How to Tell if Soft Shell Crabs Are Bad

There’s nothing quite like the unique and delicate flavor of soft shell crabs. My favorite is deep-fried, served on slices of white bread. They mark the unofficial beginning of summer for many residents. But how to tell if soft shell crabs are bad can worry many seafood lovers.

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the signs of spoilage, like a strong fishy odor, slimy texture, and discolored spots, is crucial in determining the freshness of soft shell crabs.
  • Proper storage, including refrigeration and correct freezing and thawing procedures, is essential to maintaining the quality and shelf life.
  • Sourcing from a reputable seafood market, checking their condition upon purchase, and careful handling are key steps to enjoying this delicious seafood safely.

In this comprehensive guide, I discuss how to determine if your crabs have spoiled, and the importance of storing and handling them correctly. The guide also explains how to cook them and highlights various culinary tips and tricks. By the end, you will have a thorough understanding of enjoying soft shell crabs safely and deliciously.

How to Tell if Soft Shell Crabs Are Bad

Signs to Watch Out For

Crabs, whether of the soft shell or hard shell variety, are a delightful seafood treat. But just like any food, they can spoil. The first step to knowing whether they are good or bad is by looking at them. A healthy blue crab found on the East Coast and Southern regions of the United States, will be a mix of blue and green, while a bad crab might have discolored patches or spots.

Using Your Nose

Your nose is a powerful tool when it comes to assessing the freshness of seafood. Fresh soft shell crabs have a light, ocean-like scent. If you catch a whiff of ammonia or a strong fishy odor, it’s a sign that your crab is past its prime.

The Feel Test

Lastly, the feel test. A good soft shell crab should be, well, soft but firm. If it feels slimy or overly soft, it’s likely gone bad. It’s also a good idea to check if the crab is bouncy; if it’s too limp, it might not be safe to eat.

Purchase from a Trusted Seafood Source

When it comes to seafood, where you buy from can have a big impact on the taste as well as food safety.

Fresh over Frozen

While frozen soft shell crabs can be a good option, there’s nothing that can beat the flavor and texture of fresh crabs. Try to find a seafood market that offers live crabs. If that’s not possible, look for fresh, never-frozen crabs.

Handling Process

A good seafood market will handle its crabs carefully to ensure they remain in good condition. This includes transporting them in a cool, aerated environment and handling them with care.

Harvesting Practices

Where and how the crabs are harvested can also affect their quality. For instance, Dungeness crabs harvested off the west coast are known for their sweet, tender meat.

Storage and Shelf Life

Storing your soft shell crabs properly is essential in ensuring they stay fresh for as long as possible. They should be kept refrigerated or frozen, never left at room temperature. When stored correctly, fresh soft shell crabs can last for up to two days in the fridge and several months in the freezer.

Care and Handling Tips

  • Handle gently to prevent any damage to their shells.
  • Never wash live crabs, as this can stress them and shorten their shelf life.
  • Always keep them cool, either in the fridge or a cooler filled with ice.



Cooking starts with proper preparation. If you’re purchasing live crabs, you’ll need to use kitchen shears to trim off certain parts. But don’t worry, most seafood markets will do this for you.

However, if you need to clean the soft crabs yourself, these are the three items to remove. Use kitchen shears to cut off:

  • The apron on the bottom side of the crab
  • The face of the crab. Cut about a 1/8″ behind the eyes
  • The gills located underneath the points of the shell

Here is a great video to illustrate the process

The Cooking Process

Soft shell crabs are delicate, and they cook quickly. It’s best to cook them within a day or two of purchase. You can cook them in a variety of ways, but frying them is a popular choice.

How to Eat Soft Shell Crabs

The beauty of soft shell crabs is that you can eat the entire thing – shell and all! Serve them with a squeeze of lemon and a side of coleslaw for a delicious meal. As I previously mentioned, I love them deep-fried, served on plain bread, with a squirt or two of ketchup!

Handle Properly

It’s crucial to handle your crabs properly to avoid spoiling them. Always hold them gently to avoid damaging them. If you’re planning to keep them alive before cooking, make sure you provide them with a moist, cool environment.

How to Freeze Soft Shell Crabs

To freeze soft shell crabs, start by cleaning them thoroughly. Next, wrap each crab individually in freezer paper or plastic wrap, then place them in a freezer bag. Make sure to squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing the bag.

Best Way to Thaw Soft Shell Crabs

To thaw frozen soft shell crabs, it’s best to leave them in the fridge overnight. If you’re in a hurry, you can use the defrost function on your microwave, but be careful not to start cooking them.

Ensuring Freshness and Quality


Always buy your soft shell crabs from a reputable seafood market and pay attention to where they were harvested. This ensures you’re getting high-quality crabs, guaranteeing the best taste and safety for your meals.


Soft shell crabs are available frozen or live. If you choose fresh crabs, they should still be moving and alert. Also, they will have bright eyes and the shell will be intact.

Storage and Handling

Proper storage and handling are key to maintaining freshness and quality. Live crabs should be kept in a cool environment to keep them from spoiling, but it also keeps the shells from hardening.

Health and Safety

Remember, consuming spoiled seafood can make you sick. Always check for signs of spoilage before cooking and eating them. When in doubt, it’s better to err on the side of caution and discard any suspect crabs.

Know the Signs

Recognizing the signs of bad seafood can save you from food poisoning. Soiled crabs often have a slimy texture, a strong odor, and discolored spots on their shells.

Culinary Tips and Tricks

  • The most popular way to prepare them is a fried soft shell sandwich.
  • Yes, the shell is completely edible, adding a unique texture to your dishes. The claws are also 100% edible. No picking needed.
  • Pairs wonderfully with light, tangy sauces, and sides.

Learning More

For more information on how to handle, cook, and enjoy soft shell crabs. Eastern Shore Recipes is a trusted source for seafood enthusiasts. Websites, online forums, and cookbooks can also provide valuable insights and advice.


Knowing how to tell if soft shell crabs are bad is an essential skill for any seafood lover. By purchasing from a trusted source, handling and storing your crabs properly, and knowing the signs of spoilage, you can enjoy the delicate flavor and unique texture without worrying about their freshness.

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