Kings crabs are native to cold climate waters. Popular for their succulent leg meat, they are harvested and sold to U.S. restaurants and stores from mostly Alaskan operations, with minor imports from Norway and Russia. King crab fishing season in the Bering Sea and waters off the Alaska and Russian coasts runs from mid-October to December. Only males are legal to harvest, so females are returned to the sea. They average six to ten pounds, but can weigh up to 20.
Crab boats are given strict quotas to follow, limiting the amounts they can haul from the water. Once male king crabs are caught, they are kept alive until they reach a processing plant, where they are cleaned and prepped. After cooking in boiling water, then chilling in a salt-water bath, crabs legs are flash-frozen still in the shell, with a thick casing of ice around each section before packing and shipping.
There are two king crab species nearly always shipped frozen to restaurants and stores. Red king crabs are renowned for their delectable white meat with splashes of red, especially on the leg tips. A deep ruby color while alive, their shells turn bright red with deep red highlights when cooked. Blue crabs are dark brown with bold blue streaks while living, cooking to an orangey-red color. They are often sold commercially labeled as red crabs, but have larger claws.
Not all king crabs are shipped frozen. A small percentage of the red variety are saved and shipped live for storage in tanks in restaurants. Most crabs shipped live for commercial use in restaurants and seafood stores are brown king crabs. Tan with bumpy shells, they are the smallest and most abundant king crab species in Alaskan waters. They are often sold fresh under the label of golden crabs, cooking to an orange color.
Crab legs can be kept frozen up to 12 months if crusted well in ice. Protect them from freezer burn by wrapping the package in paper and then foil. To thaw frozen crab legs, set them in the refrigerator for a day. They can be eaten cold or hot. To heat, steam or boil them for 10 to 15 minutes in salted or unsalted water, then serve with melted butter. Consume within two days of defrosting and do not refreeze.
After purchasing live from a salt-water tank, cook crabs as soon as possible. Steam or boil crabs in unsalted or salted water for 20 to 30 minutes, until their shells turn orangey-red. If not eaten immediately, refrigerate the crab meat after cooling and consume within six days. To freeze after cooking and cooling, clean crabs from their back shells, removing everything but the legs. Break into right and left halves. Dry and wrap carefully in an air-tight package.
References and ResourcesAlaska Department of Fish and Game
Fish Ex Alaska Seafoods
Seafood Business magazine