On the Water: Soft Shells are Back!
Author: Alice Ruxberry | Photographer: Andrew Branning
Get ready Hilton Head Island. Spring means soft shell crab season again. Hilton Head Island icon, Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks is taking matters into their own hands to provide locals and visitors with the freshest, softest crabs in the area. Every spring, when the water temperature rises to 59 degrees and stays that way over the course of a few weeks, our local blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) go through a molting process. The crabs shed their entire hard shell in order to grow larger, leaving behind a soft body. Soft shell crabs are popular because without the hard shell, you can enjoy the entire tender crab without the tedious job of picking the meat from the shell. For Hudson’s customers, it means instant culinary gratification, but for the crew at Hudson’s, well, it isn’t quite so simple.
This year, Hudson’s, with the help of Carolina crabber, comedian, and engineer Rob Rowe, has built a flow-through system at the restaurant. Shedding boxes have been built in the packinghouse with a water recirculating system to facilitate and manage the molting process.
“We are always finding ways to serve the best and freshest seafood available, and this seems like an exciting step in that direction,” said Andrew Carmines, general manager of Hudson’s. “We should be able to shed out about 6,000 crabs in a 45-day period.” Most of Hudson’s soft shell crabs will be served in the restaurant, but some small amount may be available for retail and wholesale purchase.
To begin the process, Rowe baits pots with male crabs that release a pheromone to attract virgin female crabs ready to molt. He uses traditional pots with bait, as well, to attract the male crabs. Once the baiting pots are full of crabs, Rowe will look at their back fins and abdomen for telltale markings of molting crabs. The peelers are collected and transferred to Hudson’s where they will continue their molting process in a series of floats. Rowe designed 10 of these floats, with the ability to hold 200 crabs each, with pool pumps to pump in salt water from Skull Creek.
The molting process is the most difficult and stressful time in a crab’s life. When the crabs’ shells begin to crack, Rowe will section off the tank in two parts, separating the crabs with cracked shells. Since the crabs are so vulnerable, it is essential that Rowe gives them the highest level of care to ensure a successful shedding process.
“I’ve been doing this for over 15 years, and it is always exciting to see the final stage when they back out of their shells,” Rowe said. “Right when the female backs out, she pushes her shell away as if wanting nothing more to do with it.”
Once the crab backs out of the shell, a new shell immediately begins to harden. Rowe will be tending to the crabs all night for 45 days, as the crabs tend to back out of the shell in the evening.
Chef Patrick Ward of Hudson’s is enthusiastic about working with the soft shells and is determined not to overpower the crabs in his dishes. “We are going to create crisp, locally driven dishes to enhance the flavor of these unbelievably fresh crabs,” Ward said. “With a variety of products straight from the farm, we will be constantly creating new land and sea collaborations.”
Some of the dishes Ward will be serving include pan sautéed soft shell crab with summer sweet corn succotash and heirloom tomato jam; a lightly fried soft shell crab sandwich with chilled ice box cucumbers; and Panko breaded soft shell crab with chorizo stuffed squash blossoms and pickled ramps.
Come in and enjoy!