Don’t Bother Me, I’m Crabby

That was a phrase from a Maryland themed onesie we got for our kids to wear when they were babies. In addition to the phrase, there was a picture of a steamed Maryland blue crab in all its orange splendor which made for a cute double entendre. The phrase seems an appropriate introduction for this article. Alright so at least a few people are interested in the results of my taste test between Maryland steamed crabs and Alaskan Dungeness crabs, or Dungies as they are called on the West Coast. I want to get to the results quickly, but I do need to provide just a little context.

Sourcing

How can someone on the East Coast get fresh Duginess crabs? I got them frozen from The Wild Alaskan Company…great company by the way and the place I get almost all of my seafood from these days. The Dungies were caught by crab pot in the waters off Alaska, pre-steamed and then frozen for storage and shipment. I was concerned whether that would impact the taste…it did not. Once thawed these Dungies were as good as fresh.

I picked up the steamed blue crabs from Conrad’s in Bel Air. I was only planning to order a dozen but ended up ordering three because of a special Conrad’s offered. Having ordered three dozen, I now needed to pick two dozen plus four…the first dozen to make the soup and the second dozen to make the bisque that I planned on once I saw the special, the plus four being the source of the blue crab meat for my taste test. I started picking at about 4:00 PM and three hours later I was just finishing up with the two dozen. I still had to pick the four blue crabs and the Dungies to get meat for the taste test. By the time I was done my hands were raw from all the shell pokes and scrapes. “Don’t Bother me I’m Crabby” was about the best description of where I was mentally at that point.

Test Conditions

I ran the taste test Wednesday evening. This was part one of a two-part taste test…a head to head test of just the meat. Part 2 of the taste test will come in a few weeks and will involve developing a recipe tailored to the flavor profile of each type of crab using other ingredients to highlight, compliment, and frame the flavors the two different type of crabs offer.

I intentionally had not read anything about what other people described Dungies as tasting like, nor did I read any reviews or taste comparisons. I wanted my mind and palate to process the flavors in as unbiased a manner as possible. Which is to say I had no expectations as to what the Dungies would taste like. I knew what steamed blue crab tastes like so I had no concerns about my tasting notes being biased by anything other than my own experience.

This taste test involved no seasoning, no dips, no butter…just a head to head comparison of how the two different types of crab meat tasted. Although the Maryland crabs came out of the steamer covered in Old Bay, I made sure when I picked them I didn’t get any Old Bay on the meat. I couldn’t do anything about flavors that may have infused into the meat during the steaming process, but as it turns out that wasn’t an issue. For the taste test itself I used a fork rather than my fingers because even after washing several times they still had the smell of Old Bay on them. I put the meat from each crab type on different plates but used the same size and style of plate. I allowed both to come to room temperature before tasting but avoided any artificial heat like the oven or the microwave, and I used a different fork for each but the same type and style. In short, I controlled for all variables I could. The only thing I could have done different was to make this a blind taste test, but as it turns out that wouldn’t have mattered. The difference in taste turned out to be so obvious, I could be blindfolded and with one taste of each immediately tell you which was the Maryland crab and which was the Dungeness. Let me just say, the Dungie flavor profile is not subtle.

Test Results

The difference between the two crab experiences was evident right from the start with the picking. Even though this was a taste test of just the meat, you first have to get to the meat so I thought it fair to include accessibility in the test measures. Blue crabs don’t give up their meat easily…it’s like mining for gold, you have to go into every nook and cranny of their highly compartmented bodies to get all of the edible meat picked out. Particularly when dealing with smalls. By contrast, the Dungies practically picked themselves…between their anatomy, how they were segmented, and the density of meat, it took very little work to get to the meat. It could be that The Wild Alaskan Company sent just the easy parts, but I think not. I think they sent what you would get if you ordered Dungies in a restaurant…the parts with the meat.

Addendum: Since writing this I have discovered that in many restaurants on the West Coast, Dungies are served as a whole crab and are cleaned and picked just like blue crabs. The process is easier because Dungies are way bigger than blues. In some restaurants you get them served as I got them delivered from The Wild Alaskan Company, which is leg and claw with the compartment that particular leg meat is stored in. Makes it way easier to pick the meat than when cleaning and picking a whole Dungie.

Tasting Point 1: Picking blue crabs takes time to get all the meat out and it is a pain, figuratively and literally. Picking Dungies by contrast was a piece of cake. The leg compartments that extend into the body are much bigger than the blue crab making the task of picking much easier.

I expected the two types of crab to taste somewhat different. What I did not expect was the range of difference in both taste and texture. Yes they were both crab, and yes they both tasted like crab, but they tasted nothing like each other. My tasting notes for the Dungeness crab reflect a consistent taste and texture from the first bite to the last, regardless of what part of the crab the meat came from. For the Maryland crabs as anyone who has eaten them knows, there was a huge difference in taste and texture depending on what part of the crab the meat comes from. The blue crab claw meat was tough and stringy to the point of almost being sinewy, whereas the mid-body meat was softer and smoother, and of course the blue crab backfin meat practically melted in my mouth like cotton candy.

Tasting Point 2: There is a major difference between blue crab and Dungies in terms of texture and taste. With the Dungies you get consistency throughout the crab, whereas with the blue crab you get variety depending on what part of the body the meat came from.

Tasting Point 3: Density of the meat was also a big difference. You can make a meal out of a couple of Dungie claw and body clusters, whereas you need a dozen or more Maryland crabs to be able to walk away from the table feeling full.

When it came to taste, the first thing I noticed from the Dungies was salt. I’m not talking salt seasoning like the Old Bay you get with MD crabs. Old Bay is an external seasoning that happens to get all over your fingers and then transfers to the crab meat and your mouth as you pick it from the crab. One of the surprises I got from tasting the blue crab meat that had been steamed in Old Bay was that none of the seasoning infused into the meat, so I didn’t have to worry about that biasing the flavor profile. The salt flavor in the Dungies was an organic and internal taste, as in the brine of sea water. It came from within the meat, not from an added seasoning like Old Bay. And though the brine stood out as the most notable difference in taste with the blue crabs, it wasn’t offensive…it gave character and uniqueness to the taste of the Dungie meat. It reminded me of all the good times I have enjoyed on the West Coast, starting from my time in Monterey back in 1978-1979 and running through just a few years ago when we visited our kids and grandkids in San Diego. Eating a Dungie reminded me of the smell of the sea.

Tasting Point 4: Dungies have a distinctive but pleasant briney flavor, blue crabs do not.

Many people who try to describe blue crab meat often describe it as having a sweet taste to it. I beg to differ. I have never gotten anything close to sweet from the Maryland crabs I’ve eaten, and certainly not for this taste test. If anything I got an absence of any specific flavor component which was in stark contrast to the Dungies. To me, the taste of blue crab meat without being tainted by Old Bay wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t bitter, it wasn’t salty…in fact it wasn’t much of anything. It’s not like the blue crab was tasteless…there is plenty of flavor to it, but it is much more subtle than the Dungies which by comparison have a flavor profile that is in your face. I will say after the brine and the texture, the next taste I noted in the Dungeness crabs was a touch of sweetness. And it was a true sweetness that was definitely lacking in the Maryland crabs.

Tasting Point 5: Once you get past the briny flavor, Dungie meat has a slightly sweet taste to it. In spite of the popular description of Maryland crabs tasting sweet, and sweeter than other crabs, I didn’t get it. If found them to be neutral when it came to sweetness.

A word popped into my head as I went back and forth between the Dungies and the blue crabs in terms of describing the overall difference in taste profiles and that word was gamey. The difference in taste and texture between the Dungeness crab and blue crab is metaphorically similar to the difference in the flavor between a hunter eating a Canadian Goose he shot, vs a farmer eating a domestic goose he provided feed for every day. Both taste like goose, but the wild Canadian goose has a much harsher, more gamey and more complex flavor profile to it. I found the same to be the case when comparing the Dungeness crab with the Chesapeake Bay blue crab meat. They both taste like crab, but the Dungies have so much more going on flavor wise on the surface. You don’t have to work to sort out the flavor profile, it slaps you in the face. And the texture while consistent throughout the crab, is more substantial than the softer and smoother mouth feel you get from the mid-body and backfin meat from a blue crab. It wasn’t unpleasant, just different. Absent the Old Bay seasoning, which is an in your face experience, the blue crab meat has a very subtle flavor profile that you really have to work at to dissect. Both had a somewhat fishy flavor to them, the Dungies probably more so than the blue crabs which goes along with the theme of the Dungies having a more gamey flavor in seafood terms.

Tasting point 6: Metaphorically, Dungies taste gamey whereas Maryland crabs taste like they were corn fed and domestically raised. Methaphorically.

Once I got past the obvious tastes of both crabs I focused on the next level flavors. The more complex, subtle flavors that ride a layer or two below the strongest flavors. There was a hint of lemon to the Dungie meat, which I attribute to a bit of acidity in the meat rather than actual lemon. I got zero acidity with the blue crab. The one flavor note I got with the blue crab that I did not get with the Dungies was butter. I chalk the buttery flavor up to blue crab meat carrying more fat within the meat than the Dungies, the way Wagyu or Kobe beef has more fat marbled throughout the meat than regular beef. Only with steamed blue crab meat you can’t see it…you can only taste it.

Tasting point 7: Dungies have a subtle acidity to them that manifests in a slightly lemon like flavor, Maryland crabs do not have anything close to acidity in their taste profile.

Tasting point 8: Maryland crab meat, with the exception of the claws, has a buttery flavor to them that is lacking in Dungies. There is a richness to the Maryland crab meat that makes up for the lack of density the Dungies offer. You have to work harder and eat more Maryland crabs to get to the same level of fullness as with Dungies, but the buttery rich flavor makes the extra work worth it.

I thought I would have picked up more from the taste profiles of both crabs, but in truth the flavor profile is pretty simple, at least it was for me on Wednesday. Maybe had I not just picked over 2 dozen steamed blue crabs my taste buds might have been more sensitive.

Overall Conclusion

Dungies are all about the food. They are a great excuse to sit down for maybe an hour to dig in and enjoy the fruits of the sea, either with a group of friends or even if you are alone in a restaurant. Maryland steamed crabs covered in Old Bay are more of a cultural, social event than a food-centric event where the crabs are secondary to the opportunity to get together and socialize with friends and family. If I am being honest, I have to say though this taste test was meat only with no seasoning, the real life setting for eating blue crabs results in so much Old Bay seasoning for every bite of crab that the Old Bay obliterates any flavor the crab meat has to offer. It is what we like about our crabs, but it also represents the main difference between blue crabs and Dungies. We mask the subtle flavor of the crabs with Old Bay and Dungies celebrate their strength of flavor.

Bottom line: My conclusion is that both types of crab are winners when you compare not just the meat, but the overall experience of taste, texture, and picking, along with the environment in which you eat them. Dungies and Maryland crabs are both delicious and have their own unique flavor profiles. When it comes down to the taste of the meat, I found the Dungies interesting, but as a native Marylander my clear preference is for the meat of a dozen Chesapeake Bay blue crabs steamed in generous amounts of Old Bay. It is what I grew up with. As tasty as the Dungies were, they just couldn’t deliver the rich buttery flavor you get from a mouthful of backfin meat from a Maryland crab. I expect someone who grew up on the West Coast eating Dungies regularly would have the opposite reaction and would likely find the meat of steamed blue crabs, without the Old Bay seasoning, to be pretty tastless. Either way, in both cases eating crab is an experience that goes beyond just the flavor of the meat or the seasoning. If I want to eat crab in a restaurant, at home as a quick meal, or if I want crab that actually has some flavor to it without added seasoning, I’ll go with the Dungies. The density of the meat and the simplicity of picking it beats out the blue crab by a wide margin. If I want to sit down with Janet or with a broader group of family and friends and have a social event that lasts for hours, each evoking memories of past crab feasts and family gatherings, I’ll go with the Maryland crabs. Although my personal preference with the overall experience runs to steamed Chesapeake Bay blue crabs smothered in Old Bay, I have to call Part 1 of this taste test a draw.

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