How to Cook Dungeness Crab

tongs holding cooked Dungeness crab

This is something I grew up with as a kid. Mom would at least once a year load up on in-season, cheap Dungeness crabs to steam. There would always be about six of us at the dinner table, but we’d always have an abundance of crab and we’d continue eating it again the following day.

We always kept it simple with lemon, salt and pepper. Of course there was always cheap American lager on ice (gramps and his buddies’ favorite). No need for butter, sauces, or anything fancy. The crab was the star of the show, and that’s all we needed.

Even after moving out, I’ve continued celebrating crab season with my family and friends for many, many consecutive years by enjoying an annual crab boil. As a result, I’ve tested plenty of ways to cook and eat Dungeness crab over the years. Learn some of my favorite tips on where to find the best live crab prices, how to pick crab, the best cooking method, and how to break it down. 

What months are crab season?

tray of steamed Dungeness crab with lemons, salt, pepper

Depending on the type of crab, the season for fresh crab can range anywhere between late Fall to early Spring and even early Summer. Dungeness crabs from California are best available from December-April (sometimes it can last longer depending on the season). 

During crab season, I’ve purchased live Dungeness crabs on sale for as low as $5.99 per pound (and my mom in San Jose has even gotten them for lower!). A good average price is about $8.99 per pound when it’s not marked down significantly. I stay clear of anything over $10 per pound. 

How to choose and keep live Dungeness crab fresh

Picking live Dungeness crab is relatively simple. First, make sure the crabs are alive and kicking, and if they’re heavy. Weightier Dungeness crab means more meat on them. I try to pick crabs that are around 1.5-2 pounds each. 

When I buy live crab from my local Asian grocery store, I bring a cooler with ice in the car to keep them chilled and transfer this to a cool garage at home until cooking them. However, I don’t need to add too much ice since crab season is during the colder months. 

Here are some local Vietnamese grocery stores that I’ve bought live Dungeness crab from: 

Is it better to steam or boil Dungeness crab?

steaming whole Dungeness crab in a pot

I prefer to steam Dungeness crab in a large pot because it helps retain more juice. Boiling is a bit more aggressive, gets water in any cracks, and can really pull out the crab juice.

I especially love eating the crab’s tomalley (this is from the Carib word tumale, referring to the sauce, fat, or liver and pancreas in a crab shell), so steaming works best if you like to eat this part of the crab. Steaming also prevents you from overcooking crab, which can cause the meat to become rubbery and dry. 

Do you need to clean crab before cooking?

rinsing off Dungeness crab with hose outdoors

Whenever I cook Dungeness crabs, I always hose them down in the backyard before steaming them. Cleaning ensures I don’t keep dirt or weird water from the grocery store tanks on the crabs. 

Note that some people refer to “cleaning” crabs as a way of breaking them down and potentially removing the carapace (the back shell) and the innards; however, I like to cook crabs whole because I eat all of the parts of the crab and want to keep the shell juices and crab fat (tomalley). If you’re interested in cleaning and breaking down raw crab to only cook the legs and body, you can use this tool and instruction video

How long to steam a whole Dungeness crab

25 minute timer on phone

Steaming crab can take 15-30 minutes, depending on the size and weight of the Dungeness crab. We steam the whole crab over medium-high heat for at least 30 minutes for a two-pound crab. 

How to tell when crab is done cooking

holding steamed Dungeness crab with tongs

When cooking the whole crab by steaming or boiling, it can be challenging to figure out when it’s done. The best indicator that it’s done is when the Dungeness crab’s shell changes color from dark brown to bright orange. You may also see yellow-white, opaque solidified fat coming out of the crab when they’re finished. And once you open it, the meat should be tender and opaque (while raw meat is more translucent). The tomalley is also a bright mustard color. 

How to break down (or “clean”) a crab

This is how I break down my cooked Dungeness crab:

dungeness crab upside down

1. Turn the crab upside down, so the abdomen is facing up. Open the abdomen flap (or apron) and remove it from the body.

pulling apart top and bottom of crab shell
removing bottom of crab shell to reveal tomalley

2. There should be a small hole in the space where the flap is removed. Split open the shell from the body by using this small hole. I like to put both thumbs facing out into the hold and pry open the crab like you’re opening a book. TIP: keep the back shell as flat on the table as possible, so you don’t spill the juice and tomalley if you’re going to eat this part.

picking off Dungeness crab gills

3. Remove and discard the spongy gills and the hard mandible shells from the body. You may also have excess pieces of the tomalley on the body, you can eat this or remove it. 

Dungeness crab tomalley with rice

4. Option to eat the tomalley from the back shell either by itself or mixing some rice into it.

breaking in half Dungeness crab body

5. To break down the body with the legs, split the body in the middle, so you have two parts with legs and half a body. You don’t need a knife to split it open, just fold it towards itself, and it should break. 

6. Each half should have four crab legs, making four sections along the body. Using your hands (or a knife), separate the crab legs and body into four sections. I like using my hands because it doesn’t create small pieces of broken shells between each section. You should end up with eight total “lollipop” legs and parts of the body. 

Dungeness crab leg with shell removed

7. Cracking open the legs is easiest with tools. Use crab pickers and your hands to remove the meat from the shells. Also, use crab crackers to break down thicker pieces of leg shells. 

Tools to eat a Dungeness crab

crab cracker, metal pick, kitchen shears

Crab tools are necessary for breaking down and eating Dungeness crab because the legs can be pretty difficult to open, and the intricacy of the inner cartilage can be annoying to pick through. Here are some tools and accessories I like to have on hand whenever we host a crab boil: 

  • claw cracker
  • crab / seafood picker
  • kitchen shears
  • bib, optional
  • disposable gloves, optional 

The best ways to eat Dungeness crab?

In terms of just eating the crab, I like it plain. Just crab meat with a simple dipping sauce of salt, pepper, and lime / lemon juice. Sometimes an occasional dip in melted butter, but when the crab is good this isn’t even necessary.

For good side dish pairings (besides good ‘ole rice), our go-to side dishes for crab boils are garlic noodles, grilled corn on the cob, grilled clams, potatoes, and raw oysters

Saving and storing leftover crab

Dungeness crab empty shells

While most days I eat one crab in one sitting, some years we get a bounty, and crabs are larger than expected. If you have leftovers, I recommend only keeping cooked crab in the fridge for 3-5 days. You can also store cooked crab in the freezer for up to one month. The earlier you eat it, the better it’ll taste. If you have time, break down the crab before placing it in the fridge so you don’t have to worry about reheating it in a shell later. My favorite ways to eat leftover crab are in sushi, like California rolls, or make crab cakes with a crab cake sauce!

Dungeness crab on a tray icon

How to Cook Dungeness Crab

5 from 3 votes
Steaming crab is the best way to cook Dungeness crab because you don’t need to worry about overcooking it!
BY: Huy Vu
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Total: 35 minutes
SERVINGS: 1 crab


  • 1 2 lb live Dungeness crab
  • filtered water

Equipment Used


  • Cleaning: Use tongs to hold the crab and hose it down outside if possible. You can also place it in a colander and rinse it under your sink. Turn the crab upside down to wash off all the grime from the tank.
  • Add water to the steamer and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  • When you see steam from the top, remove the lid and place the Dungeness crab upside down so that the abdomen faces upwards. Close the lid and steam for 25-30 minutes.
  • After 25 minutes, check to see if the crab changed color to bright orange and if there are fat pieces coming out of the shell.
  • Transfer to a plate and let sit until it’s cool enough to touch for about 10 minutes.
  • Serve with a side of salt, pepper, and lime. Or melted butter if you prefer.
Nutrition Facts
How to Cook Dungeness Crab
Amount per Serving
% Daily Value*
Vitamin A
Vitamin C
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American, Asian
Keyword: seafood
Did you cook this recipe?Tag @HungryHuy or #hungryhuy–I’d love to see it!

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2 comments on “How to Cook Dungeness Crab

  1. Russ says:

    5 stars
    Hey Huy, loved the article. Agree that steaming is best for all the reasons you mention. Allow me to share a tomalley recipe. I’m Japanese and we call it crab miso. This is grandpa’s recipe. Pull as much tomalley out with spoon and chopsticks into a bowl. Crack raw egg into bowl. Season with pepper, soy sauce, sesame oil, & 5 spice. Pour mixture in pan and make scramble eggs. Serve on top of warm rice to eat with your crab. My grandpa actually cooked the egg mixture in the crab shell on the stove. It works like a pan but stinks up the house from the burnt shell. Gonna make your house smell like an Asian fish house. Lol

    1. Huy @ Hungry Huy says:

      Thanks for sharing the recipe Russ, might have to give that a try 🙂

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