The crawfish may not be much to look at, but its place in Louisiana cuisine is one of royalty.
Known by many different names - crayfish, mudbug, crawdad, red swamp crawfish, or procambarus clarkii if you're a biology major - the crawfish is a freshwater crustacean that can be found in North America from Mexico to Ohio. The well-armored creature made its way onto our plates thanks to some brave and no doubt very hungry Native Americans who pulled crawfish from streams using reeds baited with deer meat. The Acadians, once they arrived in South Louisiana in the mid-18th century, took note of this and began putting their own spin on crawfish harvesting and preparation. A couple centuries later, crawfish is a culinary star that can pack restaurants and backyards alike.
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How are crawfish cooked?
Some people think crawfish are just tiny lobsters. Crawfish are not tiny lobsters. Lobster is a delicate flavor conducive with being steamed and served simply with drawn butter and perhaps a squeeze of lemon. Crawfish is almost always prepared with big, bold flavors – like Zatarain's seafood boils, cayenne, garlic, onion, celery, citrus, pepper, rich buttery sauces, dark roux, did we already say cayenne?
Crawfish tails are often found in étouffées, bisques and creamy pasta dishes, but the tale of the tails begins and ends with the crawfish boil.
Crawfish boil recipe
South Louisiana's tropical climate is such that the traditional seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall don't exactly apply here, so our seasons tend to be more culinary focused. When it's springtime elsewhere, it's crawfish season here. And that means get ready for some crawfish boils. Every weekend during crawfish season, there are hundreds of boils happening all over the city. They're a beloved pastime, part meal, part party, all fun.
It's important to note here that the process and list of ingredients varies widely from boil to boil. Finding two chefs who make crawfish the same way would be nearly impossible, but the basic plan usually follows somewhat along these lines:
An incomplete list of things you can find in the pot with crawfish: onions, celery, garlic, lemons, oranges, sausage (specifically, andouille), potatoes, broccoli, brussel sprouts, pineapple, hot dogs, bay leaves, peppercorns, jalapenos, and more.
The nearly limitless ways to put your own spin on your crawfish boil is one of the many appealing things about it. It's also a chance to get your friends and family together in the backyard, open a few beverages of your choosing and enjoy a beautiful afternoon.
A bond formed over a table of spicy crawfish, still hot from the pot, is a strong one. Rituals are passed down. Kids graduate from only working the hose to helping to chop veggies. Cousins catch up while sucking juice from crawfish heads without missing a beat. It's an experience that's far bigger and more important than the meal itself.
Be warned: Once your boil gets going and starts scenting the breeze with a spicy current of crab boil, you can end up with more guests than you planned on. So it's best to order a little more than you think you need. For locals, that's about five pounds per person. For newbies, three pounds should work. And if you end up with more than you can eat, commission your guests to help peel the rest for étouffée or gumbo.
You can also save the shells and heads to make stock out of. Just dump all your heads and shells in a big pot of water with dry white wine, chicken broth, fresh thyme, celery, onion, and bay leaves and reduce by about half. Strain it well and save it for up to a month.
So, uh, how do you eat a crawfish?
Good question! Crawfish shells can be hard, and the meat is really tender, so this can be a tricky process that requires practice.
You'll be slow at first, but practice makes perfect (and gives you more crawfish, so it's a win-win, really).
Where do crawfish come from?
In Louisiana, wild crawfish are harvested from the Atchafalaya River Basin and farm-grown crawfish are grown in rice fields. Farms alone produce about 100 million pounds annually. Other parts of the world cultivate crawfish, too, but in Louisiana we believe our local crawfish are the best.
How much do crawfish cost?
It can vary based on many factors, but in New Orleans, cooked crawfish go for anywhere from $3-$7 per pound. Live crawfish are usually in the $2-$3 per pound range. Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending primarily on the season's bounty and supply/demand.
Can you eat crawfish with straight tails?
Backstory: Many people were taught not to eat crawfish with straight tails as they're said to have been dead before being cooked. But, as far as we know, this just comes down to personal preference. The LSU AgCenter says the straight tail thing is a myth.
Are the frozen tails sold in grocery stores any good?
Yeah, they're fine for stews, casseroles, pastas, gumbo, and just about any dish you'd use the tail meat in. Now, there's nothing as good as hot crawfish right out of the pot, but tails from the store are still good when used right.
How do people celebrate the start of crawfish season?
By eating crawfish! If you live in New Orleans, the beginning of crawfish season is when you start getting invitations to crawfish boils every weekend. We also mark the start of the season each year by pardoning one lucky crawfish, who is saved from the boiling pot and set free to live its days out in one of Louisiana's picturesque state parks.
Crawfish or crayfish?
It's crawfish. Don't believe anyone who says differently.