Pop into almost any market in Louisiana in the springtime, and you’ll see huge mesh bags of live crawfish. These small crustaceans, affectionately called “mudbugs” in the South, look a little bit like miniature lobsters and have a similar flavor. Crawfish, or "crayfish" in some locales, must be kept alive until they’re cooked, so make all your preparations for a crawfish boil before you snag a bag or two.
Keeping Crawfish Alive
During crawfish season, huge mesh sacks of crawfish weighing as much as 45 pounds are available at wholesalers and seafood markets. Crawfish die and spoil very quickly if they’re not handled right. Plan to use them within 24 hours of purchase.
Keep live crawfish moist, cool and out of the sun. They need oxygen to survive, so don’t put them in an airtight container covered with water. Bring a large cooler when you go to buy your crawfish. Put them in the cooler and sprinkle them with water. If you’re traveling a long distance, put a bag of ice on top of the crawfish. Leave the top of the cooler ajar.
Let the crawfish stay cool and moist in the cooler until you’re ready to cook them. Open the drain on the cooler so the crawfish on the bottom don’t wind up sitting in water. This is the best method for keeping crawfish alive overnight
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Handle sacks of crawfish carefully. The shells are fragile and easily broken.
Live Crawfish Tips
When shelled, 6 to 7 pounds of live crawfish yield about a pound of tail meat.
Almost all domestic crawfish, wild or farmed, comes from Louisiana. Crawfish season generally runs from midwinter to late spring, with prices usually lowest in March, April and May.
Clean crawfish before cooking. Fill a tub with cold water and soak the crawfish for about 5 minutes. Empty the tub and repeat the process until the water is clear. This not only cleans mud from the shells, but it also purges the intestinal tract. Discard dead crawfish.
Peel leftover crawfish before refrigerating for two to three days. You can freeze cooked crawfish, but the quality of the meat deteriorates fairly quickly.
Southern Crawfish Boil
You can make a boil for a crowd or a small dinner party, but when it’s crawfish season in the South, the spicy crustaceans, sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob are scooped out of a huge pot of boiled water onto picnic tables spread with butcher paper. Knives and forks are nowhere to be seen – the only other thing on the table is a roll of paper towels.
Bring 8 to 9 gallons of water to a full boil in an oversized stockpot on the stove or a large pot set on a stand over a propane burner. Plan ahead – this could take as long as 45 minutes. When the water is boiling, add 16 ounces of crawfish boil seasonings. Look for brands like Zatarain’s or Louisiana Fish Fry at the market.
Stir until the spice is dissolved; then add 4 pounds of scrubbed and halved red potatoes. Boil for 20 minutes; then add eight ears of corn, husked and cut into four pieces each, and sliced andouille sausage. Cook for another 10 minutes. Add 15 pounds of live crawfish and cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain the crawfish and vegetables in a colander or remove them from the hot water with a slotted spoon or spider.
Make your own crab boil seasoning with cayenne pepper, mustard seed, coriander, bay leaves, dill seed and allspice. Add garlic, onions and halved lemons to the boiling water.
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.