Whether you’re planning to indulge in a few clams on the half shell or to whip up a lobster roll, the most daunting part of creating your favorite shellfish dishes is to actually get the fish out of their shells.
It definitely isn’t as difficult as it looks—and with a few pro tips, you could be opening the doors (and the shells) to all kinds of great seafood dishes fast. Try these techniques to help you enjoy every last morsel of your seafood.
Tips for Cracking a Lobster or Crab
Lobsters and crabs have a reputation for being messy to crack, but the right tools can make the process a lot faster, not to mention much neater.
The first step: Cooking your lobster or crab to exactly the right temperature—140 degrees Fahrenheit—is essential to easily cracking them. “It helps the meat stay firm,” says Marcus Jacobs, chef at Seafood Sally’s in New Orleans. “When you overcook the meat, it will get stringy and harder to get out of the shells.”
Jacobs also recommends making sure you take advantage of all of the meat that crabs and lobsters have to offer. “One of the biggest mistakes I see is not using the lobster head,” he says. “It contains tomalley, a flavorful fat that often gets forgotten about.”
How to crack a lobster
- After your lobster has been cooked, start disassembling it. You can twist the tail and the claws off the body with your hands. Pro tip: Do this over a bowl, as there will be liquid coming out.
- Use a seafood cracker to break the joint off the claw, and to break the claw itself, then use your hands or a seafood pick to pull out the meat.
- Extract the meat from the tail. You can opt to use your seafood cracker, or even cut through the tail shell vertically with seafood scissors to release the meat.
- Dig in for even more meat. You can crack the main body open to find tiny pockets of meat. Your hands may be the best instrument to find the edible bits in the body itself. The meat in the lobster’s legs can be pulled out with a seafood pick or even sucked out of the leg.
How to crack a crab
- Use your hands to twist the legs off your cooked crab.
- Start taking apart the body. Slip your finger under the plate on the belly, and pull it loose, then pull off the top shell.
- Extract the meat from the body. First, remove the crab’s lungs (they look like feathers), then crack the body in half and use your fingers or a seafood pick to pull out the meat from the body cavity. (It’ll be contained within pockets of cartilage.)
- Get the meat out of the legs and claws. For the smaller pieces, you may be able to use your hands or a seafood pick to remove the meat. For larger claws and knuckles, a seafood cracker will do the trick.
How to crack crab legs
The sweet meat inside crab legs is a special treat—especially when you’re enjoying a crab species with especially meaty legs, like a king crab.
There are several ways you can get the meat out of crab legs:
- Use special seafood picks to easily scoop and pick the meat out.
- You can use seafood scissors to gently cut the crab legs open, pull the edges apart, and then pull out the meat.
- You can also just use your hands to break the shell at the joints and pull them apart—the meat should come out cleanly with the tiny piece of cartilage at the opening.
Tips for Opening Clams and Oysters
Shellfish like clams and oysters are delicious raw, whether you top them with a squeeze of lemon, a few drops of hot sauce, or a fancy mignonette. But first, you’ll need to shuck them open—and that can seem like a daunting task if you’ve never cracked open a clam or oyster before.
Before you start, inspect the clams and oysters, looking for (and tossing out) any with broken or slightly opened shells, which could indicate that the clam or oyster is dead and shouldn’t be eaten.
Scrub the shells thoroughly with a brush, and soak the clams or oysters in a bowl of ice-cold salt water for 20 minutes, to help encourage the bivalves to expel any sand or grit in their shells.
How to open an oyster
Sims McCormick, co-founder of Raw Oyster Cult, says the key to a clean open is the right tools. For oysters, look for an oyster knife with a molded handle that protects against slipping, and wear protective gloves in case the knife does slip out. You can buy ones especially for that purpose, use a pair of gardening gloves, or wrap your non-shucking hand in a kitchen towel.
- “Find the hinge—the pointy point where the two shells meet,” McCormick says. “This can be tricky, but don't panic!”
- “Wiggle the tip and finesse the blade until you find the hinge,” he says. “Then turn your wrist almost like you're revving a motorcycle, and when you hear a little pop, the top shell will lift.” Pro tip: Don’t pry the shells with the knife, as you could break the tip.
- To release the oyster, take your knife and scrape the top (AKA flat) shell, essentially cutting the muscle from the shell, then scrape the bottom of the cup-shaped shell and remove the other muscle.
- Show off your shucking skills. “Pretty presentation is key,” McCormick says. “Inspect the shucked oyster for any small bits of shell, and remove before serving.”
How to open clams
Opening clams requires a slightly different knife and a slightly different technique. “To shuck raw clams, use a clam knife if possible,” McCormick says. “A clam knife has a blade more like a traditional paring knife, and shucking a clam is more similar to paring an apple than shucking an oyster.”
- Chill the clams thoroughly before cracking them open, to help relax the clam’s muscles. Pro tip: Instead of chilling, legendary French chef Jacques Pépin recommends warming them(Opens in a new window) very slightly (about six minutes in a 350-degree oven), which won’t cook them but will help loosen the shells for cracking.
- Wear a protective glove on your non-shucking hand and hold the clam firmly, with the opening facing toward you.
- Wedge the tip of the knife in between the clam shells, then twist the knife to pry it open slightly.
- Move the blade around the entire perimeter of the shell to make it easy to open the clam.
- Pull off the top shell, and use the knife to cut the clam meat off the bottom shell.