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Cooking of crayfish

Cooked signal crayfish Like lobster, mussels and other shellfish, crayfish are always cooked alive. The crayfish die within a few seconds after being dropped into the boiling stock.

Picture on right: cooked signal crayfish.

The cooked, cooled crayfish get their characteristic flavour from the salt and crown dill used to flavour the stock.

Read more about crayfish here.

12 - 15 alive and active noble or signal crayfish per diner
thin slices of freshly toasted white bread
chopped baby dill
(lemon wedges)
(smetana or crème fraîche)
cooking stock:
regular, coarse-grained sea salt
large bunch of crown dill

Do not catch or buy crayfish that are smaller than 10 centimetres long  —  there is not much to eat in small individuals, and if caught, they must be released back to the wild.

Thoroughly rinse the crayfish in cold, running water and check that each one is alive and active. Sort the crayfish in groups according to their size, and cook them in batches. If crayfish of different sizes are cooked together, the smallest will become overcooked and dry by the time the large ones are cooked.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Use enough water to entirely cover the crayfish, about 1 litre of water for every 8 crayfish. Add the salt and the crown dill bunch. Use about 35 to 40 grams of sea salt for every 1 litre of water. The amount of salt can be diminished. (Some people add a dash of beer and a couple of sugar cubes in the stock as well.) You can tie the dill bunch with cooking twine, which helps to remove it from the pan after cooking.

As soon as the water starts to boil rapidly again, start dropping in the crayfish, head and stomach first, one at a time. Do not cook more than 6 to 12 crayfish at a time. Cook the crayfish for about 5 minutes (between 2 and 10 minutes, depending on their size). Begin timing as soon as the water returns to a rolling boil, after the dropping of the last crayfish in the pot. When done, crayfish should have a visible chink between the shell and the tail. Like lobsters, the crayfish turn bright orange-red when boiled.

If cooking the crayfish in several batches, use a slotted spoon to lift the previous batch out of the pot.

Cooling of crayfish

Cooling the cooked crayfish When all the crayfish have been cooked, strain the cooking stock and remove the dill, which will turn the stock bitter if left to cool in it. Put both the crayfish and the stock back in the washed pot or in another clean dish.

Picture on right: cooked signal crayfish cooling in a saucepan placed in cold water bath.

Add some fresh crown dill and place the dish in a cold water bath to cool, eg in the kitchen sink. The faster the crayfish are chilled, the better they will keep, so keep changing the water in the water bath to cold one.

After the crayfish and the stock have cooled down, remove the dill, cover the dish and place it in refrigerator or some other cold enough place.

Crayfish are at their best when left to steep in the stock for 6 to 12 hours. Properly chilled crayfish keep in their stock up to 2 days stored in cold. They may also be frozen in their cooking stock (not recommended, though).

Before serving, strain the crayfish and arrange them decoratively on a large serving platter. Garnish with fresh crown dill.

Precooking of crayfish

In some recipes, especially the older ones, the crayfish are briefly blanched in plain boiling water before being cooked in the flavoured stock. According to some, this will result in a clearer and fresher tasting crayfish stock. However, to avoid overcooking, this step is usually omitted and the living crayfish are cooked straight away in the flavoured stock, especially as the recommended cooking time for crayfish seems to shorten year by year.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. In the same time, bring the flavoured stock (a sufficient amount of water, salt and crown dill) to the boil in another large pot. After blanching in the boiling water, the crayfish will be transferred straight into the boiling flavoured stock.

Drop about a dozen crayfish (or more, depending on the size of the pot) in the boiling water. Cook them for 1 minute, starting timing as soon as the water returns to a rolling boil. Lift the crayfish out with a slotted spoon and plunge them in the boiling flavour stock. Cook them for about 2 to 5 minutes, starting timing as soon as the water returns to a rolling boil. Proceed by cooling the crayfish as described in the instructions above.

Refreshing of frozen crayfish

Ready-cooked crayfish are also available frozen, although their taste is not as good as that of freshly cooked crayfish. To improve their taste, they can be defrosted immersed in a stock similar to the cooking stock of fresh crayfish.

about 1000 g cooked, frozen crayfish (eg Spanish)
defrosting stock:
regular, coarse-grained sea salt
1 - 2 large bunches of crown dill
(1 - 2 large bunches of baby dill)

Without opening their package, let the crayfish thaw in refrigerator until they are semi-defrosted. Prepare enough stock to entirely cover the crayfish. Bring the water to the boil in a large saucepan. Add the salt and the crown dill bunch. Use about 20 grams of sea salt for every 1 litre of water. (Some people add a dash of beer and a couple of sugar cubes in the stock as well.) Let the stock boil for about 5 minutes, then strain it. Discard the dill, it will turn the stock bitter if left to cool in it.

Open the crayfish package and pour out the accumulated juices. Layer the crayfish in a large saucepan or bowl with some new, fresh sprigs of crown or baby dill. Pour over the warm stock to entirely cover the crayfish. Place the dish in cold water bath to cool, then cover it and place in refrigerator or other cool place for from a few hours to overnight. Strain the crayfish and serve and eat like freshly cooked crayfish (see below).

Shelling and eating of crayfish

Crayfish toast Crayfish are always eaten with the hands. There are no strict rules on how they should be shelled, but they should preferably be eaten with as few and simple additives as possible, so as not to mask their delicate, sweet flavour.

The meat detached from the claws and tail are the main parts of crayfish to be eaten. After being picked out, they can either be eaten plain, or arranged on a slice of freshly toasted, buttered white bread slice, sprinkled with chopped fresh dill.

Picture on right: shelled crayfish tails and claw meat with dill on hot buttered toast.

In addition, you can drizzle the meat with a few drops of lemon juice and top it with a dollop of smetana or crème fraîche, although these additives are too strong to be used with the finest types of crayfish meat, like that of the exquisitely delicate Finnish noble crayfish.

Shelling crayfish is very messy, so before starting to eat, protect your clothing by tucking a napkin into your collar or putting on a crayfish bib.

Described below is the way to shell and eat crayfish that I was taught as a child by my relatives (thank you, Arja and Aleksei!).

How to shell crayfish

Figure 1
Prick a hole on the back
1. Take one crayfish from the serving plate. Holding the crayfish on your plate, prick a small hole on its back (in the centre of the thorax shell) using the sharp point of a crayfish knife. Bring the crayfish to your mouth, lean your head backwards and suck out the juices though the hole.

Figure 2
Detach the front legs
2. Detach the first pair of legs with the pincer-like claws from the body.

Figure 3
Separate the claws
3. Separate the claws from the legs.

Figure 4 Figure 5
Clip off the claw tips Clip off the claw tips
4. - 5. Using the hole in the crayfish knife, clip off the tips of the claw and suck out the juices.

Figure 6
Break off the smaller claw part
6. Gently break off the smaller, moving part of the claw. It should be pulled off leaving the meat behind.

Figure 7
Slit the claw shell open and pick out the meat
7. Slit the claw shell open along the shorter side using the crayfish knife, trying not to damage or break up the meat inside. Pick out and eat the claw meat.

If the legs are large enough, break them at the joints, suck out the juices and pick out the meat. This can be done to all the other legs as well.

Note that some crayfish individuals or species may have claws too small or hard to be eaten. For example, the shell of the signal crayfish is usually harder to crack than that of the delicate Finnish noble crayfish, which often requires no other tools than fingers and teeth to extract the meat. For harder-shelled crayfish, instead of the crayfish knife, you can use a sturdy, hinged nut or lobster cracker to break the shell and claws.

Figure 8
Twist off the tail from the body
8. Holding the crayfish body, twist off the tail with your other hand.

Figure 9 Figure 10
Cut off the head Detach the head

9. - 10. Detach the head from the body by cutting it off just behind the eyes with a knife.

There is not much to eat in the head or the centre body (thorax) of the crayfish, so usually just the juices are sucked out of them.

Figure 11 Figure 12
Detach the shell from the body Detach the shell from the body

11. - 12. Detach the shell from the body and eat the yellowish white fat  —  called "crayfish butter"  —  which you find deposited inside the shell, by scraping it out with a knife. Note that some crayfish do not contain this fat.

Remove any possible entrails from inside the thorax and suck the juices out of it and the legs.

The eggs possibly carried by a female crayfish under its body can also be eaten.

Figure 13
Cut open the tail shell
13. Loosen the tail meat by cutting open and/or breaking the shell segments on the underside of the tail.

Figure 14
Detach the tail meat
14. Carefully pull out the tail meat.

Figure 15
Remove the vein
15. Strip off the piece of flesh running along the top centre of the tail, exposing the white or dark coloured vein under it. Remove the vein, as shown in the picture above.

Figure 16
Shelled crayfish tail
16. Shelled crayfish tail.

Recipe source: traditional Finnish and Swedish recipe.


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