Mile-High Crab Cakes

Mile-High Crab Cakes on a tray on a countertop.

You see them on the brunch menu all the time. Delightful little patties of delicate crab meat. They are the rare seafood treat that isn’t very in-your-face fishy and doesn’t require any special effort to eat. As a matter of fact, considering how challenging it is to eat crab from the shell, a crab cake is downright luxurious.

Making crab cakes at home… that is not quite as pleasant. Crab cakes are a great example of cooking as an art. A successful crab cake depends on a very specific, light, but firm texture. It must hold its shape while flipping in a frying pan when you cook it but remain delicate and flaky when you eat it. The ingredients are a predictable list of the usual suspects, but the measurements are a moving target. You should only have enough moisture to barely hold the crab cake together. And since moisture will come from all of the ingredients in unpredictable amounts, you have to use your judgment. Do I need more bread crumbs? Do I really bread crumbs at all? Choose wisely!

The Sharp Superheated Steam Countertop Oven is going to help us out in a couple of ways. First, we are going to bake our crab cakes. That will give us the chance to make a more delicate mixture since we won’t have to flip it. Second, the 485oF superheated steam is going to sear all sides of the crab cake at once, so we can create a better structure for taller and fluffier results.

The first choice that I am making is the aromatics, and I am going to use Trinity instead of Mirepoix. Mirepoix is 2-parts onion, one-part carrot, and one-part celery. That is fine and traditional, but I don’t feel that carrots and crab do much for each other. They match, but they don’t complement. Since crab cakes are typically mild in flavor, I want to make every ingredient count.

Trinity is equal parts onion, celery and bell pepper. Not only is the balance better, but diced red bell pepper will accentuate the sweetness of the crab meat and add a pop of color… A nice red color that is not only appetizing but is commonly associated with cooked shellfish. Red bell pepper also compliments the paprika better than carrot, and it cooks at the same time as the onion.

I sauteed the diced red bell pepper, onion, and celery together over medium-low heat with a scant pat of butter. You want the flavor of butter, but too much fat or oil will make the patty fall apart when it should be holding together. After the onions became translucent, I added lemony seasonings – a pinch of fresh thyme and chopped basil. You could also add some fresh lemon zest and fold everything together.

Now stop and take a look. Have the vegetables released most of their liquid? Did you cook-off the remaining liquid? Everything should be nice and dry, not saucy or soupy in any way. IF YOU CAN, a tablespoon of lemon juice or white wine would be great – but you will have to cook it off completely. You want the tangy zip in the Trinity, but no liquid in the pan. Maybe you can do it, maybe you can’t. Use your judgment, it will be fine either way. Take the pan off the heat to cool.

The crab meat should be lump crab meat, like claw meat – but not the most expensive jumbo lump. That is reserved for a crab cocktail where you want to see the very large pieces of meat. There is no reason to pay for jumbo lump since the mixture will break everything up anyway.

Sixteen ounces of crabmeat in a can is normally quite packed, but there will be liquid. Press and drain as much liquid out as you can. The canning liquid doesn’t taste that great, and rinsing is not an option, so drain thoroughly and add to a mixing bowl. This will also make it a little easier to look for shells. Honestly, you’re going to find one or two shells every time, but it isn’t that bad. Some people say that it is easier to feel shell pieces on your fingertips. Some say you should drag a fork through the meat and you will see, feel, and hear a shell hit the metal. Just give it a once-over and remove any bits that you wouldn’t want to bite down on.

Add the sauteed Trinity to the crabmeat and toss lightly to distribute evenly. We already added thyme and basil to the sautee, but take a moment. Normally, this would be where some people would add a quarter-cup of Old Bay Seasoning. I think that is criminal. I have no idea who decided that the delicate, sweet flavors of crab meat needed to be pummeled by a pungent, dusty spice mix that we treat more like curry than seasoning. For that matter, just make the cakes out of tuna fish or canned salmon. In my opinion, if you paid for crab meat, you should be able to taste crab meat.

My most radical choices for dry seasonings include course ground black pepper, a touch of freshly grated nutmeg, and a sprinkle of powdered chicken bullion.

I can hear the screams. Hear me out.

While French and Asian chefs would never use black pepper in a predominately white dish (opting for ground white pepper instead), I feel white pepper just makes white food turn grey. And the flavor is so subtle, that you need a lot of it to make a difference. I’d rather just lean into it and go big. I think the speckled appearance of course ground pepper is more engaging to see and more flavorful to eat.

A sprinkle of chicken bullion makes a lot of sense to me. Crab cakes are a lot of things, but they aren’t rich. Bouillon adds a little richness, a little seasoning, and a little salt. It is like training wheels for people that need to kick the Old Bay Seasoning habit. In the end, we are probably not going to need an egg – and egg yolk was the only other source of richness, so do yourself a flavor favor and try the bouillon. A sprinkle of paprika will also work here.

And nutmeg. Look. You’re not going to know that you’re tasting nutmeg. Your crab cakes won’t suddenly taste like a Pumpkin Spice Latte. A small grate of fresh nutmeg will combine with the thyme, onion, and red pepper and pull them all together. If you could taste “mellow”, this would be it. Naturally, it is optional, but you will be missing out on a dimension of flavor that really contributes to the dish.

Stop and take a look. You should have a flaky, loose, “salad” of seasoned crab meat and aromatic vegetables. Does it appear wet? You may want to add unflavored, plain breadcrumbs and toss to combine – then check again? Maybe a sprinkle of potato starch? You may lose some tenderness in the final product, but it is a gluten-free way around bread crumbs. If you don’t need any “dry” elements to restore the texture, then move on. Don’t add breadcrumbs for no reason. These aren’t meatballs.

If you are ready to add the wet ingredients, remember that we are aiming for just-barely-holds-together. We will fold in the wet ingredients with a rubber spatula a little at a time. When you first get the impression that you could use an ice-cream scoop and create a not-so-neat ball – stop and skip any remaining wet ingredients.

Yellow or Dijon mustard is popular. The flavor goes well and it is in a vinegar base, so you will get a little zip of acid. It is optional. If you added wine or lemon juice to the trinity, you already have acid, so you can skip the mustard altogether.

Mayonnaise is non-negotiable. You will need it. Not only does it add the um-ami, but it is made from eggs, and it will hold the cakes together as it cooks. In one pound of crab meat, you are going to need at least four tablespoons. Add and fold. Check the mix. Need more? Add and fold. Could you make a scoop with an ice-cream scooper? When the answer is, “yes”, stop.

If you need to reduce the fat, or you just don’t like mayonnaise that much, you can use less mayo and make up the difference will a well-beaten egg. You won’t need more than one. An egg adds a lot of moisture and binds up tightly when cooked, so you don’t want to make the crab cake tough by adding more than one.

Mile-High Crab Cakes on Baking Tray

The real secret to mile-high crab cakes is packing them. I keep a tin-can on hand. I think it used to be the home of some diced tomatoes. I have since used the can opener to remove the top and the bottom so that I could the metal tube. I use it a lot! Some days it’s a biscuit cutter. Sometimes I use it to lift a cake from a removable bottom cake pan. Sometimes I use it to suspend a dish in my steaming wok. Today, I used it as a mold.

With a greased baking liner underneath, I packed the crab meat mixture into the can at least three inches high, and lifted the can away to reveal perfect stacks! I kept making stacks until I was out of this mixture. It is important that the crab cakes not touch each other. They will fall a little, and they will plump a little, but a half-inch between them will be more than enough room.

I set the Sharp Superheated Steam Countertop Oven to 485oF and set the timer to 60 minutes KNOWING that I wasn’t going to leave them in for 60 minutes. I just didn’t know how long it would take to cook, so I wanted to cover my bases.

Mile-High Crab Cakes PreparationSteam Cooking Mile-High Crab Cakes

After 18 minutes, they looked pretty good. They were probably what a lot of people would consider, “done.” For me, I like to see a lot more color on my food. I want more caramelization and browning.

Steam Oven Baked Mile-High Crab Cakes

After a total of 35 minutes, this is my idea of crab cake perfection. The color and crispiness of a pan-fried crab cake without all the fuss. Also, my mixture made nine crab cakes at the same time. You just can’t do that in a frying pan.

Properly Browned Mile-High Crab Cakes

The crab cake may not be the queen of the brunch menu, but it is certainly a member of the royal family. When I run out of self-esteem and put on “the sweat pants”, I would serve the crab cake on an English muffin with a slice of Taylor ham (or pork roll!), a poached egg and some hollandaise sauce for a mind-blowing Crab Cake Benni (Benedict) with a mimosa on the side.

Plated Mile-High Crab Cakes

Today, good taste prevails and my sweat pants lay in wait for another day. A sprinkle of sesame seeds and a lemon wedge is a perfect, mindful brunch. Remember, these are big. I’m not saying that I couldn’t eat three of them, but they are bigger than any other crab cake that I have ever seen. Also, the way it worked out for me, (half-mayo, half-egg, no bread crumbs) these crab cakes get most of their calories from protein, then fat, and then almost no carbs. So if you are watching your macros, that is a pretty good balance.

Totally had the mimosa though.

Mile-High Crab Cakes

Indulgent for brunch or a light dinner entree, these Mile High Crab Cakes don't need to be fried in a pan and can be made in batches. Mindful preparation is the key!
Cook Time35 mins
Course: Breakfast, lunch
Cuisine: American
Keyword: brunch, crab, seafood
Servings: 4 people

Equipment

  • Sharp Superheated Steam Countertop Oven

Ingredients

  • 16 oz lump (claw) crab meat
  • 1/2 cup red bell pepper chopped
  • 1/2 cup celery chopped
  • 1/2 cup onion chopped
  • 1 pat butter or a teaspoon of oil
  • 1 tsp thyme fresh, chopped
  • 1 tsp basil fresh, chopped
  • 1 pinch nutmeg optional
  • 1 tbsp black pepper course ground
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice or white wine optional
  • 1 tsp paprika to taste, optional
  • 1 tsp chicken bullion powdered, optional
  • 1 tbsp mustard optional
  • 4 tbsp mayonnaise or more if necessary
  • 1 large whole egg optional, if necessary, well beaten
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs optional, if necessary
  • 1 pinch sesame seeds optional, garnish
  • 2 whole lemons cut into wedges to serve

Instructions

  • Sautee over medium heat, the Trinity (red bell pepper, onion, and celery) with a pat of butter or oil. Add the thyme, basil, and black pepper. Cook until the vegetables have given up all of their water. Optional addition of lemon juice or white wine, but the liquid must be cooked off. Set aside to cool.
  • Drain the crab meat well and remove any shells. Add the cooled Trinity sautee and toss to distribute. Add the optional chicken bouillon and nutmeg. Toss to combine.
  • Decide if the dry breadcrumbs are needed. Do not add them if you don't have to.
  • Add the wet ingredients. Yellow or Dijon mustard is optional. Add 4 tablespoons of mayo and fold to combine. Continue to add mayo OR a well-beaten egg until the mixture can form a loose ball.
  • Pack the mixture 3 inches high into the food molds. Continue with the rest of the mixture leaving a half-inch of space between the crab cakes.
  • Bake at 485°F for at least 18 minutes, or longer to achieve your desired level of doneness.
  • Serve with sesame seeds and lemon wedges.
    Three mile-high crab cakes on a tray next to a lemon.

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1 Sources: Buyology Inc., 2012; APCO Worldwide, 2013; Forbes, 2017; thomsonreuters.com

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