There are times when a simulated, processed food product is perfectly fine and can be used without apology. Your favorite cookies would cost a lot more if they used real vanilla instead of artificial, for example, and you wouldn't see cheap California rolls if you couldn't buy imitation crab. The delicate flavor of real crab would be lost in a lot of recipes anyway, so using an imitation is a perfectly valid option.
How Imitation Crab Meat Is Made
You'd think imitation crab is an industrial product, and you'd be right. Surprisingly, though, it was made by hand in Japan for hundreds of years before its rebirth as a mass-produced, manufactured food in the 1960s.
In the United States, the modern version is usually made from Alaskan pollock, though other white fish can be used. The fish is deboned and treated to minimize its own natural flavor, then minced or ground into a paste. The paste is cooked with various other ingredients to help it bond together and create a crab-like texture, and it's tinted and flavored to make it look, smell and taste like crab as well. The best brands combine minced pollock and snow crab or other varieties of real crab to give it an authentic flavor.
It's already fully cooked, so you don't cook it as such. Like the real crab it resembles, its flavor and texture are best when it's gently heated. Getting it too hot and heating it too quickly or for too long can degrade its quality quickly.
Warming Imitation Crab on Its Own
If you want to heat imitation crab on its own, for a snack or as an addition to a finished dish, you have several options. For a small quantity, such as one or two sticks or a handful of the flaked kind, you can use the microwave. You'll need to be careful, so it's best to work at no more than 50% power and heat it in 20- to 30-second intervals until it's warm enough.
You can reheat any amount, from small to large, by placing it in a covered pan or baking dish in your oven with a splash of water or fish broth to keep it from drying out. Reheat gently at a temperature of 250 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, until it's heated through.
The simplest and arguably best method is to steam it. Arrange the imitation crab evenly around the steamer basket, and steam it for 3 to 5 minutes – slightly longer, if needed, for a large quantity – until it's just hot.
Imitation Crab in Meals
Most imitation crab recipes respect its need for gentle heat by adding it to the dish at the very end or by protecting it from the heat in some way.
In stir-fries and pasta dishes, for example, you'd prepare the stir-fry and its sauce or pasta first, then stir in the crab meat for just the last few minutes of cooking so it can be warmed through. In hot crab dips or hot casseroles, the creamy, cheesy sauce diffuses the heat of cooking and gently warms the imitation crab.
In the most extreme example, the batter used for tempura crab sticks forms a shell and protects the imitation crab meat itself from the relatively high temperature of the deep-frying fat.
Imitation Crab and Dietary Restrictions
If your daily life involves working around various dietary restrictions, whether you eat real crab is a pretty straightforward proposition. If you're allergic to shellfish and crustaceans, you'll need to avoid it; otherwise, you're free to dig in.
The situation is more complicated with imitation crab meat, so you'll need to be diligent about reading the label. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: If you keep kosher or have a shellfish allergy, a shellfish-free brand of imitation crab meat provides a way to enjoy popular crab dishes without risk.
Most brands do contain carbohydrate-based binders and thickeners, and some contain sugar, so if you're low-carbing, that's something to check closely on the label. It's also a concern if you're celiac, allergic to wheat or gluten-intolerant. Many brands also include egg, another major allergen. If you're dealing with any of these issues, you can still eat imitation crab; you'll just have to be selective about the brands you buy and research them carefully to learn which ingredients they do or don't include.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.