Cracking the Shell: How to Prepare Seafood

Before you even look at the recipe, most shellfish need to be properly prepared. Learn tips and techniques to make seafood prep a breeze. 

Before you even look at the recipe, most shellfish need to be properly prepared. Learn tips and techniques to make seafood prep a breeze.

Cracking the Shell: How to Prepare Seafood

By Maxine Glass

We recipe publishers have the utmost faith in you at-home chefs. When we write a recipe for Lobster Fra Diavolo, we assume that the lobster has already been chosen at the market, brought home, stored at the proper temperature, impeccably cleaned and cooked to perfection. We realize this is a lot to ask and the idea of preparing seafood should not be such a daunting venture. The fact of the matter is that most shellfish needs some sort of special preparation or cleaning, and while it's not usually very difficult, it's important to know the specifics.

For easy navigating, click on a link below to jump to a specific seafood.

Mussels

Oysters

Crabs

Scallops

Lobster

Shrimp

Before we begin, there are a few seafood terms you should know for future reference.

Devein: Usually used when referring to the cleaning of shrimp. This process involves removing the black "vein" that curves around the back of the shrimp and serves as its liver and pancreas when alive.

Fishmonger: A person who sells fish.

Orange Coral: This small orange sack exists in most female shellfish. It is a delicacy and should be removed before cooking. It is also known as roe.

Tomalley: A soft, green substance found in lobster that served as its liver and pancreas. It is considered a delicacy and can be eaten alone or added to sauces for extra flavor.

Shucking: A term used when referring to shelling oysters.

A note on humane cooking: Most shellfish must be cooked live to preserve freshness as most begin to immediately decay upon death. While it may seem inhumane to literally cook these fish alive, there is little other choice. If you have major qualms, here's something you can do just before you boil lobster. Place the tip of a sharp knife on top of the lobster's head where the lines in the shell form a T. Bring the knife down in a quick cutting motion. You may also notice that lobster makes a high-pitched sound as it is boiled. While it may sound like crying, it is really just gases being released under the shells.

Mussels

  • Season: September through March
  • Prep Work & Cleaning: Mussels have small blue-black shells that attach to rocks and piers, but you don't have to go diving to put them on your dinner table. When you buy your mussels from the fishmonger, make sure they are alive. They should be shiny (but not slimy), mostly unbroken and closed. Rap on the shells of open muscles. If they do not shut almost instantaneously, then they are already dead and should be discarded. Also, make sure the only thing they smell like is sea water. Avoid mussels with any trace of ammonia or chemicals.

    To clean the mussels, wash them thoroughly in fresh water multiple times. They will have a fibrous "beard" that needs to be removed – pull it out and cut it off. Also scrub off any barnacles with a scrub brush or the back of knife. After the "beard" and barnacles have been removed, rinse in fresh water again. Any mussels that float to the top of the bowl are dead and should be discarded.

    Place them in a large 8-quart pot and add 4 C. cold water plus 1/3 C. salt for every 24 mussels. Stir to mix together and let soak 15 to 20 minutes. Dump water and repeat this process a total of three times. This will help remove any sand and debris that wasn't removed before.

    For a visual, step by step guide, see the Hormel Foods guide.

  • Basic Cooking: The best way to cook mussels is to steam them in a pan with a lid. Put a little dry white wine or water in a large saucepan. Add any flavorings you'd like (butter, chopped onion, garlic, etc.). Put mussels into pan and cover tightly. Bring liquid to a boil and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, or until shells open. Discard any mussels whose shells did not open during cooking.

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Oysters

  • Season: Atlantic and Japanese varieties – year round; Belons and Olympias – only during months with the letter "r" in the name (September through April). This has to do with the way they reproduce, not because they are dangerous in some seasons.

  • Prep Work & Cleaning: If you do not plan on preparing your oysters right away, do not store them in water. Place them in a flat tray, cover with a damp towel and store in the refrigerator. They can remain here one to two hours.

    Opening, or shucking, oysters can be a tricky process. You will need an oyster knife, which has a duller tip than a regular knife, but is much stronger to provide enough leverage for opening the shell. But before you start prying them open, run the oysters under cold water and scrub clean.

    Oysters can have very sharp shells, so we recommend using a clean cloth or rubber-palmed gardening gloves for easier maneuvering. This will also keep the oyster from slipping. Once clean, place one oyster on a firm surface with the hinge facing you and the flatter part of the shell facing upwards. Wedge the oyster knife in a crack near the hinge and twist to open. Continue to slide the blade through the top of the shell until it severs the muscle that attaches the top to the bottom. Lift off the top shell, being careful not to spill any of the contents. Gripping the shell firmly, run the knife under the meat to sever the second muscle. If you want, reserve the bottom shell for serving. The oyster is now ready and must be cooked or eaten within a few hours.

    Another, much less complicated, way to open oysters is to stick them in the freezer for two to three hours. While they return to room temperature, the shells will pop open on their own. This will also occur if you zap them in the microwave for 20 seconds. True oyster-eaters frown on these procedures. Also, keep in mind that both shortcuts kill the oysters, so you must serve or cook them immediately.

    For a visual, step by step guide, see the Hormel Foods guide.

  • Basic Cooking: Oysters can be eaten raw or cooked. To serve them raw, flavor with Tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper or a twist of fresh lemon. You can also cook oysters in chowders or stews, sautéed in wine sauce or grilled with shallots and butter. As with all seafood, it only takes a few minutes before the meat gets tough and rubbery.

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Crabs

  • Season: Dungeness – November through May; Soft Shell Blue Crab – first full moon in May through early fall; overall best crabs in summer and fall
  • Prep Work & Cleaning: Hard-Shell: When you go to the market to buy crabs, choose ones that feel heavy and smell fresh and sweet. If you're planning a meal, count on about 4 oz. of meat per person, which is about a 1 lb. crab with shell.

    Unlike mussels and oysters, crabs need to be cooked first before you get the meat. After you've cooked the crabs, be prepared for a bit of a battle. It can be time consuming and tedious, but if you think about how much you're paying per crab, you want to get as much meat as possible. Start by laying the crab on its back, removing the two large pincer claws. Set these aside for later.

    Try to find the natural line on the edge and pry off the bottom belly shell. Cut off the "face" of the crab so that you can get to the internal organs. Remove and discard the small sac at the top of the body and the spongy gills that line the edge (sometimes called "dead man's fingers"). Carefully pick out all the meat that you can from the body of the crab. Crack larger claws in half and remove meat to a bowl. Using a skewer, pick out the meat from the legs.

    For a visual, step by step guide, see the Blue Crab guide. Even if you're not cleaning a Blue Crab, the visual is very helpful.

    Soft-Shell: These are crabs that have shed their shells and haven't had time to regrow them yet. It is much simpler to clean this kind of crab. Start by cutting across the face at an upward angle so that you remove the eye sockets and scaly section of the lower mouth. Next, lift each side of the shell to remove the gills. Finally, turn the crab over and cut off the bottom apron. Rinse with cold water and pat dry.

    For a visual, step by step guide, see the Blue Crab guide.

  • Basic Cooking: Place hard-shell crabs in a saucepan with a mixture of about 6 oz. salt for every 4 pints water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until cooked, allowing 15 minutes per pound. Remove from pan and allow to cool.

    Soft shell crabs should be cooked according to specific recipes.

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Scallops

  • Season: Sea scallops and Bay scallops – October through March; Calico scallops – December through May

  • Prep Work & Cleaning: Scallops are highly perishable, so there's a good chance that you won't have to shell them yourself. Usually they are shelled, cleaned and frozen as soon as they are caught to preserve freshness. If you are purchasing frozen scallops, make sure the flesh is white and firm with no evidence of browning. They should be solid and shiny and the package should be free from frost.

    Scallops can be refrigerated for up to two days after purchase, but must be stored in a very cool environment. Most refrigerators are not cold enough to store scallops, so the best way to keep them fresh is to place well-wrapped scallops in a baking dish full of ice. Place the dish on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator and replace the ice one or two times per day.

    If you buy scallops that need to be shelled, it is very much like cleaning an oyster. Hold the scallop with the flat shell facing upwards. Use a short knife to find a small opening and insert into the shell. Run your knife along the top of the shell, separate the two halves and pull apart. Discard any membrane, frill or black stomach parts and wash the remaining white meat in cold water. Remove the thick muscle around the outer edge of the scallop and separate the orange coral from the white meat, if necessary.

  • Basic Cooking: The easiest way to cooks scallops it to pan-fry them in butter over high heat for one to two minutes and serve with lemon juice. Do no over-cook as the scallops will lose their taste and become rubbery.

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Lobster

  • Season: New Shell – July through October; American – March through December; Spiny – all year round

    Note: Summer is the most popular season for all types of lobster.

  • Prep Work & Cleaning: From a cleaning standpoint, preparing lobster is not very involved. When you go to the market, choose lobsters that feel heavy for their size and are active in the tank. Also, make sure the claws are rubber banded so you don't get hurt. A live, uncooked lobster's shell is a mottled green color with blue and brick red – they don't turn red until they are cooked.

    The real cleaning comes in after the lobster has been cooked. Most of the lobster is edible, but there are some parts that need to be removed. Lay paper towels across a cutting board and place a lobster on top. Using a chef's knife, cut the lobster straight down the center from head to tail. It is up to you whether or not to keep the tomalley – some consider it a delicacy. You should, however, remove the transparent, bag-like stomach and the dark intestines. Remove claws and legs. Using a rolling pin, roll over the legs to extract the meat. The claws can be cracked open with a hammer or cracker. From here, you can use the meat in other recipes or eat as is.

  • Basic Cooking: Most recipes will tell you to boil the lobster in water for a few minutes and remove before it's over-cooked, but many chefs think this waterlogs the lobster and it loses flavor.

    Food Network star Alton Brown dedicated an episode of his show Good Eats to demystifying lobster cooking. He recommends placing the lobsters in a pan and chilling them in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, place a layer of river rocks in the bottom of a wide pot and fill with 1 inch of water. Bring this to a boil over high heat. Spread fresh herbs across the rocks, then quickly place the lobsters on top and cover. Cook for two to three minutes over high heat. Remove and place in an ice bath to halt cooking.

    You can view this complete recipe and learn more about Alton Brown and his show Good Eats on the Food Network website.

    For details on killing the lobster before you cook it, see our note on humane cooking.

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Shrimp

  • Season: While there are better times than others to be catching shrimp, most cities in the U.S. stock fresh or frozen shrimp year round.
  • Prep Work & Cleaning: Depending on what you are cooking, you may want to leave the shells of the shrimp on. This may make it harder to eat, but the shells add extra flavor to the dish. You can always buy your shrimp deshelled and deveined, but it is much more expensive. Some grocery stores or fish markets will devein the shrimp and slit the shell, but leave it on. This makes for easy shelling when you're in a hurry.

    To shell a shrimp, use a small, sharp knife to make a shallow cut down the outer curved side of the shrimp. Use your fingers to pull off the shell and legs, leaving only the tail portion attached to the meat.

    You must also take out the vein, which is the black strip that runs down the back of the shrimp and once served as its digestive tract. Removing this is not essential, but the shrimp look more appetizing without it and some say it will taste better too. Using a small shrimp pick or skewer, find the vein and pull out as much of it as you can. Work under cold running water to help free the vein until it is completely removed.

  • Basic Cooking: Shrimp are very versatile and can be cooked almost any way. As with most seafood, it cooks very quickly and can get rubbery if over-cooked. Follow these basic cooking times for simple, delicious shrimp:

- Baked: Place shrimp on large square of heavy-duty foil with lemon slices and butter. Fold foil over shrimp and seal. Bake in preheated oven at 375 degrees for about 5 minutes.

- Boiled: Add raw shrimp to boiling water and add a few lemon wedges and crab-boil for extra flavor. Cook shrimp for 2 minutes (medium shrimp) or 3 to 5 minutes (larger shrimp). Shrimp may be served hot or cold.

- Broiled or Grilled: Put shrimp on skewers with or without their shells (the shells with help protect the meat on the grill). Add marinade or baste to keep shrimp moist while they cook.

- Microwaved: Place unshelled shrimp around the outer edge of a microwave-safe casserole dish with tails pointing towards the center. Drizzle with lemon juice and cook on high for 2 to 3 minutes.

- Poached: Poach shrimp (with or without shells) in a mixture of water and lemon juice or wine. Add herbs if desired. For 2 lb. shrimp, bring 2 quarts water to a simmer, add shrimp and bring to a boil. Once the liquid boils, cook shrimp for 1 minute and remove immediately.

- Sautéed: Add plenty of butter or oil to pan to avoid sticking. Remove shrimp from pan when done to avoid over-cooking.

- Steamed: This is a fat-free and flavorful method of cooking by steaming the unshelled shrimp in a collapsible steamer or steaming rack over boiling water. You may add seasonings to the water for extra flavoring. Cook just until the shell on the back of the shrimp "lifts" away from the meat.
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