How to Cook Fresh and Frozen Crab Legs for a Special Weeknight Dinner

If you can boil water, you can make any night of the week a special occasion with this easy-to-follow guide on how to cook crab legs.

Enjoying the succulent meat from crab legs takes any fancy dinner to the next level. We know there can be sticker shock when buying crab legs, so you may reserve this extravagant entrée for special nights or special guests, but they're so simple to make that there's no need to wait for a big event.

Use our tips to learn how long to boil crab legs, so they're cooked to perfection and sure to impress. Because they're almost always precooked, boiling crab legs is a cinch for your next fancy dinner. All you need to do is serve them with melted butter (always, butter!).

Steamed Crab Legs with Butter Dipping Sauce and Lemons
Blaine Moats

How to Boil Crab Legs

Thawing crab legs is the first step when there aren't fresh crab legs available (yay for you if you can get them fresh!). The best way to thaw frozen crab legs is to put them in the refrigerator overnight (at least 8 hours). The best way to thaw crab legs fast, if space or time is an issue, is to put the frozen legs in a colander in a sink and run cool water over them to thaw quickly.

Thawed (and fresh) crab legs can be steamed, grilled, and heated in the microwave, but boiling is one of the best ways to cook crab legs and the method highly recommended by the Better Homes & Gardens Test Kitchen. The water gets into the shells, keeps the meat moist, and helps the meat heat through quickly. So here's what to do along with the answer to the pressing question: How long do crab legs take to boil?

Step 1: Fill a large pot half to two-thirds full with cold tap water. Add 1 tablespoon salt; bring the water to boiling.

Step 2: Add four 4- to 8-ounce crab legs to the boiling water, bending and tucking the legs, so as much as possible is covered in water. Return the water to boiling.

Step 3: Cook the legs, uncovered, for 4 to 5 minutes or until heated through, occasionally adjusting with long tongs to make sure they heat evenly.

Step 4: Using the long tongs, remove the legs from the water. If desired, rinse legs; drain well.

That's all there is to it! You now know how to boil crab legs. Getting the meat out is the real task.

Removing the Crabmeat

Now that the meat is cooked, you just have to get the crabmeat out of the shell. Here's how to do it without wasting any meat:

Step 1: Twist at the Joint and/or Cut the Shell

Cool cooked crab legs until easy to handle. You may want to use a clean kitchen cloth when handling since the legs have nodules that can be sharp. Twist the legs at the joint. Often you can pull the meat from the shell as you twist.

Or use kitchen shears to cut through the shell to access the crab meat. If you tried twisting and pulling out the meat but still see some left, grab the shears, so you don't leave any crab meat behind.

opening crab shell to remove meat
Scott Little

Step 2: Harvesting the Meat

For split legs, pull apart the shell with your fingers. Use a small seafood fork to remove the meat from the legs and claws.

Step 3: Serving Crab Legs

When serving, keep things simple and let the crab legs shine. You can go to all the effort of twisting, cutting, and separating crab legs for your guests or serve 'em up right out of the pot and let everyone at the table earn their fancy meal.

If the crab legs are not pre-split, have kitchen shears available for splitting, and give each person a small seafood fork for getting the crab meat out of the shells. Our favorite accompaniments for crab legs are lemon wedges and small bowls of melted butter for dipping. Figure about 1 tablespoon butter per 4 ounces of crab meat. Get fancy with your butter by adding fresh herbs as we did in our Steamed Crab Legs recipe (there are directions for another way to boil crab legs in this recipe, so now you'll know two ways to cook them).

Clarified Butter

Clarified butter is usually served with lobster, but since crab is another shellfish made even more delicious served with butter, you may want to try our Clarified Butter recipe with crab legs, too. Clarifying butter is a simple technique that removes the cloudy milk solids from melted butter, resulting in a clear, amber-hue butter that is pretty and delicious for dipping bites of crab meat.

Buying Crab Legs

Because the crab season is short and quotas are strictly enforced, they are a bit of a splurge. Purchase top-quality crab legs from a trusted source and treat them with care. Most crab legs are cooked and frozen on the fishing boat as soon as the crab is caught, so frozen crab legs are the most common way to purchase them.

  • Look for crab legs that are relatively thick to ensure they'll be meaty and easy to eat. Avoid those with a lot of ice crystals or that look like they've been frozen for too long. The leg meat is considered the best, but the claw meat is still tasty.
  • Consider your pot size when purchasing crab legs since the legs will need to fit into the pot for cooking, and they only bend at the joints.
  • Some merchants sell split crab legs, which makes harvesting the meat from the shells easier.
  • King crab legs, which are from the northern Pacific, tend to be the largest legs available and offer delicate, sweet meat tinged with a red color. Because they're so meaty, king crab legs are more expensive than snow crab legs, the other top variety. Sweet, slightly salty snow crab has white meat with a pinkish hue and hails from the northern Pacific and the waters of Canada's east coast.
  • Plan on one 4- to 8-ounce crab leg per serving.

After you've cooked crab legs to perfection, don't forget to make some delicious sides to go with your dinner. You can make it simple with some boiled potatoes or roasted veggies to keep the crab legs the star of the show. Try our quick and easy seafood recipes for any night of the week to continue your seafood kick.

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