Crabs, kielbasa, corn, potatoes/Photos by Donna Turner Ruhlman

By far the best meal of the summer was our crab boil during our week in Ocracoke.  And like many “best” meals, it was unplanned, a surprise, a gift we were smart enough to take advantage of.  Donna has pals from her native Port Washington, NY, who have houses here, one of whom owns a popular restaurant on this lovely barrier island off the coast of North Carolina (a ferry-ride away from Cape Hatteras). So she found us a swank house on the water where we and friends and Donna’s sister and nieces could frolic.

In the grass beside the house was an old crab pot. In the house was my sun-averse pal Lester. In the fridge, was a beef heart.

As the sun set, Lester lowered the trap, stuffed with beef heart trim, into the water at the end of the dock.  Within an hour, astonishingly, we had a half dozen crabs.

Within two hours we had one.  The pot was riddled with holes.

It took some doing, but Lester and his wife Lee, managed to patch the thing just enough and take enough care checking the pot, pulling out crabs as they were caught, over the course of two days to catch than twenty crabs (more if you count the little ones and the egg-bearing mommas we threw back).

Plenty for eight people.  There wasn’t an easier meal to prepare for eight, nor one more fun. That the centerpiece of the meal was wild made made the eating delicious and thrilling.

How To Prepare An Easy Crab Boil

The following is more method than recipe as your crab boil depends on how many you’re serving.  The general idea though works for any number of people or pot size.  Of course the bigger the pot the longer it’s going to take to cook.  We used two big pots. The potatoes are sliced and submerged in water so that they cook in the same time as the rest of the ingredients, which steam. But basically the method is throw everything in a pot and cook till done, all there is too it.

  • New potatoes (2 or 3 per person depending on their size, cut in half-inch slices)
  • Salt to taste
  • Crab boil seasoning (we found Zatarain’s liquid, but I’d recommend the dry)
  • Live crabs (2 or 3 per person)
  • Corn (an ear per person, halved)
  • Keilbasa or other smoked sausage (1/4 to 1/2 pound per person)
  • Plenty of butter for dipping
  • Newspapers for covering the table
  • Little forks or skewers and claw crackers to get at the crab meat (we used rocks and wood skewers)
    1. Put the potatoes in an appropriately sized pot. Add the potatoes; they should cover the bottom of the pot.  Cover them with water by about an inch.  Add crab boil seasonings and a few four finger pinches of salt.  Put your crabs, corn and keilbasa into the pot with a cover.  Put the pot over high heat.  Pay attention to when the water reaches a boil; when it does, reduce the heat to medium high.  Cook for another 12 to 18 minutes or until the crabs are steamed through.
    2. Hold the lid the pot ajar and dump the water, keeping the food in the pot. Upend the pot in the center of a table covered with newspaper.  Make sure plenty of melted butter is on the table and a couple bottles of cold white wine.
    3. Feast!


Female and male crab; how does such a design feature happen?


I haven't sat at a happier table than this one in a long time.

If you liked this post on the crab boil, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


23 Wonderful responses to “How To Prepare a Simple Crab Boil”

  • Wilma de Soto

    Yum! Crab “bawls” are so much fun. Not just because they’re so delicious but the whole ritual of cracking them open, getting out the meat and the sheer messiness of it all makes us feel like kids again. Catching your own just adds to the magic. No wonder it was such a happy table!

  • Eric Van de Velde

    The food looks great, but I never understood this thing about pouring it out on newspaper. This is one tradition that belongs in the trash heap of history. In the not too distant future, you can pour the crab boil on your impeccably clean iPad?

  • Tere Kirkland

    Mmm, those are some beauties!

    Zatarain’s also has bags, which is what my husband uses, along with a little dry, plus more of his own dry seasoning. Now I want some burled crabs!

  • J.W. Hamner

    As a Maryland native it’s hard to see pictures of crabs being boiled instead of steamed in heaps of Old Bay (as all right thinking people know is the *only* proper way)… but I can’t slight any opportunity for friends and a family to gather around a table covered in old newspapers!

    • Mantonat

      As it indicates in the blog post, the crabs are steamed. There’s only enough water to cover the potatoes, not the corn, crab, or sausage. I would probably sprinkle some extra seasoning over crab before loading them in the pot though.

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    I cannot believe this is your post…you cannot imagine how long I have desired to make a home kitchen crab boil but for reasons that are completely irrational I just never had the courage. I have read and read and even bought books on it but still never had the courage. Of all the food I have ever wanted to cook: a crab boil is at the top and for some psychological reason I have never been able to overcome and to just do it. I have memorized how Jasper White adds an egg; how someone else packs each portion in old onion bags to contain individual servings…and have a list of ingredients sitting on the front seat of my car thinking if I ever get the courage up and go the market I will at least have the recipe and ingredients with me…

    Oh thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart for this post and even though it looks so easy and my desire is so strong to do it…well maybe now I am one step closer…I even have a huge spaghetti pot complete into which to dump all the ingredients and then sit that pot into the water (I bought that specifically for a crab boil I was going to make three years ago and guess what…yup never used it …)

    • Rhonda


      No worries.

      There is no way to get this wrong, no matter how hard you try.

      I am in the midst of a move right now but one day, it would be my pleasure to have you to my home to enjoy a crab boil or any food for that matter.

      You keep talking and speaking that you do “not have the courage” to do such and such…

      Maya Angelou did not speak for 7 years. She spoke when she was damn well ready and not a second before.

      …When SHE was ready — not before (It was well worth the wait, I must say).

      So, will you — cooking wise.

      When you are ready, you will cook. Not a second before. The timing will be perfect and I think you will be spectacular when all of that creative energy that has been perfecting is released.

      Until then, you have friends to feed your creativity, soul and imagination.

      Best to you,


  • Amy Davies

    I am from Beaufort, SC and this exactly the way we always make Frogmore Stew a/k/a Beaufort Stew using either shrimp or crab and sometimes both. These days you see people putting all kinds of stuff in Beaufort Stew. It is cooked outside and dumped out on newspaper covered picnic tables for everyone to tuck in and the newspaper makes for easy clean up. Thanks for sharing!

  • Liz @ Butter and Onions

    Love Ocracoke! I’m in NC, and can’t wait to go back for a visit, even if it’s not the most convenient place to go. I love the remoteness of it. Glad you got to check it out!

  • Tom

    I’m sure this and other crab boils are great, but I’ve always wondered why good summer corn is purposefully ruined by being boiled to death.

  • mpw280

    We had a beach camp out at our subdivision the other weekend and to this basic method they added lobster and andouille sausage. It was very well received to say the least. mpw

  • Pat

    I think you need beer — preferably canned or from a keg — for this type of feast!
    Natalie, for a similar meal, check Barefoot Contessa’s website or books for her Kitchen Clambake. I have not done it but it looks pretty easy.
    All of it looks yummy. Thanks for the tips and pics.

  • Nancy Sussan

    Atypically, my favorite part of this story was not the yummy bits but where you discovered the hole in the pot. Seemed noble to give the crabs a fighting chance. “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, a hole in the bucket dear Liza, a hole. Well fix it dear Henry, dear Henry.” How those Sesame Street songs stay with us. The food did look great tho and thanks for the sex lesson, tho have to say not sure I could quite discern the difference.

  • Marc

    “why good summer corn is purposefully ruined by being boiled to death.” Here it’s steamed but I’d admit too much if it goes in at the start. However, this is one situation where slightly over cooked corn, when included in the event, can be tolerated!

  • Stephen Grimmer

    Great post, Mr. Ruhlman! We had our honeymoon on Ocracoke back in 96 and it was great. We ate at the Back Porch, bought the cookbook, and use it to this day. If you’d like to up the ante on your crab boil, try heading north to New England for a clam bake on the beach. In New Bedford MA when I was in grad school we used to do one a month in the summer. Dig a big pit in the sand, add big beach stones, build a good fire. When it’s down to coals, cover the coals with seaweed, and put in a couple of chickens, a couple of lobsters, a couple dozen littleneck clams, a dozen baby red potatoes, and 6-8 ears of corn. Cover the pit with a sheet of metal, and let her steam and smoke for an hour or so. Open and enjoy!

  • Dru Peters

    In these parts we prefer the crabs steamed rather than boiled..but a treat no matter how you cook them! And always an amazing surprise when the trap fills up. Thanks for throwing the females back, we need them for more crabs next year..

  • Karin

    Love Ocracoke! My (former) husband is a decendent of the islands original Williams family. They now live on the bay side, a mile from the ferry. Spent lovely summers there when my children were little. I too have eaten at the Backporch and own their cookbook. Some of my favorite meals are from those recipes. Thanks for the trip down memory lane

  • Abigail Blake

    When I was a kid, we used to catch crabs with a chicken neck tied to a long string. All you needed was a net to scoop the crab and a bucket to put your haul in. Worth a try when you find yourself with a holey crab pot.