fast and are often precooked. If you have fresh crab legs, just ensure they’re on standby.
- Cut the legs lengthwise so you can season the crabmeat and allow it to become easier to remove.
- Once ready, place crab legs directly on the hot grill, meat side up (if you cut the shells). You can rub coconut oil on the crab legs beforehand so they won’t stick to the grill.
- While the crab legs are cooking, you can season them with herbs and spices or baste a marinade on them. Make sure to leave the grill’s lid open, and cook the crab legs for four to five minutes per side.
Firm and white crabmeat with a sweet-smelling aroma are indicators that the crab legs are cooked. Avoid overcooking crab legs, since you’ll end up with rubbery and less delicious crabmeat.4
How Long Does It Take to Cook Crab Legs?
The cooking time for crab legs depends on the cooking method and the size of legs that you have. Typically, crab legs, both small and large ones, have a quick cooking time. Fresh and raw crab legs are prepared similarly as precooked and frozen crab legs. However, fresh or raw legs take longer to cook compared to the precooked.5 You can refer to the instructions mentioned in the previous section to know the ideal cooking time for crab legs.
How to Reheat Cooked Crab Legs Properly
If you’re planning to reheat frozen but cooked crab legs, thaw them first so the crabmeat warms evenly. You can do this either by letting them sit in the refrigerator overnight or running them under cold water. Afterward, reheat via the following methods:6,7
The Proper Way to Reheat Crab Legs
- Fill a large pot halfway with cold water, and add 2 tablespoons of Himalayan or sea salt and/or other seasonings. Place the pot over a high flame until water begins to boil.
- Take crab legs and add to the boiling water. Lower the heat to a medium setting, and cook for around six minutes.
- Remove crab legs from the water and allow them to drain for two minutes.
Please remember, however, that boiling king crab legs isn’t ideal because the direct exposure to boiling water can make the crabmeat soggy and reduce its flavors. Hence, you can try either steaming or baking.
- Add 2 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of Himalayan salt into the steamer pot. Place it over a high flame and let it boil.
- Place crab legs inside the colander and place it over the boiling water. Take a lid and cover the colander to trap the steam.
- Cook crab legs for around six minutes, or until you can smell that they’re cooked.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Arrange the crab legs in a shallow baking pan. They should be evenly spread, and not stacked or overlapped.
- Add 1/8 inch of hot water onto the pan and cover.
- Place baking pan inside the oven and cook for seven to 10 minutes. Afterward, remove the crab legs from the oven and allow to cool.
Tips for Cooking and Preparing Crab Legs
Crab legs sold today are usually available precooked and frozen. Stone crab and king crab legs, in particular, are often precooked, so you just have to thaw and reheat them at home.8
When buying crab legs, ensure that they have a reliable third party label that indicates the crab legs’ quality, such as that of the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC). The logo shows the council’s initials, as well as a blue, fish-shaped check mark. If you can, buy live crabs from a reliable seafood monger and pick the legs apart yourself. Berkeley Wellness suggests buying live crabs with the following qualities:9
- Brine-like smell
- Bright and clean appearance
- Hard and moist shells (except for soft shell crabs)
- Weight that feels heavy for their size
- They are active and move their legs when touched
Sometimes, fishmongers may sell pre-split crab legs that allow the customer to harvest the meat from the leg easier.10
Delicious Crab Legs Recipes You Can Try
What’s wonderful about cooking crabs is that there’s a variety of recipes available that will allow you to enjoy the delicate, sweet flavor of this seafood. If you want something quick and easy, this steamed king crab legs recipe from For the Love of Cooking is a great option:11
Steamed King Crab Legs With Garlic Butter and Lemon Recipe
- Melt the butter and minced garlic together in a small pan and keep warm on its lowest setting.
- Set a steamer tray inside a large pot and pour enough water inside to steam the crab. You are only reheating the crab, so you will only need a couple inches of water.
- Add a few cloves of garlic to the water, if desired.
- Bring water to a boil before laying the crab legs on the steamer. Cover the pot and steam for five minutes.
- Remove the crab legs and serve with melted garlic butter and lemon wedges.
Baked crab legs, on the other hand, are great for special occasions. This next dish from Recipe Tips is similar to the first recipe, and is a good alternative if you have more time to spare:12
Garlic Butter Baked Crab Legs Recipe
- Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a small saucepan, on medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the garlic and cook for one to two minutes.
- Squeeze or add the lemon juice. Turn the heat to low and let those flavors mesh until the oven is nice and hot. Season with salt and parsley. Then whisk in the coconut oil. Remove from heat.
- Arrange your crab legs in a 9- by 13-inch baking dish, brushing each leg with the sauce. Pour any remaining sauce over the top.
- Bake your crabs for about 25 minutes, brushing the sauce from the bottom of the pan onto the legs every five to seven minutes.
- Remove crab legs from oven. Sprinkle with a few pinches of parsley for garnish.
Although sautéing crab legs isn’t common, this recipe from “The Everything Guide To Nootropics: Boost Your Brain Function with Smart Drugs and Memory Supplements” packs a lot of delicious flavors:13
Sautéed King Crab Legs Recipe
- Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat.
- Add garlic, ginger and lemongrass; cook and stir until brown, about five minutes.
- Add crab legs and pepper. Cover and cook, tossing occasionally for 15 minutes.
You can serve crab legs split or unsplit. Splitting the crab legs is a hands-on activity (pun intended): Crack the leg away from the joints using your fingers, tug the shell apart and remove the meat either with your hands or a small fork.14 Meanwhile, when eating and/or serving unsplit crab legs, use a pair of shears to split the leg apart, and keep a small fork close by so crabmeat can be extracted from the leg easier.15
Final Reminders Before Eating Crab Legs
Crab legs are delicious and satisfying, but there are some things you need to remember when adding them to your diet. For starters, crab can contain high amounts of sodium, which may be harmful to your health, particularly if your potassium levels are not optimized.
Often utilized as an electrolyte, potassium assists in soothing the body’s arterial walls, inhibiting muscle cramps and decreasing blood pressure levels, to name a few of its benefits. Arguably, maintaining a healthy sodium-to-potassium ratio may be more effective in promoting better health and preventing health problems compared to limiting or reducing overall sodium intake, which is what conventional health guidelines recommend.
I must also stress the importance of knowing where your seafood comes from. Case in point: In 2015, the state of California temporarily halted the fishing of Dungeness and rock crabs, because high amounts of a neurotoxin called domoic acid were found in the seafood. Excess consumption of contaminated crabs may lead to amnesic shellfish poisoning, characterized by the death of neurons in an area of the brain needed for proper memory function.16,17 To prevent you and your loved ones from being harmed, Sea Grant California suggests:18
- Buying crab from trustworthy sources
- Watching out for public health advisories and fishery closures before eating crab that may be obtained recreationally
- Washing the crab thoroughly and discarding its internal organs (viscera, crab butter and guts) before cooking
- Throwing away the cooking liquid after boiling crab, instead of using it for sauces or marinades
Once you take these reminders into consideration, it’s time for you to make some flavorful crab legs for any occasion. Of course, do not forget that you can put your own spin to this well-loved seafood classic using your favorite herbs and/or seasonings too.
- 1 Bon Appétit, June 13, 2015
- 2,3,5 Leaf, “How to Cook Raw Crab Legs”
- 4 Livestrong, October 3, 2017
- 6 eHow, “How to Reheat Crab Legs”
- 7 Cooking by US, “The Best Ways on How to Reheat Crab Legs”
- 8,10 Bon Appétit, June 13, 2015
- 9 Berkeley Wellness, February 18, 2016
- 11 For the Love of Cooking, February 14, 2017
- 12 Recipe Tips, “Garlic Butter Baked Crab Legs Recipe”
- 13 “The Everything Guide To Nootropics: Boost Your Brain Function with Smart Drugs and Memory Supplements,” 2016
- 14 Leaf, “How to Eat Crab Legs Without a Cracker”
- 15 Better Homes & Gardens, “How to Boil Crab Legs”
- 16 Scientific American, “How a Neurotoxin in Crabs Causes Brain Damage”
- 17 CNN, November 5, 2015
- 18 Sea Grant California, “Frequently Asked Questions: Domoic Acid in California Crabs”