She-Crab Soup

Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Makes

    5 to 6 Cups

    or Servings

Appears in

No dish is more quintessential Lowcountry than our famous she-crab soup, yet judging from the pasty versions served in most restaurants you would think its major ingredient is flour. In Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking, published in 1930, the recipe is attributed to “Mrs. Rhett’s able butler, William Deas, who is one of the greatest cooks in the world.” His recipe for a dozen crabs calls for only a teaspoon of flour as thickener in more than 2 cups of liquid. It seems likely that the soup is a variation of a traditional Scottish crab soup—partan bree—thickened with rice. William Deas was the black chef at Everett’s Restaurant, where the soup became synonymous with the Lowcountry. His surname would have been given to his ancestors by their owners. The Scottish Deas family has a long and celebrated history in the Lowcountry. The original partan bree calls for anchovies as seasoning. My version is otherwise true to both the original and the Lowcountry. This is a soup for midwinter, when the she-crabs are full of roe.

So much misinformation about the taking of female crabs has been published; I hope this will set the record straight. Blue crabs are plentiful from Massachusetts to Texas. It is not illegal to take female crabs (called “sooks”) in coastal Carolina waters, but it is illegal to take crabs less than 5 inches across the back of the shell. Females have reddish tips on their pincers; the aprons on their bellies are broad and triangular (males’ are T-shaped). Only female crabs that are “berried,” or showing a spongelike protrusion of eggs, must be released. There is no season, no license is required, nor is there a limit on crabs taken on handlines, in dip nets, or drop nets. Further, every head of household in South Carolina is allowed 2 crab pots as well.

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  • 12 to 13 large female crabs
  • 3 quarts water
  • tablespoons seafood boil
  • cup long-grain white rice
  • 1 quart milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • cayenne pepper and freshly ground black pepper to taste amontillado sherry


Boil the crabs, uncovered, in the water seasoned with the seafood boil for 30 minutes. Remove the crabs, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Pick the crabs, which should yield about 1 pound of meat and ¼ pound of roe. The roe is bright orange and is unmistakable in the crab shells.

Cook the rice in the milk with the salt at a low boil for 30 minutes or until the rice is very soft. Strain the mixture or puree very fine; return it to the pot. Add the reserved crab water and cream and heat the mixture through. Season to taste with a dash of cayenne and salt and pepper. Fill cups with the soup, add a dollop of crabmeat and a sprinkle of crab roe to each, and finish each bowl with a teaspoon of sherry.