What Makes a Crab Cake Maryland?

Story by Kathryn McKay and Photography by Jacqueline Roggenbrodt. Reprinted from Summer 2002
Louisiana is famous for crawfish. Maine is the land of lobsters. Alaska is the state for salmon. Mention Maryland and you’re talking crabs. And when you’re talking crabs, you’re talking crab cakes— Maryland crab cakes.
In Southern Maryland, like all over Maryland, crab cakes are a favorite. My grandfather, W. Louis Ryon, used to say, “There’s nothing like a Southern Maryland crab cake.” I always figured he should know. He lived in Charles County for 80 years.
No matter where you are eating your crab cakes in Maryland, Barbara O’Banon of the National Marine Fisheries Service says, “Maryland crab cakes mean Maryland crabs.” Some Marylanders insist that a Maryland crab cake is any crab cake that’s seasoned with Old Bay, a Maryland made concoction of celery salt, pepper, mustard, pimento, cloves, and more. Some say the secret is to use only backfin crab meat. Still others argue, it’s any crab cake eaten in the state of Maryland.
Some folks say that traditional Maryland crab cakes are spicier than most. Others insist that they’re made with green peppers and onion. “Even chefs don’t agree on what makes a Maryland crab cake, but they would all claim theirs is the best,” says Whitey Schmidt, self-proclaimed “king of crabs” and author of Chesapeake Bay Waterside Dining Guide and The Chesapeake Bay Crabbiest Cookbook.
Actually Marylanders can all agree on one point: Maryland crab cakes must be made with blue crabs, scientifically known as Callinectes Sapidus, which translates into “the beautiful savory swimmer.” 

Maryland harvests millions of pounds of crab meat each year. That’s enough crab to create 324 crab cakes for every person living in Southern Maryland. But of course, not all crab goes into cakes and not all crab gets gobbled up here. Some meat goes into soups and salads. Other crabmeat gets stuffed into potatoes, mushrooms, and even green peppers. And, of course, Maryland crab is exported all around the world. But still there’s something about a Maryland crab cake.

Despite the fact that restaurants up and down the East Coast serve their own versions of “Maryland” crab cakes, we know the best Maryland crab cakes are made only in Maryland. I prefer to make them myself. Make them yourself, they’re more economical, you know how fresh the meat is and you’re not limited to the one or two that you’re usually served in a restaurant.
Pride in crab cakes runs deep through the state. My husband and I have relatives all over Maryland who claim their crab cakes can’t be beat. We never tire of tasting crab cakes, whoever they’re made by, but we do have our favorite recipes. My husband’s favorite recipe? His mother’s, of course! It’s a simple recipe with just enough ingredients so that the crab cakes stay together. And my favorite recipe? His mother’s too.
In the Chesapeake Bay Crab Cookbook, John Shields outlines three steps to prepare crab cakes for cooking:

    1. Picking— Pick the crab meat over very carefully to remove pieces of shells.
    2. Batter— Make the batter in a separate bowl, not in the same one that holds the crab meat. Gently toss or fold the ingredients together taking great care not to break up any lumps of crab.
    3. Forming— Gently form the crab cake mixture into slightly flattened, rounded masses. Do not compact the crab cakes too much. They should be held together loosely. Size depends on the chef. For appetizers, small cakes are wonderful. Refrigerate for at least one hour before cooking to allow the binding to absorb some moisture so that the cakes hold together better.


Crab cakes can be pan-fried in cooking oil, sautéed, or broiled. Schmidt says one of his secrets is sautéing crab cakes in a little bit of butter and peanut oil. By broiling crab cakes, you reduce the fat content. If your crab cake doesn’t stay together just right, don’t worry. Schmidt, who has judged crab cake contests throughout the state, says, “You can’t always judge a crab cake by its looks.”
You can top off your crab cake with hollandaise sauce, mustard, ketchup, tarter sauce, cocktail sauce or just a squeeze of lemon. Some people even use a little red wine vinegar. Put your cake on top of a saltine cracker and you have “a real Maryland thing,” says Schmidt.
Crab cakes can be accompanied by a variety of side dishes. French fries and coleslaw are probably the most popular, but fresh asparagus, biscuits, and potato salad are great as well. My mother-in-law always serves her crab cakes with corn on the cob, potato salad and a platter of sliced ripe tomatoes. My husband insists that the most important side dish is an ice-cold beer. Schmidt says, “All you really need is a crab cake and a dash of Tabasco sauce for a slice of heaven.”
For your own slice of heaven in Southern Maryland— make your own Maryland crab cakes and savor the flavor of the blue!
Picked crabmeat is marketed in many forms:
Backfin or Lumpmeat is large lump pieces of crab along with some broken body meat. Crab cakes made with lump meat are best when sautéed or broiled rather than deep-fried.
Claw meat is meat from the claw appendages. This dark, sweet meat of the crab is great for soups, chowder, and stews. As far as crab cakes go, the claw meat’s main advantage is economy.
Flake or Regular contains all meat from the body portion except lump.
Fresh crab meat should be white or slightly off-color white when purchased. It should have a fresh odor, a light “ocean” aroma.
Jumbo lump is the best. A container of jumbo lump will be filled with thumbnail size pieces of meat. Jumbo lump will cost more per pound than backfin. Crab cakes made with jumbo lump, like those made with backfin meat, are best when sautéed or broiled rather than deep-fried.
Pasteurized crab meat is available in backfin or special. Pasteurization is a special heating process that prevents bacterial spoilage. This meat must be refrigerated. It can be stored up to six months unopened in the refrigerator, but once the can is opened, use the meat in two days.
Special is all white meat from the body including lump and flake; it requires careful picking.