Generally speaking, crab dishes get less reputable the more ingredients they include that are not crab meat. Crab imperial and deviled crab might still show up on the menu at a semi-serious seafood restaurant. Crab puffs make a fine, if indulgent, hors d’oeuvre. I have a crab cookbook in my home, full of adventurous, mostly ill-advised crab concoctions, like “Tomato Tortilla with Crab ‘n’ Cheese,” and “Small Boat Harbor Pizza with Crab,” and the truly appetizing “Crab and Flat Beer Omelet.” Yikes.
On one end you’ve got crab cakes, and lump crab cocktail, and things like king and snow crab legs, and stone crab claws—clean and fresh and respectable crab foodstuffs, mostly featuring the best and most succulent crab parts. Then you’ve got your crab soups and chowders and bisques, which mostly use the less impressive, cheaper parts of the crab. Somewhere down from there (but still well above the terrifying “Love Point Cheesecake”) is good ol’ crab dip: too padded and indulgent for your high-end seafood joint, but a favorite of the kitsch-laden all-American public house.
Beyond that it is outrageously delicious, here is an argument for making crab dip: Crab dip is the best use of packaged, pasteurized lump crab meat, the kind that is readily available at seafood counters everywhere. A crab cake made with the pasteurized stuff is a lot less delicious than one made with fresh crab meat. Still delicious! But I submit these lesser, pasteurized crab cakes are a poor use of packaged, pasteurized crab meat, because the pasteurization of crab meat changes the crab’s texture and saps it of quite a lot of its flavor. Your bitchin’ jumbo lump crab cakes (held together by love!) put the meat front and center, only the meat isn’t totally up to the task.
Not so with delicious hot crab dip. Crab dip actually benefits from some of what pasteurization does to crab meat. The process firms up the meat, which will make it seem frustratingly denser and chewier than the fresh stuff when presented in a crab cake, but will allow it to hold up inside a cauldron of melted dairy, and announce itself with gusto when it finds its way between your teeth. And, look, they’re not gonna stop canning and pasteurizing crab meat. It’s out there, right now, rammed into a layer of crushed ice at your grocery store, smiling obligingly with the can-do spirit of something that knows that 80 percent of fresh crab meat is still pretty fuckin’ good.
OK, it’s not smiling. It’s dead. Plus it’s crab meat. But it’s there, and it will make an ass-kicking hot crab dip that you will slurp down with unsettling ferocity. Let’s get to it.
Your shopping list here is, umm, extensive*. Some of this shit you’ve probably already got kicking around in your pantry and your refrigerator: mayonnaise; mustard; Worcestershire sauce; paprika; butter; a lemon; some parsley; some scallions; some garlic. Some of this shit you might even have leftover from some previous culinary adventure: cream cheese; fish sauce; Old Bay. And some of this shit you definitely do not have in your kitchen right now: serrano peppers; shallots; canned artichoke hearts; containers of crab meat. Sorry, man. It’ll be worth it! I swear! Also, you will need a medium-sized sauce pan or some other deep-sided cooking vessel.
*Not all of this stuff is strictly necessary. If all you’ve got is cream cheese, mayonnaise, a can of artichoke hearts, and some crab meat, you can get some of the rest of the way there with salt and pepper. I urge you to go the full way, here, because this recipe is the result of a lot of experimentation, and I am about to write many, many words about it, and you thumbing your nose at all this work will make you my hated enemy for life.
Many crab dip recipes will have you prepping your crab dip at room temperature, then plopping it into a casserole or baking dish and sticking it into a hot oven for half an hour. It’s OK. I have made baked crab dip many times, in fact, and, sure enough, at the end what you’ve got is crab dip.
But baking is a strange, arm’s-length, vaguely alchemical way of cooking food. You combine all these ingredients into a mix that only references the finished product, and then you stash the mix in a hot box for a period of time, and you hope that what comes out at the end is what you intended.
The great thing about stovetop cooking is you can control every step of the process. If the food’s not salty enough, you stir in a pinch of salt, and taste. If it’s too loose, you add something to thicken it, and taste. If it needs a grind of pepper, or a splash of stock, or a glug of oil, or 19 quivering fistfuls of cheese, you just add and taste, and you don’t stop adding and tasting until it’s done and/or you’ve had a massive coronary and died.
Another bad thing about baked crab dip, specifically, is yanking the bubbling dip out of the oven at a thousand miles per hour, pounding it down on the counter, dunking a hunk of bread the size of the Lusitania down in there, and realizing all at once that the middle of the dip is still room temperature and unmelted, while the outside edges are browned and turning crunchy. You had it on the wrong temperature, this is your fault, don’t blame the oven. Yes, shut up. Acknowledging my failure to pick the right temperature range for this exact preparation will not salvage this batch of crab dip, you dick.
The main thing, though, is that I never would have hit upon this crab dip recipe if I’d been determined to stick with baking. It was only while stirring and tasting that I decided the mix would benefit from a hit of lemon zest and a blast of fish sauce, and I mean to tell you the difference those two ingredients make is pretty huge. And because the dairy base of this dip was piping hot and melted, folding in the lump crab meat without busting it all to hell was incredibly easy. Remember that next time you try to fold delicate crab meat into room temperature cream cheese, and wind up with something the texture of deviled ham.
Alright, maybe I wasn’t totally OK with baking the crab dip. This is a very emotional topic for me, I don’t like talking about it! Point is, we’re gonna be doing this on the stovetop.
So, get yourself some crab meat. I used both a container of jumbo lump crab meat and a container of regular lump crab meat. In the end, this yielded roughly 44 pounds of crab dip, which I am embarrassed to say lasted for roughly one and a half meals, and even that was an enormous feat of moderation. It was an expensive meal and a half, too: jumbo lump crab meat can run you 35 bucks for one packed container, and the regular lump might run you another 28 bucks. That’s outrageous!
I don’t know what to tell you about that, except to say that I knew these insane prices going in, yet I went in anyway, because crab meat is so fucking delicious, and crab dip is just a ridiculously rich and decadent indulgence. I’ll be eating frozen broccoli for the next two weeks, sure, but I’ll be dreaming of gooey, lumpy crab dip. Besides, crab cakes are about as expensive as crab dip, but crab dip is more substantial, and so, in theory, it could cover you for more meals, if you had even the remotest little bit of self-control. At any rate, I think it’s worth it.
Your dip doesn’t need to be an $80 abomination. Maybe you don’t want 44 pounds of hot crab dip. If that’s the case, get yourself a single can of crab meat. I’m going to proceed as if you’re going the whole way and using two cans. If you’re not, just cut this recipe roughly in half. Also, if you’re using only one container, go for the jumbo lump. The regular lump is perfectly tasty, but because it’s made up of smaller lumps and threads, you’ll wind up with a less special, less delicious dip, and the $7 savings won’t seem like very much.
Back to the cooking. The very first thing we’re gonna do is soften some good-smelling, good-tasting vegetation. Finely chop a couple cloves of garlic, a golf-ball sized portion of shallots, and one or two serrano peppers. The alliums are standard tasty aromatics, but the peppers are there to add heat. There won’t wind up being enough pepper in there that the dip will be very spicy, but you’ll notice a welcome little kick that’ll wake up your tastebuds. If chopping serrano peppers is too much for your weak baby heart, go ahead and use a pinch or two of crushed red pepper flakes. Melt a fat pad of butter in a sauce pan over medium heat, and then drop the garlic, shallots, and peppers in there and stir them around. We just want this stuff to soften. Give it a couple minutes.
When the veg action is soft, drop, say, a hand-sized blob of cream cheese into the pan and use whatever stirring implement you’ve got to bust it up and stir it around. If you are Dikembe Mutombo, do not drop a hand-sized blob of cream cheese in there. They do not make cream cheese blobs that size. We’re looking for something like eight to 10 ounces of cream cheese. The base of this dip is going to be mostly cream cheese and mayonnaise. In fact, you could technically make your crab dip out of just warmed cream cheese and mayonnaise mixed together with lumps of crab meat, but without some kind of fancy garnish people will for sure think you are a sad, desperate person.
The cream cheese is going to melt in there, which is what it’s supposed to do. Once it’s mostly melted, drop a couple heaping spoonfuls of mayo in there and stir things around. Because there’s a lot of oil in there, the mixture is going to form a kind of loose blob that never seems to break up into a lake, as melted things typically do. That’s OK! Just stir this off-putting off-white blob around over medium heat until its internal texture is nice and smooth. If it seems thicker than, say, Olive Garden alfredo sauce, you’re going to thin it with, yes, more mayo. No, this will not be a healthy thing to eat, unless you are strictly following a ketogenic diet, and perhaps not even then.
Now. One of the very best things about eating crabs—whole hardshell Chesapeake blue crabs, of course—is the little pillow of glistening, bright yellow “mustard” that sits in a healthy crab’s central cavity. I am told this “mustard” is an organ that is unique to crabs and lobsters, called the hepatopancreas. I always thought it was fat. Whatever. It’s the most delicious thing in the whole universe, and whenever I make anything with crab meat, I once again haul out every ingredient in my entire kitchen in an effort to approximate the flavor of crab mustard. I have never gotten close. The mixture I am about to share with you is cheap, and quick, and will add an earthy, mustardy piquancy that is welcome and pleasant, even while it is a pale and unworthy rendition of the real thing. Mix together a healthy squirt of yellow mustard, a couple splashes of Worcestershire sauce, a couple pinches of Old Bay, and a dusting of paprika. Taste this with a finger so that you can appreciate how totally not spectacular it is, then add it to the mix, where it will combine with the softened garlic and shallot to form something special and nice in your finished dip.
We are now going to progress to the stage where we add artichoke hearts to our dip. Whoever first discovered this combination deserves a goddamn Nobel prize. Chopped artichoke hearts have a delicate texture that is vaguely reminiscent of lump crab meat, and vaguely look like crab meat. But our reason for adding chopped artichoke hearts to our crab dip is not so that we can pad it out and fool ourselves into thinking we’re eating lots of crab. We’re adding it because it’s goddamn delicious, and something about the briny tang of artichoke hearts complements the crab meat. Also, ahem, yes, this will pad out our crab dip quite a bit.
Open and fully strain a can or two of artichoke hearts, roughly chop up the hearts on your cutting board, then fold them into your dip mixture. Artichoke hearts are sold in jars and in cans. The jarred ones are usually fancier and more delicious, but that’s because they’re jarred in oil with herbs and such, and we don’t want any of that shit. The canned ones come in briny, artichoke-flavored water, and so the strained hearts taste, you know, like artichoke hearts. Go for the cans.
What you’ve now got in the sauce pan is a rich, savory, pretty loose artichoke dip. I want my artichoke dip to be gooey as hell, and so I like to add a mountain of cheese at this stage. I went with plain Monterrey jack, because it melts well and has an excellent blend of creaminess and saltiness. I grated a whole block, thinking I would use some of it in the dip and then have some left over for, I dunno, more meaty cheese dip. I wound up using probably 85 percent of the grated cheese, or two huge handfuls. Gradually stir in two Dikembe Mutombo-sized handfuls of grated cheese, until the mixture is, once again, smooth.
Now. Taste your dip mixture. Ohhhh man. It’s on its way, isn’t it? This is about where I decided I wanted to add fish sauce and lemon. You will have noticed that the dip doesn’t yet have any crab meat in it, and so of course it’s not very seafood-y. But the truth is, whatever else crab cakes and crab dip generally are, they aren’t usually very seafood-y (damn pasteurization). A crab cake, I have often thought, is seafood for people who don’t lust after seafood. I fucking love seafood. I come from a family of walruses. And so I want the seafood things that I eat to taste like the briny deep. Fish sauce will add a big hit of seafoodiness to the dip, and that’s what I wanted. Here’s my recommendation: stir in a couple splashes of fish sauce, and taste, and then tell me if you don’t immediately feel like what it needs, really, is another couple splashes of fish sauce. It’s good! It will be saltier and seafoodier if you add the dang fish sauce.
If you don’t have fish sauce, and don’t feel like buying fish sauce, you might have a can of clams gathering mouse poop in some dusty corner of your pantry, or some other non-tuna seafood stored in brine or water. You could try adding a splash of that brine, as a final, unanticipated use of a can of food that remembers your childhood. Your call.
I added lemon because lemon just makes things taste brighter and fresher, and that would be a neat trick to pull in a dish that, so far, is just a fucking tub of melted dairy. Use a zester or microplane or box grater or your hazardous second-day stubble to gather a big pinch of lemon zest, then add it to the mixture. This will give the dip a happy lemony aroma. Also, stir in a healthy squeeze of lemon juice. This will give the dip a happy lemony background flavor. You could also use a lime, if that’s what you’ve got.
We are now in the home stretch. The very last things we’ll add will be some fresh greenery, and the crab. Chop up a bunch of scallions and finely chop some fresh parsley, then stir them into the mixture. And, at long last, open those cans of crab meat. Fold in the regular lump crab first, since it won’t be diminished too much by more stirring. Then, when the first batch of crab meat is fully incorporated, gently, gently fold in the jumbo lump. Because the base is hot and loose, this should be simple. Just drop in a small handful of crab meat at a time, use a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to lift the cheesy goop up and over it, and move it around a little. Then add another handful, and repeat, and keep repeating until it’s all in there.
Hey, man! You’re done! That’s the whole damn thing, right there. Give it a couple more minutes on the stove to regain its lost heat, and then haul it off of there once and for all.
I happen to think there are two clear best choices for dipping into crab dip. The first is obvious: a warmed baguette, cut into little slices, is absolutely perfect. The second choice is completely out of left field, but was discovered via many sessions of advanced first-hand research: plain, salted, baked lentil chips have the exact right lightness and understated earthiness, not to mention a handy square garden spade shape that is perfect for shoveling dip into your face. Tortilla chips are too brittle for this sort of dense, heavy-duty dip, and too damn assertive and salty for as rich and complex and well-rounded a dip as this one. Pretzels might work? Don’t even think about stuffing a potato chip down in there. I mean I will come and find you, and it will not be pretty.
First things first: grab a fork or a spoon and give your hot stovetop crab dip a taste. Whoooooaaahhhhhhhmmmmmmmmmm. Yes, that’s exactly it. Creamy and gooey as hell. The delightful chew and ocean-y flavor of crab meat. A bright, briny salutation from the artichokes. A mild, tangy kick from the peppers and mustard. The big seafood-y crash of fish sauce and Old Bay. The unexpected fresh-tasting zing of lemon and parsley and scallion. Fuck me that’s delicious. You’re goddamn right it is.
Grab a cold beer or a chilled glass of white wine, or even a flute of friggin’ champagne. Or, hell, for that matter, a cold glass of club soda with a wedge of that lemon down in there. Spoon some of your crab dip into a bowl, take the bowl and the chips and/or bread and your frosty beverage, and go some place private. You’ll want to be alone for this—the feasting to come is going to be wildly indecent. Also, it will be a good idea to be very far from the motherlode. Crab dip has a way of disappearing with frightening speed.