How to Cook Crab Cakes in a Frying Pan

If you love seafood, nothing quite rivals a plate of sweet, perfectly seasoned fried crab cakes. People disagree on the perfect recipe, which crab cake sauce to serve and whether imitation crab cakes count, but expert frying will always help this favorite dish — an American institution — to shine.

If you love seafood, nothing quite rivals a plate of sweet, perfectly seasoned fried crab cakes.
Image Credit: lynnebeclu/iStock/GettyImages

Choosing the Right Crab Meat

A wide variety of crab meat types can create tasty fried crab cakes, and it depends very much on your tastes and budget as to which type you choose.

In an essay for the The Baltimore Sun, John Shields, culinary expert and author of The 25th Anniversary Edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking, recommends using lump meat, which is a blend of one-third jumbo lump meat (the finest big chunks of meat from the crab) and two-thirds flake (smaller pieces from the chambers of the body). He says that this, on its own, or in combination with jumbo lump meat, provides the very best balance of texture and flavor for crab cakes.

Claw meat, which is dark, sweet meat, can produce tasty and economical fried crab cakes for large gatherings and parties.

What about imitation crab cakes? It's easy to be a bit snobby about them, but for a weekday family meal, imitation crab cakes can be perfectly tasty. Just be aware that, according to the USDA, imitation crab isn't as high in protein, zinc and vitamin B12 as cooked blue crab, for example.

Read more: 2 Factors That Make Crab Meat One of the Healthiest Seafoods

Crab Cake Bindings and Coatings

Traditional binding ingredients for fried crab cakes are eggs, mayonnaise, cream, seasonings, bread crumbs, cracker crumbs and bread soaked in milk. Shields says a good principle is to try to use the least amount of bindings so the cakes hold together without lots of pressure needed to compact them.

Not being heavy-handed is key when forming the crab cakes. You can gently pack the mixture into an ice cream scoop and then tap it out, or just carefully mold by hand. A good guide is that a recipe using 1 pound of crab meat will make about six to eight cakes, enough to feed three or four people.

If you have the time, it is best to refrigerate the crab cakes for at least an hour before cooking. This allows the binding to absorb some of the moisture so that the cakes hold together better. For the coating you have various options: leave the crab cakes plain, use breadcrumbs (such as Panko) or just dredge with flour.

Frying to Perfection

Crab cakes can be sautéed, shallow-fried or deep-fried (a non-stick pan will make the job easier with either of the two former methods).

For frying with a neutral flavor, Harvard Health Publishing recommends canola oil, which contains over 70 percent oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed manufacturers of these oleic-rich oils to state that "supportive but not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that daily consumption of about 1½ tablespoons (20 grams) of oils containing high levels of oleic acid may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease."

Shields says that sautéing — using less oil than the quarter or half an inch or that you might use in traditional shallow-frying — produces perhaps the most superior crab cakes. He recommends a combination of butter and extra virgin olive oil to sauté — and to form the crab cakes slightly thinner so they cook through properly, about four minutes on each side.

Read more: Which Cooking Oil is Best? The Pros and Cons of 16 Kinds

Crab cakes always need lemon wedges, but whether you have a crab cake sauce or not is a personal preference. As well as the usual hollandaise or tartare sauce, some other ideas for tasty crab cake sauces include Worcestershire sauce, chili sauce or a tiny dab of red wine vinegar.

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