Carolina Crab Cakes

My parents and I used to go camping down at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (and other locations on the coast) when I was growing up.  A couple times a week we would go out to eat.  One time we went to this restaurant that sat on the edge of the Sound.  It was inland a bit, and I can even see the bog-like hillocks surrounded by water in my mind.  There were old rotting piers in sight, small ones that could hardly keep several people on one when they were new.

Other than that, my only memory of the place is the crab cakes and the rather amused chef who came out to see this child asking how he made his crab cakes.  Things I remember include that he had grown up on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and that you should never – never – use Old Bay Seasoning on crab.  He suggested that anyone who batter dipped a crabcake had to freeze whatever they were using as the middle first, and that was a crime as well as a sin.  He intimated that if you put anything in a crab cake but fresh crab, fresh produce, fresh herbs, or just enough binder to shape it that you were an offender against nature.  He railed against anyone who did anything but lightly roll their crab cake in bread or cracker crumbs.  It was a wonderful rant, and it stuck in my mind.

Anyway, what remains is a crab cake recipe that I’ve been making in my electric skillet ever since I went off to college.  One of the things my father did for me at that time that I will never forget was buy me a large electric skillet.  It was rectangular with ovoid corners, and had a high dark yellow opaque lid, so high you could put a whole turkey breast under it.  It is amazing what you can cook with an electric skillet.  I still love mine, though my skillet these days is 16″ diamater circle and somewhat fancier.

When I decided to post this recipe, I went and looked at a lot of “crab cake” recipes out there, just out of curiosity.  It is amazing how many recipe sites simply repost the recipe for crab cakes found on the side of an Old Bay container.

I should note that there are people think that you should mix the bread crumbs into the mix.  That way lies heresy, because you can be tempted to just add a bit more, and then a bit more, and eventually you have as much bread as crab.

There are people who think you MUST use crumbled saltines, and people who swear by panko.  For me, just plain or seasoned fine grained bread crumbs work just fine, though the crumbled saltines work pretty well if you really crumble them up fine.

Of course you don’t *have* to use backfin, you can use lump or jumbo lump.  Personally I like to eat my jumbo lump on a cracker with a couple of sauces on the side, along with some hot pepper jelly and cream cheese to alternate.

Please use good quality crab.  I’ve gotten imported jumbo lump crab that wasn’t fit to eat, and I’ve had great backfin with essentially no cartilage from local sources in North Carolina.  Ultimately it all depends on using good crab.

I remember steaming our own blue crabs down at a camping site.  We had a LOT of them.  My grandfather was there.  We started picking the crabs, but after 2 or 3, he got up and went over to the camping boxes, got out a can of beans, opened it and ate them cold with a spoon.   He then looked up at and announced, “You can’t pick crabs when you are hungry,” and went back to picking crabs.

Mea culpa:  It wasn’t until after we had eaten them that I thought about shooting pictures.  So no pictures of actual crabs or crab meat here.  Oops.  I did go back and shoot a picture of my skillet after cooking the crab cakes, and of my chives plant.

Chives plant

Recipe Ingredients:

1 lb blue crab backfin crab meat.

1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh parsley

1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped (I use scissors)  fresh chives, green onion, or something similar

1 finely chopped small sweet pepper.  Use something like an Italian sweet pepper, or a fresh pimiento.  A red bell pepper would be ok, but I try to avoid using the stronger flavored bell peppers for this.

1 egg, beaten well

1 small crushed garlic clove

Salt & pepper & cayenne to taste

1 tsp Lemon juice

1 tsp “wooster” (worcester) sauce

NO MORE THAN 1/4 cup mayonaise, including 1 tablespoon buttermilk OR 1 tsp sour cream, but still no more than 1/4 cup total.

Bread crumbs


Beat the egg in a mixing bowl, add the crab meat, parsley, chives, sweet pepper,

Mix gently, folding in the other stuff, but don’t beat your crab meat into a paste.  Using your fingers really seems to work the best for this.  You just want the stuff distributed evenly, then quit.

Add the mayonaise, garlic, salt, pepper, cayenne, lemon juice, and worcester sauce.  Again, fold this in, but just the minimum to get it distributed.

Cover and refrigerator for a couple hours.

To cook:

Pour some of your bread crumbs into a broad shallow bowl.

Heat up your skillet.  Add a thin layer of olive oil, canola oil, or your best cooking oil.  Personally I use a mix of about 3 tablespoons butter plus olive oil, just enough to coat the bottom of the skillet.

Grab a palmful, shape it into a flat sphereoid thing (not really a patty), drop it into the bread crumbs, flip it gently, transfer it to the pan.  These don’t hold together well at this stage and must be handled carefully.  I pretend I’m holding a live bird.

Brown in the skillet for 3-4 minutes, then flip.  At this point, press down with the spatula a bit to flatten the patty.  The bottom should be golden brown shading to darker brown when you flip them.  Brown on this side.

Serve with Bearnaise sauce, cocktail sauce, or tartar sauce.

Electric Skillet


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2 Responses to “Carolina Crab Cakes”

  1. Ashley Says:

    hey, nice blog…really like it and added to bookmarks. keep up with good work

  2. Keisha Walker Says:

    Great story. This sounds delicious!

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