Editors' Picks

Brigit Binns' Crab Cakes

July  4, 2012

Every week -- often with your help -- FOOD52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Crab cakes -- hold the bread, please.

Shop the Story

The worst thing you can do to a crab cake is not to trust it to be itself. 

Somewhere along the line we started plumping up our crab cakes till they were the size of small hamburgers. This positioned them as a very grand, coveted appetizer, and they were bedazzled with chipotle aiolis and such.

Of course, a hamburger made entirely of crab would be terribly expensive, so at that size it probably seemed sensible to supplement with bread, torn or crumbed, to inflate the real thing like the silicone and collagen that prop up poor Real Housewives everywhere.


But aren't we over super-sizing by now? Better a small, concentrated bite of goodness than a heap larded with fluff. Just ask a proud New Englander like Merrill, and she will tell you about these: her all-time favorite crab cake, which she served often in her catering days.

Brigit Binns, the author of 25 cookbooks, didn't grow up eating crab cakes like Merrill did, yet she knew what she was looking for when she set out to develop this recipe for Williams-Sonoma Hors d'Oeuvre -- the first of 12 (or maybe 13) books she's written for Williams-Sonoma. 

"When I started my research, every recipe I could find had bread crumbs in the mix, usually a lot. Fresh, dry: always the damn bread crumbs. We are not talking meatloaf, here!" Binns wrote to me in an email. "I got very obsessive, and have a file called 'crab cake chronicles', documenting all my research and justifications."

In her quest, she came up with a delightful binder: cream reduced until it's sweet and thick with soft, finely-cut onions and celery. Its taste is reminiscent of a New England clam chowder.

This simple, rich base is cooled, then mixed with an egg, some Dijon mustard and chopped pimientos, and a pound of lump crabmeat. There's a little sweetness and a little zing, but mostly just crab. Binns makes her cakes golf ball-sized. Not hamburger-sized.


The only bread crumbs here are dusted on the outside of those little golf balls. The crumbs fuse to the filling as the cakes chill and set up for an hour or so. (On photo shoot day we were in a hurry, so they went in the freezer for about 20 minutes instead -- no harm done!) Either way, as soon as the cakes hit the hot oil in your frying pan, this thin crumb coating browns into a crisp jacket for the lovely crab.

This recipe is a perfect showcase for your finest, in-season crab (Merrill likes peekytoe). And sure, you can roast your own red bell peppers if you like. But we made these with some good quality canned crab and jarred pimientos, and they still turned out to be fresh little bites of summer -- great news for people far from crabs, or crab season.

At this point all you need is a spritz of lemon. Save the chipotle aioli for something more exotic and just let the crab do its thing.

Brigit Binns' Crab Cakes

Adapted slightly from Williams-Sonoma Hors d'Oeuvre (Free Press, 2001)

Makes 12-14 warm bites

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon water, if needed
1 cup (8 fl oz/250 ml) heavy (double) cream
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped jarred pimiento (sweet pepper)
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
1lb (500 g) lump crabmeat
1 1/4 cups (5 oz/155 g) fine dried bread crumbs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 lemon, cut into wedges

See a slideshow and the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Nicole Franzen 


Listen & Subscribe

From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

Listen & Subscribe

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • harleywoof
  • dymnyno
  • Gret
  • nancy essig
    nancy essig
  • Heidi Rabel
    Heidi Rabel
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


harleywoof July 23, 2013
Too many ingredients to mask the flavor of crab. Any Marylander can tell you the key to a great crab cake is simplicity. The crab should stand alone. Where's the Old Bay???
dymnyno June 19, 2013
Would evaporated milk work instead of reducing cream?
Kristen M. June 19, 2013
I think you could (but I really like the cream).
Gret June 19, 2013
Too bad so much cream is used, especially with the butter.
nancy E. February 13, 2013
Crab cakes are fantastic with Old Bay and moderate bread crumbs. I Do not go along with the thinking that every classic recipe has to be fixed to be worthy. Perhaps this recipe is good, but the old way is good too. A touch of bread for binder is not a bad thing.
Heidi R. July 11, 2012
The northern and central Pacific coastline is blessed with Dungeness crab that with the exceptions of color and claws is very different from other ocean crabs. Dungeness crab has a distinct and delicate flavor of the sea that makes it so very special. Flavorless binders such as egg white and breadcrumb hold Dungeness crab cakes together. A little lemon juice and salt will spark the natural flavor. While cream, pimentos and Dijon bind and enhance flavor of east coast crab, they only detract from the wonder of pure Dungeness flavor. Heidi Rabel, Fresh By Northwest
wineglasshalffull July 9, 2012
Another great binder for crabcakes is to puree either fresh raw shrimp or raw codfish with a bit of heavy cream. The shrimp or fish binder subtly deepens the flavor, allowing the crabbiness to really shine through. The Four Seasons Restaurant uses a codfish mousse binder. (About 1/2 lb cod to 2lbs of crabmeat for the ratio) It's fabulous, and super quick- only takes a few quick pulses in the processor.
Gret June 19, 2013
But this is no longer crab cakes - it's fish cakes.
niffer July 9, 2012
By the title of this recipe I thought no bread would be included. Do you have an option without bread for example using coconut flour or almond flour?
Kristen M. July 11, 2012
Sorry the headline was misleading -- "Easy on the bread" would have been better! Whatever gluten-free flour you might use to make things crispy should work well -- see below for a couple great suggestions, including cornmeal and ground rice crackers.
SKMOKC July 9, 2012
Hello, This is an exciting article. My husband loves crabcakes and we are constantly on the lookout for really good ones. We both subscribe to the idea of the breadcrumbs ruining the crabcakes! We live in a landlocked state and obtaining good crab is difficult and expensive. My question is what constitutes a good canned crab? I would have never tried canned crab without your recommendation. Thank you!
Kristen M. July 11, 2012
I've been trying to find out the brand we used in the test kitchen, to no avail (yet) -- it was canned lump crabmeat ordered from Fresh Direct, and it was great. If anyone else has brands that they like, please let us know! There's also some good advice in this Chowhound thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/489274
cookease July 8, 2012
These look great...however...I think even better....
Pick out large lumps of crab, set aside.
Put small pieces in cuisinart along with an egg, few tablespoons of Hellmans mayo or heavy cream instead if you prefer...a smidgen of Old Bay seasoning....blend til thick paste. Combine with large chunks of crab...form into a pattie, put in fridge to chill and firm up...fry...enjoy. NO FILLER AT ALL...now that is what I call a genius recipe!
Choirbell July 8, 2012
I'm going to enjoy making these as I'm a diabetic and try to limit my starchy carbs. Glad this uses so little!!! Thanks!
lbrussell July 8, 2012
I got all excited by the headline "Crab cakes--hold the bread, please" only to find that the cakes are coated in bread crumbs. Bummer. Thought maybe they'd be gluten free. Still sounds delicious, though!
clementscooks July 8, 2012
It seems as though the bread crumbs are just to aide in a crispy exterior. Perhaps you can try it with a lite dip into some cornmeal or maybe some gluten free bread crumbs...
katespreen July 8, 2012
Make your own gluten-free bread crumbs using ground up rice crackers for a mild flavor, or rice chips - I started using Lundberg sea salt rice chips for everything that calls for breading. They grind up nicely, have just the right amount of saltiness and have a creamy, buttery flavor that compliments any dish. They come in a variety of flavors, but my favorite is the sea salt.
Kristen M. July 11, 2012
Thanks for your helpful suggestions clementscooks & katespreen!
AntoniaJames July 6, 2012
Hallelujah! At last, a recipe for crab cakes that does not include Old Bay Seasoning. (I can't believe that people actually buy and use that stuff, which tastes of stale pepper and stale ground celery seed. Would you buy ground pepper to use in cooking? Bleeeh.) And of course, Binns totally gets it, in having the crab-to-everything else ratio balance heavily toward the crab. But I prefer crushed Saltines to bread crumbs, hands down, on any fish or seafood cake. Thanks for posting this great recipe!! ;o) P.S. I too am dying to experiment with the thickened cream as a binder. I've read some much older recipes lately that do that, so it's been on my mind.
Kristen M. July 11, 2012
Never thought about Old Bay that way -- good point! I'd love to hear more about these other thickened cream recipes.
Lilismom July 4, 2012
I will have to try this as I am obsessed with crab cakes and never put bread in mine! The addition of the thickened cream is intriguing.
Kristen M. July 5, 2012
I spend a lot of time thinking of other things I can bind with thickened cream now. Hope you like them!
dymnyno July 4, 2012
I love crab cakes made with our local Dungeness crab, but unfortunately Summer is not the season for crab. We don't get crab until about December. I look forward to trying this recipe which is similar to mine...no crumbs in the filling. I 'm curious about the flavors of mustard and peppers in the filling.
Kristen M. July 5, 2012
That's too bad, but good canned crab works very well here. Just think, in December you can brag to us East Coasters about all your local Dungeness! (That's what my parents, who live in Northern California, tend to do.)