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Why Crawdaddin’ is Best in the Pacific Northwest

Photo by Julie Anderson Jackson

What has traditionally been a southern cultural culinary phenomenon is gaining popularity in the Northwest.

Mudbugs, the rock lobsters of the river. Crawfish, crawdads or crayfish go by many names, but the Pacific Northwest variety is slightly different than the swamp variety commonly associated with the traditional low-country boil cooking style used in roadside tourist attractions, catering for weddings, graduation parties, family reunions and other large social gatherings. While the flavor is more subtle, the native Northwestern signal crayfish grows just as large, if not commonly larger. The claws tend to be much more broad, and the meat inside them is worth the extra effort. The Louisiana swamp varieties have much narrower claws that lack this muscle tissue. The signal crayfish inhabits fast-flowing rivers with clean water and a healthy diet, unlike it’s southeastern cousin that mostly inhabits stagnant waters.

In a recent story from Vice, contributor Naomi Tomky interviewed Pike Place Market sellers, local chefs, and Charles “Bubba” Kuhn, a crawfisherman and former chef about the differences between Pacific Northwest and Louisiana crawfish species and how they fare for the table. Kuhn claims that anyone who has tried both Pacific Northwest and Louisiana crawfish will choose the Northwest option.

“You show them both side-by-side and it’s over.”

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Northwestern crawfish are not only typically larger, but their claws contain a significant portion of meat, much like their distant cousin the lobster.

Recreational harvesting does not require a license in Washington or Oregon, and you need very little equipment to collect them from the river. With quick reflexes, you can grab them behind the head, beyond the reach of their claws, but nets are more efficient when they kick their tails and use the current to sweep them out of reach. If you’re lacking the ambition of harvesting them manually, traps work well when baited with any sort of oily meat that triggers their sense of smell.

Given enough food, they will eventually fill themselves and escape out the same way they came in. Using some sort of mesh bag or pantyhose will keep them busy for hours trying to get the bait inside. Once you’ve collected your haul, it’s good to make sure they stay cool and have fresh water. Get them back to the site where you plan to cook them as soon as possible to prevent them from dying off beforehand.

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For the best results, you’ll need to “flush” them out for a day or two by isolating them from food sources in some kind of container like a plastic watering trough or kiddie pool. This will give the crawfish a moment to empty their stomachs, which will improve the flavor and texture of their meat. Keeping them alive in this environment is a real challenge, as you’ll need to treat the water with chlorine and provide it with some sort of biological starter bacteria.

Otherwise, the chemicals from tapwater and the inevitable ammonia level spike when you add multiple living creatures to the water will create a rapid die-off and you’ll lose all your hard work. You can ask your local pet store for what chemicals and additives you’ll need for the water in order to improve your success. Place your collection tank in the shade. Give it a fountain, filter, and/or a bubble hose to produce oxygen for your catch and keep the water from growing stagnant.

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When it comes time for the boil, start by bringing the water up to heat. In such a large container in an open outdoor environment, this might take longer than you expect it to, so it’s best to get a head start. Some of the basic ingredients essential to the boil include salt, butter, lemon, corn on the cob, onion and potatoes.

Zatarains, Louisiana Brand or Old Bay boil seasonings work well as a key spice component. Don’t be afraid to get use your imagination and add other ingredients like whole artichokes, shrimp, crab, whole spring onions, leeks, red-hots or sausages.

Allow the base ingredients to boil on their own for a few minutes to create a nice broth before adding the crawfish
Allow the base ingredients to boil on their own for a few minutes to create a nice broth before adding the crawfish

Once you’ve got the pot ready to cook, put the crawfish in a large cooler with just enough fresh water to cover them and roughly a pound or so of salt. You can use tapwater for this step of the process because it likely won’t kill them in such a short amount of time. Stir them in the saltwater solution for 5-10 minutes. This will remove the parasites that have attached themselves to these river-bottom creepy crawlers.

Make sure you stir them well in the salt solution to remove all the parasites. You can do this with a paddle, or if you're brave enough, by hand.
Make sure you stir them well in the salt solution to remove all the parasites. You can do this with a paddle, or if you’re brave enough, by hand.

By now you should have all your ingredients in the boiling pot and a cage that will strain out the goods when the session is over. Once the water reaches a hard boil, use a net to remove the clean crawfish from the saltwater solution. The parasites will settle to the bottom of the cooler. Then drop the crawfish into the pot… alive.

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They will begin to turn a bright red color within a few minutes. Within 10-15 minutes they will be done. Any longer than this and the meat will become overcooked, making it more difficult to extract from the hard-shelled exoskeleton.

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When the boil is finished, pull the cage out of the pot and pour everything onto a table lined with paper to absorb the moisture and make cleanup easier.

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Traditionally there are no plates or utensils for this kind of eating other than your hands. Be aware that if any of the crawfish died previous to the boil, they will quickly begin to spoil. You can spot these after they’ve been laid out on the table because their tail will be straight. The boil will cause the live ones to curl their tails and remain in that position.

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Any crawfish with straight tails should be discarded. Pull the tail from the head, then start peeling the armored plating on the tail back with your thumb. The little morsel of tail meat is similar to lobster in flavor, but with a much softer texture. The mess left behind after peeling is also a great addition to garden compost.

Crawfish are best served in the company of friends with cold beverages.
Crawfish are best served in the company of friends with cold beverages.

Leftovers can be used to make jambalaya, gumbo or etouffee. Jambalaya is meat and vegetables cooked or simmered together in the broth with rice. Gumbo is a soup made from the broth, commonly served with a side of rice. Etouffee is a sauce simmered and thickened, served on top of rice. Knowing the difference between the three will give you an edge as a Gulf Coast tourist if you get caught in a conversation in New Orleans about how superior the native Oregonian signal crayfish is to the Louisiana red swamp crawfish.

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Catching and cooking these tasty aquatic arthropods is a great addition to any summertime gathering.

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Why Crawdaddin’ is Best in the Pacific Northwest