Ask Peter: Crayfish
I’ve been given a very large frozen cooked crayfish but I’ve never in my life prepped one myself. Can you please give me a few pointers to how I should go about prepping and eventually eating a crayfish? Frits
Lucky you is all I can say. I was looking at some live British lobsters last weekend in Weymouth where I was cooking at the Dorset Seafood Festival, one of the largest seafood festivals in Europe. And although they have lovely claws, which are packed full of meat, I would rather eat a New Zealand crayfish any day. The meat of our local spiny lobsters (as they’re also known) to me has a better density and texture and much earthier flavour. I have no idea why our lobsters have such small claws and their Northern cousins such huge ones, and I’d hate to see them fighting each other but I was intrigued to read that in the early 1900s, millions of lobster larvae were released from Dunedin-based hatcheries, attempting to establish the Northern brutes in our waters. I hate to think what might have happened if they’d succeeded — would the northern cousins with their huge claws have simply wiped our fellas out? We know what’s happened to so much of our wildlife as a direct result of importing stoats, deer and possums.
Firstly, defrost your crayfish very slowly. This means overnight, or it may need longer, in a covered dish in the fridge. If it’s really large, it could take 24 hours. Don’t defrost under running water to speed things up — this is not only a waste of water, but the outside of the cray will be at a warmer temperature for so much longer than the centre of the cray that you could make yourself a little ill. Once the cray is defrosted, you need to separate the tail from the head. In some cases, wearing kitchen gloves or using two tea towels (because the crayfish is a spiky beast) you can simply twist the tail then pull the tail from the upper half.
Sometimes this doesn’t work as the join can be too strong, so you’ll need to carefully cut the two apart. To do this, using a short knife, cut between the head and tail but only poking the knife in 5mm or so — you’re simply cutting the membrane that hold both together. Once you’ve cut through, twist the two apart. The claws and head all contain meat.
To access the claw meat, snap them at their joints and carefully but firmly pull apart. You can then crack them in two, making sure you don’t crush the flesh inside, and pull this out.
A small hammer, or a tool called a “lobster cracker” will help crack the shells. You can use a wooden satay stick to help draw out the flesh in the long thin claws. On my Instagram account last weekend you’ll see what a hammer did to help me removing meat from a huge crab’s claw.
In the head you’ll find a lot of meat, and it ranges from soft brown deliciousness (not to everyone’s taste) to some tiny white pieces, all caught up in the area where the legs join the underbelly. You just need to break the head lengthways in two, and go for it.
The tail is where the real prize is — one large “fillet” of meat running from the joint you twisted open to the tail. Using kitchen scissors, cut along the underside of the tail to the right and left of each side where the softer shell meets the spiky sides – and cut towards the tail. Think of it as a shoe liner. This will be relatively easy to cut, but do be careful you don’t gouge yourself with the shell’s spikes. Pull this shoe liner out. Use your fingers, or a teaspoon, to wiggle and separate the flesh from the curved tail shell, and gently but firmly pull the flesh out in one piece.
As to how to eat it, there are so many ways.
As it’s already cooked, you could simply slice the meat 5mm thick and lay on top of a new potato, dill and cucumber salad, then dress it with mayonnaise mixed with a little wasabi and a small amount of grated fresh ginger, or shredded sushi ginger and coriander.
Toss slices with freshly cooked and drained hot short pasta (farfalle, penne, orecchiette) that you’ve tossed with a light coconut cream, or dairy cream, warmed with a reduction of bisque made from the crayfish shells that you roast until crisp, then smash with a hammer and simmer three hours with a little tomato paste, aromatics and a pinch of saffron.
Crayfish has a subtle earthy flavour, so whatever you do with it, just make sure the flavours you use are not overpowering.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.