Crab Cakes

crab cakes

Crab Cake History

The concept of "minced meat or fish" combined with other ingredients and made into patties dates back to ancient times when meats and fish were not plentiful and various additions of other foods extended the otherwise meager portions of meat.

In the U.S. it is surmised that crab cake types of dishes were introduced to the early Colonies by English settlers. Most commonly when we think crab cakes today we think of Maryland or Baltimore Crab Cakes.

According to Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar Friedman:New York] 1999 ( "Crab cake. A sauteed or fried patty of crabmeat. The term dates in print to 1930 in Crosby Gaige's New York World's Fair Cook Book, where they are called "Baltimore crab cakes," suggesting they have long been known in the South.

Just Another Croquette?

The crab cake seems to be quite similar and most likely related to crab croquettes. The croquettes are made by making a thick white sauce, incorporating the crab then making the patties (in a cylinder "croquette" shape).

Basic Crab Cake Components

In addition to crab this preparation method can really be applied to any type of shellfish including shrimp, scallops even lobster. The ingredients should include each of the following elements. Elements will be discussed further below.

  • Shellfish meat - the flavoring and main protein source
  • A starch - something to give body to the cakes
  • A moistening agent - keeps the interior of the cake tender and enriches the mixture
  • A binder - which holds the cakes together
  • Flavorings - additional seasonings to enhance the flavor.

Shellfish Meat

You can use crab or another shellfish such as shrimp, scallops, or lobster. The texture and flavor of course will vary for each ingredient.

Important: Buy the freshest crab you can find. The flavor of the cake is dependent upon this high-quality ingredient. We do offer a few recipes that use canned crab but the best recipes use fresh.

The Starch

Most commonly you will see recipes call for bread or bread crumbs. You can also use crushed crackers, mashed potatoes, masa flour, or even a thick white sauce (see note below about croquettes). Ratio: Use about 1/2 as much starch as shellfish by volume.

Moistening Agent

Common additions include milk, cream, melted butter, mayonnaise or eggs. Eggs work well because they also make an excellent binding agent.

Binder

Eggs are the best binder and they can act as a moistener as well. Whole eggs can be beaten and added to the mixture or you can separate the egg and beat the whites until stiff. The folded whites can be added to the meat mixture and this will result in a puffy, lighter cake.

Flavorings

Common flavorings include mustard, Worcestershire sauce and minced onion. You can also add fresh herbs, flat leaf parsley, dill. We like to add finely chopped celery for a flavor boost and a little crunch. Garlic can be added too but don't use so much it overpowers the delicate fish flavor.

Crab Cake Making Techniques

Forming
It is important to form the cakes gently and avoid over-compacting the mixture. This will ensure a lighter cake and one that cooks through properly.  You can form the cakes into little round patties about 1/2" thick or you can make "stick" shapes as well.  Don't make them too thick because they will not be properly cooked in the center.

Coating
Some recipes suggest dipping the formed crab cake in additional bread crumbs for a more even, crispy exterior. You can also use panko crumbs for a lighter, crispy coating.
Chilling
It is important to chill the formed crab cakes for at least 30 minutes before cooking. This gives the time for the ingredients to bind so they will hold together during the cooking process.

Sample Historical Crab Cake Recipes

Crab Cakes Baltimore - 1932

Eat, Drink & Be Merry in Maryland: An Anthology From a Great Tradition, compiled by Frederick Philip Stieff [G.P. Putnam's Sons:New York] 1932 (p. 44)

Take one pound of crab meat for each four crab cakes. Put crab meat into mixing bowl, add one and one-half teaspoons salt, and two teaspoons white pepper, one teaspoon English dry mustard and two teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, one yolk of egg and one soup spoon cream sauce or mayonnaise, one teaspoon chopped parsley. Mix well, making four crab cakes, press hard together, dip into flour, then into beaten eggs, then into bread crumbs. Fry them in hot grease pan.--Mr. W.L. Jackson, Managing Director, Lord Baltimore Hotel, Baltimore."

Crab-Flake Cakes (Baltimore) - 1932
The National Cookbook: A Kitchen Americana, Shiela Hibben [Harper & Brothers:New York] 1932 (p. 112)

  • 2 cups crab meat
  • 1 cup milk
  • yolk 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion juice
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • salt and pepper
  • bread crumbs
  • rich cream sauce
Melt the butter in a saucepan and add to it the flour; when well mixed, add the milk gradually, stirring constantly until smooth. Add the egg yolk beaten up with Worcestershire sauce and onion juice, and the crab flakes, seasoning with salt and pepper. As soon as this mixture is cool enough, put it in the icebox to get very cold.

Form into flat cakes; dredge in finely sifted bread crumbs and fry on both sides in either lard or butter.

Serve on a hot platter with Rich Cream sauce poured over the cakes. Crab meat used must be from the body part of the crab, and must be very carefully picked over."

Crab Cake Sides And Sauces

Here are some suggestions of what to serve with your crab cakes:
  • Cole Slaw
  • Baby Greens Salad
  • Roasted Potatoes
  • French Bread
  • And, your favorite wine.

Crab Cake Sauces

  • Classic Tartar Sauce - Make a fresh mayonnaise or use premade. Additions include sour gherkins, capers and fines herbes. 
  • Crab Cake Sauce - Uses sour cream, mayonnaise, cottage cheese, salsa, lemon and yogurt. 
  • Chipotle Sauce - includes canned chipotles in adobo sauce, mayonnaise and roasted red peppers. 

Buy Maryland Crab Cakes

Maryland Crab Cakes - Buy frozen shipped right to your home. 

Crab Cake Nutrition

Ingredient variations and cooking methods (baking vs frying for example) can change this dish from healthful to indulgent. The nutritional information below is based on a Dad's Broiled Cake Cake recipe.

1 crab cake
Calories 225
Total fat (g) 8.45
Saturated fat (g) 1.45
Monounsaturated fat (g) 0
Polyunsaturated fat (g) 0
Dietary fiber (g) 0.99
Protein (g) 23.08
Carbohydrate (g) 13.44
Cholesterol (mg) 123.6
Sodium (mg) 686.14

Sources And Credits

Food Timeline -     Excellent resource for food history
Shellfish, The Good Cook Series    Time-Life

author

Barbara Bowman graduated with degree in Foods and Nutrition from San Jose State University. As CEO of GourmetSleuth.com she spends most waking hours writing, cooking, eating, gardening and traveling.