Perfect Crab Cakes?

You love ‘em. I love ‘em. But that’s just the beginning.

I started this video entry without knowing what I was going to cook. That’s the truth.

I decided weeks ago that I would cook something from the LA Times Food Section with no pre-conceptions. I knew that I wanted to take a much-deserved swipe at the loss of credibility the paper has suffered.

So the guffaws, and the tiny newspaper were indeed pre-planned… the LA Times has shrunk, but it’s not really as small as all that (I was making a joke, I was well within my First Amendment Rights).

But that Wednesday I really did go through the paper and pick something to cook with out knowing what the choices might be. I really did plan to make the recipe as written and report the results.

When I saw crab cakes I knew I had a winner. I read the recipe and I knew it could be good. I have very strong opinions about crab cakes. I have made them before, both well and poorly. So I also knew I could bring something of my own to the table!

The fact that the recipe I picked actually had a major typo was just a bit of sheer luck. But in reality it did not affect the outcome at all. And though I did not pick the recipe for its editorial errors. I think it really added something to the whole… I mean someone up there must really love me.

But enough of the crap, let’s talk crab.

At their best crab cakes should be very crabby. The traditional cakes of the Chesapeake Bay area are often lump (blue) crab and very little else. But that sort of gem is a bit more rare (even within Maryland) as more and more crab cakes are being made with imported crab.

To most people crab cakes are essentially, a sort of “hash”.  Which is technically just a combination of finely chopped ingredients. But by simplifying the definition you open the door wide for all the problems that typically plague crab cakes.

Crab cakes have a finicky reputation. They are thought to be hard to make. While they can be challenging, they needn’t be impossible. Especially if you understand the traps going in.

The first trap is actually thinking of a crab cake as a combination of ingredients. Really, they should be crab supported by a few other things. Some of these things are binders; some of these things are complimentary flavors. Rule number one is both of these things should be used sparingly.

So this leads to the second problem– texture. It’s easy to add breadcrumbs and eggs. But too many ingredients may make a nice, wet, sticky mixture. It may mold easily and hold its form quite well. But once fried up, you get something close to a hockey puck. It may look beautiful, but its virtues end there. (Don’t put lipstick on it…it won’t help).

As with too many binders there are (perhaps bigger) problems with too many flavors. The only crab cakes that ever transported me tasted like nothing but crab. Have you ever had a blue crab hand roll at an excellent sushi place? If you have you know the level of crabby dominance to which I am referring.

So I hesitate when I see recipes that are called “Down on the Bayou Johnny Walker Sweet Sassafras Crab Cakes with Lady Marmalade”. I mean where is the crab in all this? Shouldn’t we respect the little bugger at least somewhat?

But the real finesse comes in the mixing of the thing. A good crab cake mixture is very difficult to work with. It wants to fall apart at every step. If you have a mixture like this then you know you are doing something right. If you can successfully get it formed and into the pan then you’ll get something quite tasty for your efforts.

There are a few tricks to getting the results you want with out resorting to using too many breadcrumbs, too many eggs, or too may flavors.

And (shockingly) time is your friend here. Get an early start. I don’t mean a week before dinner, or even a day before dinner. But an hour of resting the mix and as much as three hours can really help you. It might be chemistry or it might be physics, but something happens if you wait a bit.

Temperature is also your friend. While you are waiting on good ole Mr. Time, put the mixture in the fridge. A change will occur. The mixture will have a short-term “window” of mix-ability! You will be able to get the sparest of mixtures formed into cakes if you follow this mantra: “If You Rush It, You Will Mush It.  Be Bold Work Cold”. I made that up, oh yes I did!

There are two schools of thought about size. And size matters— whether big or small—there are attributes to savor. The “Boardwalk” version is often larger, breaded and contains all sorts of other ingredients. They are typically served on a hamburger bun and are sold at stands or carts, or casual eateries along the waterfronts of Maryland. To many an East Coaster, these are true comfort food.

The Traxx version I make here is smaller and more along the lines of what those in Maryland call “restaurant cakes”. As the name implies they are made by your finer dining establishments and are more “gourmet” in approach.

You can choose either size or either direction. I am not going to get involved in that battle.

But, I will end by saying the obvious. Don’t over mix or over work the mixture when forming your cakes, no matter what size. I mean you just paid a fortune for LUMP crabmeat. Don’t break that up. But you knew that. GREG


Greg Henry