Fillers Not Welcome

By Beacon Staff

A long, long time ago in a place far, far away – OK it was Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on Chesapeake Bay, but it was definitely a long time ago – I had my first real crab cake.

When I use the word “real,” it is on purpose, because I had eaten fried seafood cakes that had crab in them, but the main ingredient seemed to be something other than crab. I understood it has always been an expensive ingredient, as a great deal of labor goes into harvesting the meat and removing all the tiny bits of shell.

Since we now have available to us “pasteurized” crab meat, however, there’s really no excuse for a crab cake loaded with filler ingredients like breadcrumbs and mayonnaise.

I was not a culinary professional when I had that first real crab cake, but I had to find out why it tasted so different and how the cooks in that restaurant got the crab to stick together without overwhelming it with typical culinary glue, aka mayonnaise.

The “secret,” much to my amazement, is in fact mayonnaise and breadcrumbs. But – and this is a big but – you only need use a minimal amount of each. In other words, just use what is absolutely necessary to bind the ingredients. So instead of half a cup of mayonnaise, use two or three tablespoons. Instead of half a cup of breadcrumbs, use two or three tablespoons. And I always use two of each first to see if the ingredients are binding before I consider adding the third of either or both.

It’s really that simple.

I like a little heat in my crab cakes, so I add a small jalapeño that I seed and mince fine. I also use a generous amount (3 tablespoons) of Old Bay seasoning. Seldom do I use a brand name in my recipes or other writings, but honestly there is no substitute for Old Bay. In supermarkets outside of the Chesapeake region, you’ll generally find it near or on the bottom shelf below where the jarred herbs and spices are.

One important aspect of making the crab cakes is a “curing” period. That means simply that after you mix and form the crab cakes, you should lay them in a dish, cover them and let them sit in the refrigerator for about an hour. Don’t skip this step. Believe me, it’s worth it.

I prefer peanut oil for frying my crab cakes, only because I can fry at a higher temperature, meaning the crab cakes will brown a little more quickly and don’t have to spend so much time in the pan. But if peanut oil is a problem, canola or any other type of vegetable oil will work just fine. It’s a simple dredge of beaten egg and seasoned breadcrumbs that you’re actually browning and not the crab itself, since it’s technically ready to eat and requires no further cooking.

My final step to the ideal crab cake is what goes on it or what you dip it into. And to my taste, and I hope yours, you’ll use a spicy aioli. That’s simply a garlic mayonnaise with the addition of a chili powder like chipotle or ancho. If you don’t have either, then standard chili powder will do.

Here’s my recipe for the perfect crab cake:

12 to 16 oz. lump crabmeat, preferably pasteurized
1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
½ red bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs (divided use)
3 Tbsp. Old Bay seasoning
3 Tbsp. mayonnaise
2 eggs, lightly beaten and thinned with a little water
canola or peanut oil

In a large bowl mix the crab meat with the jalapeño, red bell pepper, Old Bay seasoning, and about 3 Tbsp. of the bread crumbs. Then mix in 2 Tbsp. of the mayonnaise, adding more only if needed to bind the ingredients.

Form about four crab cakes and put them on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and let them “cure” in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

Set up a dredge of the beaten eggs and the rest of the breadcrumbs. Heat the oil in a large skillet and coat the crab cakes in the egg and then the breadcrumbs. Lightly fry the cakes until they are golden brown on each side. Be careful because they cook very quickly. Remove to paper towels to drain.

Serve on top of a salad with Dijon vinaigrette or by themselves, topped with a spicy aioli (garlic mayonnaise).