Crab season is here! We don’t need a reason – we love eating crab all year long. Crab dipped in butter, spiced, breaded and cooked in crab cakes, stirred into creamy pasta, salads, and stews. Let’s face it; eating crab is one of life’s best pleasures.
But there is nothing worse than preparing a large quantity of crab for family or friends and then, when you go for the leftovers, find it has gone bad.
Like many water-proteins, cooked crab can go bad very quickly – especially if it isn’t stored correctly. But you can minimize your risk of at best disappointment and wasting money, or for woe, rancid crabmeat, and potential food poisoning.
With a bit of information and an ounce of preparation, you can learn how long cooked crab usually lasts – and the best ways to cook, store and reheat. From how to tell if crab is genuinely fresh and how to know if crab is bad, to how to best prepare, cook and store for maximum enjoyment, we’ve got the goods for you!
Read on for our complete guide of what to do and what to avoid – so you may keep enjoying your cooked crab as long as possible!
Your Quick Guide at a Glance
For a speedy rule of thumb, here is how long cooked crab meat will last using different methods of storage:
- Room temperature: 2 hours (or less if outside in hot weather)
- Refrigerated: 2-4 days in shell / 3-5 picked or lump crab meat
- Frozen: 3-5 months
However, there are many different variables which will affect the ¨shelf-life¨ and quality of cooked crab: the type of crab, how it is cooked and elected method of storage.
Want to know the details? Keep reading for additional information, tips, and tricks from those in the know!
Let’s start at the beginning. It may seem obvious, but the quality and life of your cooked crab will start where, how and when you buy it.
On Your Own
There is nothing better than going crabbing while in season. If you are catching crabs on your own, immediately place in a cooler and keep wet. Once you get home, fresh-caught crabs can be kept on ice until you ready to clean and cook and make sure they keep a supply of oxygen.
At the Market
For the rest of us, buying seafood – including crab – can be intimidating. You just need to know what to look for!
If you are living near the coast, it is easy to find fresh crab while in season. Head to the pier and snap up the freshest catch!
But unless you are buying canned or flash-frozen crab meat, you need to pay attention to its freshness at the point of sale. Only buy live crabs from a market or fishmonger you trust.
If you are buying a whole crab fresh in the shell, it is likely already fully cooked. Even at this state, fresh crab should smell like the sea and the shell will have a hint of red (even blue crabs).
If you are buying picked or lump crab meat, crab legs or cooked crab in a pre-prepared dish, such as a salad, pay close attention to the sell-by date. Whether packaged or in the shell, most stores will serve on a bed of ice to retain maximum freshness.
The bottom line? Only buy live crabs or meat that has been already cooked or processed. Never try to eat a crab that has died on its own. When deprived of oxygen it releases enzymes that will turn the meat to mush – literally – in little to no time.
Cooking Your Crab
If you are adventurous and have caught or bought live crabs, crabs, keep them cold, damp and moist until you are ready to cook. To keep the flow of oxygen moving, cover with a cloth or towel soaked in salt water. Don’t store crabs in water as they may not get enough oxygen, and keep monitoring to make sure no crabs die on their own. Live crabs can stay alive for a few days in this manner, but this is best left to the experts. Plus, why wait?
Before cooking, the best-advised method is to place the crab on its back with its legs upward, lift the pointed flap and pierce through the small hole in its shell with a knife or a screwdriver. Drain, clean and prepare for cooking.
Cooking Prepared Crab
The much easier method is to buy crab that has already been killed, cooked and processed. If you purchase prepared crab, it must be kept cold prior to reheating or cooking, best refrigerated or in a chest of ice. Whether you prepare by boiling, steaming, baking or grilling, the USDA advises that cooked crab should reach an internal temperature of at least 145°F. When cooked the shell will turn a bright red, and the skin will become opaque.
After cooking, you will need to store any leftovers within 2 hours at room temperature (for our best tips, keep reading!).
How Do You Know Crab Has Gone Bad?
Sure-fire ways to tell crab meat has gone bad:
- The flavor will taste ‘¨off¨¨, and it may sell sour
- The meat itself will start to discolor, perhaps turning grey, yellow or blue in color.
- The texture will look slimy or sticky, covered in a milky substance.
If you notice one or more of these qualities or have any doubts — stop and do not eat. These are all sure-fire indicators the crab has spoiled.
Serving it Up
If you are like us, your favorite way to enjoy freshly cook crab is dipped in butter. Steam, cook, bake or grill — crab is best prepared and served the day you bring it home.
If they are live, keep moist in a cooler before cooking. Other crab meat can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days before eating. If you need more time, freeze the crab immediately until you are ready (read on for our tips).
Many people buy pasteurized tinned crab, which will keep for up to 18 months from its canning date. Typically it will last for a week in the fridge after opening, properly stored.
But like all things, how long cooked crab will last depends on how you serve and store it.
Inventive ways to use cooked crab
Crab is perfect on its own, we agree. But if you have a lot of crab meat to consider, why not spice up your life and your get inventive with your menu planning? Before you store it, consider using your cooked crab in a different recipe — the best way to ensure quality and add a little variety to your leftovers. It is one of the only foods that is perfect on its own but also better with a bit of imagination.
Let’s start with two of our top go-to recipes, Crab Rolls and Crab Cakes. Always a classic! But when we think of all the recipes you can make with cooked crab, our mouths start to water. Ready for inspiration?
Depending on where you live, a classic Crab Roll is either mixed with mayonnaise or butter and perhaps a little spice. This is the surest way to let the fresh crab taste come through – just spoon onto a toasted roll and then serve. A perfect summer lunch!
Consider making homemade crab cakes with your leftover cooked crab. There are many recipes to try. Experiment with classic regional coastal recipes or spice up your leftovers by combining with new and exotic ingredients like chiles or lemongrass. No matter the recipe, you can make ahead of time for a series of satisfying meals. Wrapped tightly in plastic, fresh crab cakes can last or up to 72 hours before cooking; enclosed in Ziploc bags, they can be frozen for much longer. Just remove your desired portion and saute, fry or bake to order. And voila, dinner is served!
Other Cooked Crab Recipe Ideas
Need a few more ideas? Here are some great ways to use cooked crab to make every day seem a little more special:
Crab Dips, Toasts, and even Nachos
Need an excuse to throw a cocktail party? Instead of making a larger roll, stir into a creamy dip, or just serve cooked crab on mini toasts or bruschetta for an elegant hors d ‘oeuvres.
Or for a more casual get-together, why not try crab nachos or a quesadilla? Will transport you to a day on a sunny beach.
For an addictively indulgent twist on the crab roll, top with cheese and broil. You’ll be immediately hooked!
Want to impress your brunch guests? Add crab to your eggs benedict for a sumptuous special menu.
A favorite of the country club set, serve with a light dressing of mayonnaise and vinegar or mix with a lighter recipe. Our favorite? Combined with citrus fruits and fennel.
After eating, instead of throwing the shells away immediately, use them to make a tasty stock. Combine with any leftover crab meat to make a spicy broth, hearty chowder or a creamy bisque. Did I hear crab gumbo, ya’ll?
Crab Pasta and Rice Dishes
Stir cooked crab into your favorite pasta (we like it in our fettuccine alfredo), include in an elegant risotto or a bowl of spicy fried rice.
Best Storage Methods
After cooking, you will need to store any leftovers within 2 hours at room temperature. Bacteria grow quickly between 40 and 140 degrees in the typical kitchen, so after 2 hours you may risk accidental food poisoning. Obviously, if you are eating outside, hot and sunny weather will speed up this time frame.
If you have leftovers you would like to store and serve again; please read on for the best way to refrigerate or freeze your cooked crab.
Storing Cooked Crab in the Refrigerator
To best keep cooked crab fresh in the refrigerator, wrap tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, or store in an airtight container or Ziploc bag. If stored properly, cooked crab will last 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator.
A tip: Place in the back rear of your refrigerator, rather than at the front by the door. This will help maintain a more temperature-controlled atmosphere and help ensure cold, fresh leftovers.
Storing Cooked Crab in a Freezer
Cooked crab meat will last even longer if stored in the freezer. Simple wrap tightly with heavy-duty aluminum foil or freezer-wrap and then store in a freezer bag or covered airtight container. Try to wrap as tightly as possible and remove excess air to avoid freezer burn. Then thaw, reheat and serve!
While crab legs freeze well, many experts advise not to freeze lump crab meat unless it is vacuum sealed. The moisture will separate from the meat when thawed and leave it with a stringy texture.
For the best quality, use frozen whole crabs or lump meat within 2 to 3 months. Crab legs that have been properly stored will last for 4 to 6 months in a typical refrigerator freezer — up to 12 months in a deep freezer!
Reheating Refrigerated Crab
The best way to reheat whole crabs or crab legs that you have wrapped and stored in the refrigerator is by steaming.
Place a steamer basket in a large pot, add enough water to just reach the bottom of the basket, and boil. Once the water is boiling, place the crabs inside, season and cover. In only 5 minutes, they are ready to eat!
Reheating Frozen Crab
If you have frozen crab legs or lump crab meat, simply thaw and then boil to dip in butter or include in your favorite recipe. Cooked crab meat that you thaw in the fridge will last 3 to 5 days before cooking or eating; if you thaw using a microwave or hot water, it is best to serve and eat immediately (within 2 hours of cooking).