Travel the South in the spring, and you’ll find people gathered around a steaming pot filled with bright red crustaceans boiling in a fragrant blend of herbs and spices. The small crawfish, also known as mudbugs, crawdads or yabbies, look like miniature lobsters and have a similar flavor.
Keeping Crawfish Alive
Crawfish live for about 24 hours after they’re caught if handled properly, but they spoil quickly. Since you’ll probably be unsure about when they were caught unless you get them directly off the boat, they should be cooked as soon as possible.
Keep the crawfish alive by keeping them cool and moist. They need oxygen, so don’t store them in an airtight container with the lid tightly closed. If you do transport them in a cooler, sprinkle them with water and leave the lid ajar. If they’ll be in the cooler for hours, place a bag of ice in the cooler.
The ideal temperature for storing crawfish before cooking is 42 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Refrigerators generally are set at 40F or lower, so don’t store them in the fridge. Crawfish shells are brittle, so handle them gently. Don’t stack bags or drop them on the ground.
Cooking Live Crawfish
Small to medium crawfish have the most meat. As they get larger, the head and claws – which have less meat – get proportionally bigger than the bodies. About 6 or 7 pounds of live crawfish yield 1 pound of peeled meat.
Wash the crawfish thoroughly and discard dead crawfish before cooking. To clean them, place them in a large tub of water and let them sit for about 10 minutes. Change the water and repeat the process two or three times until the water is clear.
Peel leftover crawfish and store the meat in the refrigerator for one or two days. You can also freeze peeled crawfish meat for up to six months.
Where to Find Live Crawfish
Live crawfish are in season from mid winter to early summer, but the peak season is generally March through June. Prices are best at the peak of peak season, but peak dates change from year to year since production is affected by the weather.
Live crawfish are sold in large, mesh bags that hold 35 to 40 pounds of the crustaceans. People who live in the South, the source for almost all wild and farmed crawfish in the U.S., can find them at wholesalers, grocery stores and fish markets. If you don’t live in the South, ask your seafood monger if she has a source for live crawfish.
Crawfish are also available at the seafood counter cooked and in the shell or as packaged meat without the shell.
Enjoy a Crawfish Boil
Keeping crawfish alive is the trick to having the tastiest, freshest crawfish boil. Plan to cook them immediately after you’ve washed them. Grind peppercorns, coriander seeds, cloves and allspice to a powder. If you’re not into grinding your own spice blends, there are many crawfish, shrimp or crab boil seasoning mixes like Old Bay, Zatarain’s or Tony Chachere in the spice department at the supermarket.
Add the blend to a large pot filled with water. Bring the water to a boil and add a generous amount of salt, cayenne, garlic powder, paprika, onion powder and dried herbs. If you’re using a prepared crawfish boil product like Zatarain’s, bring the water to a boil and add the commercial mix.
When the water boils, add potatoes and shucked corn. Cook for 10 minutes and add the crawfish. Cover and cook for a few minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let the crawfish sit in the hot water for another 10 minutes to finish cooking and soak up flavor.
Native New Yorker Meg Jernigan stayed in Washington, D.C. after attending the George Washington University, and worked in the tourism industry with the National Park Service for many years. She’s a dedicated foodie with an extensive cookbook collection and years of experience in the kitchen. Jernigan’s recipes have been published online and in magazines like Southern Living.