Boiling crab legs makes creating a special-occasion meal a cinch. If you know how to boil water, you basically already know how to cook crab legs. So we'll show you how to get the meat out of the legs and also how to cook frozen crab legs.

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Enjoying the succulent meat from crab legs is a dish that takes any fancy dinner to the next level. We know there can be sticker shock when buying crab legs, so it's common to 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 know how long to boil crab legs so they're cooked to perfection and sure to impress. Because they are almost always precooked, simply boil crab legs to warm them through, then serve them with melted butter (always, butter!).

How to Boil Crab Legs

Technically, the first step in how to cook crab legs is to thaw them when you don't have 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). If space or time is an issue, you can also put the frozen legs in a colander ($26, Target) 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 one 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. Here's what to do along with the answer to the pressing question: How long do you boil crab legs?

Step 1: Fill a large pot ($30, Target) 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, 4 to 5 minutes or until heated through, adjusting occasionally with long tongs ($14, Bed Bath & Beyond) 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.

twisting crab leg at joint
cutting crab leg to remove meat
Left: Credit: Scott Little
Right: Credit: Scott Little

Removing the Crabmeat

Now that the meat is cooked, you just have to get it out of the shell.

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 ($9, Target) 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
Credit: 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.

Steamed Crab Legs with Butter Dipping Sauce and Lemons
Credit: Blaine Moats

Step 3: Serving Crab Legs

When serving, keep things simple and let the crab legs star. 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 presplit, have kitchen shears available for splitting, and give each person a small seafood fork for getting crab meat out of the shells. Favorite accompaniments for crab legs are lemon wedges and small bowls of melted butter for dipping. Figure about 1 tablespoon butter per 4 ounces crab meat. Get fancy with your butter by adding fresh herbs as we did in our Steamed Crab Legs recipe (there are directions for how to boil crab legs, too in this steamed recipe, so now you'll know two ways to cook them).

Clarified Butter

Clarified butter is more commonly 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 crabmeat.

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.

  • Look for crab legs that are fairly thick to ensure they will be meaty and easy to eat. Avoid those with a lot of ice crystals or that look like they have 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 crab legs that are already split. This 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 are so meaty, king crab legs tend to be 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. To continue your seafood kick, try our quick and easy seafood recipes for any night of the week.

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