Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: When it comes to making crab cakes, it's all about getting your hands in there. Our head of distribution and partnerships, Maddy Martin, rolls up her sleeves.
Crab cakes are a lot like meatballs: both come together with the help of an egg, breadcrumbs, and a few common minced vegetables and herbs; both are hand-patted and pan-fried; and both have a sidekick sauce -- marinara for meatballs, tartar for crab cakes.
The two dishes part ways when it comes to protein. Ground meat is as low-maintenance as it gets -- just dump it in the bowl and start piling on the other ingredients. Ever the diva, crab meat -- even the kind you buy in tubs at the store that's already been hand-picked -- requires another once-over.
It might seem as ridiculous as booking two massage appointments back to back, but meticulously picking over the crab meat is the single most important step in making crab cakes. Nothing ruins a meal like biting into a shell fragment. (Or worse, having a guest take that bite.) You end up cautiously gumming each remaining bite as if it's about to bite back. If you didn't pick thoroughly, it might continue the assault. In my opinion, given the cost of lump crab, it had better be docile.
Turn on some music, enlist a friend to help, meditate over it, whatever. Just don't get to mixing until your crab has been re-picked.
How to Make Any Crab Cakes in 5 Steps
1. Pick that crab. Designate one little bowl for shell fragments and another bigger bowl for catching the clean crab. Try to keep the lumps intact as best you can.
2. For every pound of crab meat, add in a small handful of minced shallot, another of chopped fresh parsley, a bigger handful of diced red pepper, and another of diced green pepper. You'll use about half of each pepper. If you must, you can sub one full pepper, but it won't taste quite the same (or be as festive!).
Also add an egg, 3 or 4 heaping spoonfuls of mayo, a heaping handful of dry breadcrumbs (or toasted fresh crumbs that have been pulsed till fine), and a squirt each of Dijon and Worcestershire. A few shakes of Tabasco, Crystal, or your favorite thin hot sauce are welcome now, too. Mix everything up gently to avoid breaking up the lumps of crab. If it's too wet, add more breadcrumbs. Too dry? More mayo.
3. Form those patties -- with a pound of lump crabmeat, I get 4 patties for entree-sized cakes or 8 patties for appetizers.
4. Thoroughly dredge each patty in all-purpose flour and fry patties in clarified butter for the best browning.
5. Flip only once. Drain on paper towels, and serve hot with tartar sauce.
Now, for that sidekick sauce. To make a killer tartar, mix together the following, to taste: mayo, relish (or minced pickles/gherkins), capers, dill (preferably fresh), fresh chives, Dijon, and fresh lemon juice. The order dictates the general proportion, with mayo being the main ingredient and fresh lemon juice coming in at just a dribble. The sauce can be made ahead of time so you're not frantically mixing while your cakes cool.
If you do forget, you can also make a super-quick tartar sauce with just mayo and relish.
Or, just sprinkle them with lemon juice. As we've learned, it's all about the crab, anyway.
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Photos by James Ransom