Here’s How to Eat Crawfish the Right Way
Messy, delicious and full of Cajun flavor—here's how to eat crawfish just like they do on the bayou
You may need to push your table manners aside here, because we’re about to get a little messy. Sure, most etiquette rules frown upon eating with your hands, but if you want to learn how to eat crawfish properly, your hands are the best tools—you just might need an extra roll of paper towels for assistance.
Unlike other seafood, crawfish are generally assumed to be a regional specialty (crawfish season in Gulf Coast states is a time for celebration), but crawfish is available in seafood shops and specialty retailers across the country. You already know how to eat oysters, how to eat lobster and how to eat mussels (a seafood boil staple). If you want to enjoy an authentic Cajun meal, no matter your location, here’s how to eat crawfish.
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What are crawfish?
Scientifically speaking, crawfish (also known as crayfish, mudbugs or crawdads) are freshwater crustaceans that are closely related to lobsters and crabs. With their long bodies, 10 legs and pair of sturdy claws, they look a lot like lobsters. However, crawfish are significantly smaller, most growing no more than 3 inches in length.
While crawfish are enjoyed around the world (in China, they’re a popular street food, and in Sweden, crayfish parties are a popular late-summer tradition), they are most notably associated with the Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana.
“Crawfish are the delicacy of the bayou,” says Chopped: Military Salute champion and U.S. Army culinarian Sergeant First Class Brian Colvin. “I absolutely love crawfish, and so do my kiddos. My twin girls have taken to calling them the ‘pinchy bugs.’ Crawfish have a sweet and savory taste with a texture that is reminiscent of shellfish. Crawfish can take on many different flavorings depending on the seasoning added.”
How to eat crawfish
In Louisiana, crawfish boils are the traditional way of eating these succulent crustaceans. And much like barbecues, pig roasts or clam bakes, they’re more than just dinner—they’re an entire event (one that might even come with an RSVP).
“The crawfish are cooked in a spicy and salty boiling water in large batches for large groups of people, usually 30 to 40 pounds at a time,” says chef Donald Link of Herbsaint restaurant in New Orleans. “After boiling, they are poured out onto large tables outdoors, and people gather around the table and stand and eat.” Want to learn how to eat crawfish like you’re down on the bayou? Follow these steps.
1. Peel the crawfish
Eating crawfish is a messy affair, and it requires you to dig in with your hands—that’s a food fact. First, hold the crawfish in one hand. Then use the other hand to twist the tail away from the body.
2. Suck the head (optional)
Depending on how long they’re cooked, some crawfish may have soft orange fat in their head, affectionately referred to as crawfish butter by connoisseurs. It’s technically a liver-like organ. If desired, this succulent fat can be sucked out of the head along with the crawfish’s natural juices. If you don’t want to try it, however, you can simply discard the head and go straight to enjoying the tail meat.
“In the western part of the state, the orange ‘fat’ in the head is scooped out and eaten with the tail meat,” says Link. “In New Orleans, the crawfish is cooked for so long that all fat in the head is usually dissipated by the time it’s eaten.”
3. Remove the shell
Pinch the tail at the point where it was attached to the crawfish’s body and gently squeeze; if the crawfish is cooked properly, the meat should easily slide right out of the shell.
4. Devein (optional)
Much like cleaning shrimp, you might see a thin, dark “vein” running down the back of the crawdad’s tail meat. This is part of its digestive system, and while some people like to remove it for aesthetic or squeamish purposes, it’s entirely safe to eat. If you’d like to devein your crawfish, run a small paring knife down the ridge, just deep enough to tease the vein out with the tip of your knife. Next, grab the vein with your fingers, pull it back and throw it away.
5. Eat the tail meat
Once you’ve removed the shell, you’re ready to eat! Crawfish are well seasoned while cooking, so all you need to do is pop them in your mouth and enjoy—no dipping sauce required.
FAQs about eating crawfish
Even though crawfish boils are a beloved tradition, don’t worry too much about how to eat crawfish. “Honestly, there is no wrong way to eat crawfish,” says Colvin. “However you feel comfortable eating them is the proper way. As long as you enjoy the food and the friends you can never go wrong.” But if you’re still wondering about those little crustacean creatures, here are some more frequently asked questions.
What do crawfish taste like?
“Crawfish kind of taste like a lobster mixed with a shrimp,” says Link. “But it really depends on how it is seasoned in the boil and how long it is cooked. People in New Orleans prefer a longer cooking time, which makes the crawfish taste like the spicy water it is boiled in. The western and central parts of the state prefer a shorter cooking time, so the flavor of the crawfish is more evident.”
What part of crawfish do you eat?
Unlike lobsters and crabs, you can only really get substantial meat from the tail of crawfish,” says Colvin. “However, the heads are part of the eating tradition. An incredible amount of flavor is in the head, and it is one of my favorite parts of crawfish. My favorite way to eat them is by twisting the tails and sucking on the heads.”
What parts of crawfish can you not eat?
The only inedible part of a crawfish is the shell. Once you’ve removed the meat and fat from your crawdad, throw the shell away.
Where do you buy crawfish?
If you don’t live near a freshwater basin or bayou where you can get freshly caught crawfish, they can likely be purchased at your local fish market or in your supermarket’s seafood section. Much like shrimp, most commercially caught crawfish are flash-frozen almost immediately after they’ve been plucked from the water to retain freshness.
The reliable months for crawfish season (and when you’ll find the most crawfish boil events) are late February through May.
How do you cook crawfish?
“The possibilities are endless with crawfish,” says Colvin. “You can fry them, boil them, bake them or put them in a stew. Some of the most iconic ways to prepare them are in a craw-boil, etouffee, gumbo or jambalaya.”
In a traditional Louisiana crawfish boil, the cooking water is seasoned with a Cajun spice blend that normally includes cayenne pepper, paprika, coriander, mustard seeds and myriad other herbs and spices. You can also use Old Bay seasoning. Or for a true taste of the bayou, you can use a premixed spice blend straight from the Pelican State, like Cajun Land’s Complete Boil.
About the experts
- Sergeant First Class Brian Colvin is culinary school graduate, Cajun food expert and winner of Food Network’s Chopped: Military Salute.
- Donald Link is the James Beard award–winning executive chef of the Link Restaurant Group in Louisiana and the author of Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link’s Louisiana and Down South: Bourbon, Pork, Gulf Shrimp & Second Helpings of Everything