You’ll find very few recipes, be it online or in cookbooks, for a New England crab stew. Same for crab soups. Other types of New England shellfish like clams, lobsters, and mussels are much more popular in seafood soups and stews than local crabs. So when I decided I wanted to make a New England crab stew recipe, I went looking for inspiration in other more crab-centric regions.
And I found what I was looking for in Maryland.
Maryland and the whole Chesapeake Bay region are famous for their blue crabs and there are dozens of crab-based recipes. But when it comes to soups and stews, there are mostly two different styles – a creamy version, almost like a chowder, enhanced with sherry and Old Bay seasoning, and a brothy tomato-based version with lots of vegetables.
Today’s crab stew recipe is inspired by the former. I put a New England twist on it by using local New England crabs and making a few other minor changes. There are two basic steps to make it. But it’s the first step that’s the most important.
A byproduct of making crab stock is that you’ll also get the crab meat that you’ll use in the crab stew. This will save you some moola because canned crabmeat is pretty dang expensive.
Most crabs in seafood markets (including the seafood counter at your supermarket) come as pre-cooked frozen crab legs. In that case, all you need to do is thaw the crab legs, crack the shells, and pick out the meat. The shells and carcasses are then used to make the stock.
But if you have access to fresh whole crabs, you’ll have to cook or steam them first and then pick out the meat.
Now I’m not going to lie. Whether using frozen pre-cooked crab or fresh whole crabs, this is a time-consuming step. Picking out the crab meat from crab shells is tedious, to put it mildly. Make it a group effort, if possible. You’ll probably want to do it a day in advance of making the crab stew. But it is SO WORTH IT.
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There are NO bottled crab stocks sold in stores and even if there were, they would pale in comparison to homemade crab stock. The same goes for any type of bottled or boxed seafood stock. And you might be asking about clam juice. It’s not a bad substitute for crab stock but it’s a little too strong.
Homemade crab stock really is the key to this recipe. It adds a depth of flavor that elevates it beyond the legions of seafood soup recipes that don’t use stock as a base. That background fresh sea essence flavor makes such a difference.
And the crabmeat will taste better too! Most canned crabmeat comes from Asia, especially Indonesia. Seriously, just look at the label. It not only lacks flavor but do we really need to be importing crab meat from Asia when we have delicious and abundant crabs right here in America?
That would be the Jonah crab!
Jonah crabs are abundant all along the New England coast. Though not historically a region known for its local crabs, that is starting to change, due to many factors.
The Jonah crab is a medium-sized crab with meaty claws and delicious, tender, sweet meat. Because it’s not in high demand, it’s quite affordable compared to other types of crabs such as blue crab, Dungeness, snow crab, etc. But it’s slowly starting to gain recognition and slowly showing up in local markets.
I purchased four pounds of New England Jonah crabs for this crab stew recipe which yielded a good amount of meat. The picked-over shells are pictured on the right and the crabmeat on the left.
I got about a pound and a half of crab meat. That’s pretty good! It took me about an hour to pick out all the meat from the claws. Yeah, I know, it was tedious for sure.
And then I made the crab stock. Here’s how to make it:
Once you have your crab stock and crab meat, the crab stew comes together very quickly.
That’s everything you’ll need in the picture above. Ignore the potato starch. I decided not to use it (see the reason below). So we’ve got the crabmeat and stock, a small onion, and half and half. Heavy cream is OK too. And then the rest is seasonings – lemon juice, seafood seasoning (similar to Old Bay), dry sherry, and parsley. See the printable crab stew recipe below for how to make it. It’s VERY easy. And UNBELIEVABLY DELICIOUS. But there’s one last thing to know…
I mean no disrespect to those in the Chesapeake region but I was kind of surprised to find how many online recipes did NOT use crab stock and also thickened it with a roux or cornstarch. I’ve had enough overly pasty, flat-tasting New England chowder to know that this is not a good idea.
But of course, I was curious. So I took just a little potato starch (which is similar to corn starch) and thickened a small amount of the crab stew. My instincts were correct – it totally obscured the flavor of the crab stock.
Bottom line: don’t use any type of thickener. Yes, it will have a slightly thinner texture than a thick, chunky style stew but all the flavors will meld together so much better – the crab stock, the cream, the sherry, and the other seasonings as well. Every spoonful will leave you craving more. It sure did for me. I can’t even begin to explain how much I loved this recipe. Maybe one day it will catch on in New England and become a thing!
As mentioned prior, 90% of this recipe is getting the crab meat and making the stock. Once that’s done it all comes together very quickly in five easy steps.
In a medium-sized stockpot melt a few tablespoons of butter over medium heat and add a diced onion. Saute for 5 minutes or until the onion becomes softened and fragrant.
Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.
Stir it in and simmer for just a minute or two.
Add 1 cup of heavy cream (or half and half) and the rest of the ingredients. Simmer gently for a few minutes, stir well, and taste. If you desire a richer flavor, add more heavy cream, up to another full cup.
Ladle into individual bowls and add optional seasonings, to taste, such as chopped fresh parsley, salt and freshly ground black pepper, lemon juice, seafood seasoning, and a little dollop of sherry.
This super flavorful crab stew is made with local New England crab meat, crab stock, dry sherry and some simple seasonings.
Add crab stock. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.
Add the crabmeat. Stir it in and simmer for just a minute or two.
Add 1 cup heavy cream (or half and half) and the rest of the ingredients. Simmer gently for a few minutes, stir well and taste. If you desire a creamier flavor, add more cream, up to another full cup (for 2 cups total).
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.