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Special Feature: Crab cakes

An American classic gets creative updates to reach a variety of audiences

By Melissa Wood
November 01, 2012

Tinkering with the sacred blend of Maryland blue crabmeat, breadcrumbs and seasonings is not done lightly by chefs working in the heart of crab cake country. 

“People can get kind of crazy around here about crab cakes,” says Nancy Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoint Restaurant in Baltimore, where she specializes in updating classic Maryland cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. 

While a step away from the traditional Maryland crab cake, her smoked crab cakes have become a Baltimore classic in their own right. They are on the menu in the Balto Box appetizer that comes with a Baltimore coddie (codfish cake), corn-fried oysters and clams casino, and in the Maryland World entrée with silver queen corn cake, Brussels sprout slaw, matchstick potatoes and caper cornichon tartar. 

Longo created them 27 years ago, when the owner of another restaurant she worked in bought a smoker and she tested some crabmeat in it. “It was purely accidental, and we turned it into a crab cake that was special,” she remembers.

Her rules for executing the dish include using only fresh, never pasteurized crabmeat — or it will taste tinny, says Longo. For smoking she uses only fruitwoods like apple or cherry chips and not liquid smoke. Ingredients include a brand of Dijon mustard with a strong horseradish flavor to balance the smokiness, and a light touch of breading, made with Ritz crackers “pulverized beyond dust” or brown rice flour for customers with gluten-free diets.

“It is a bit different than the things that people are used to,” says Longo. “People who come in are always curious. For the dinner entrée they can have one of each kind (smoked and traditional) so they can see what’s what, and most people really love them.”

Longo is not the only one experimenting with crab cakes these days. New varieties in flavors, sizes, packaging and ingredients are expanding the market in both retail and foodservice.

“With growth you get creativity,” explains Carol Haltaman, senior VP for Handy International in Salisbury, Md. In 1994, Handy started in the handmade crab cake business with 3-ounce cakes and now has crab-cake offerings that range from half-ounce to 8-ounce sizes. 

For Handy the newest variation is a crab and shrimp risotto cake for retail. The company has also been successful with a gluten-free line of crab cakes for both retail and foodservice.

“It’s just huge,” says Haltaman of the gluten-free market. “It’s not just for people with Celiac disease. There are just so many people now who are aware that while they don’t have to eliminate gluten, they feel better if they reduce it.”

Crab cakes certainly aren’t stuck in a niche. On the plate, they can be found everywhere from fine-dining restaurants to value-line mixes that use less protein or different types of proteins, like surimi seafood or other seafood, and also in casinos and casual-dining restaurants. Haltaman says that higher-end crab cakes sold at full-service seafood counters are one of the fastest growing segments in supermarkets, adding that packaging of frozen crab cakes has expanded beyond traditional cartons to re-sealable, gusseted bags.

Other crab cake variations include new recipes with different flavor profiles and seafood cakes such as shrimp cakes, lobster cakes and crawfish cakes. Haltaman also says that chefs are using them in more dishes, like sandwiches and eggs Benedict.

“I think what we’re seeing in general, whether foodservice or retail, is there’s a lot of creativity going on with different flavors,” says Haltaman. “Crab cakes started with a traditional, what we used to refer to as a Maryland-style recipe. You wanted to taste that crab and that’s how the whole crab cake era started, but now we’re seeing a real movement toward ‘let’s get creative, let’s have some different recipes here.’”

Chefs are also getting creative with sauce pairings for crab cakes, according to Caroline Tippett, VP-marketing and strategic development for Phillips Foods in Baltimore. 

“More chefs are applying options like spicy chipotle, creamy mustard, fruit-based salsas, smoky tomato sauces, garlic aioli and remoulade with their crab cakes to differentiate from the traditional application,” says Tippett. 

Phillips has a recipe center database where chefs and retail customers can upload their own creative recipes, which have included using the grain quinoa for a healthier version than traditional breadcrumbs.

Phillips offers a variety of cakes for foodservice to meet price point and flavor profile needs. Often, says Tippett, variations in the crab cakes themselves are based on regional preferences.

“The East Coast market is very strong on preferring a more mustardy flavor to a crab cake; it’s more of a Maryland style,” she says. “In the Southwest the preference is to being less mustardy with maybe some peppers added to the mix as well. So we kind of change that around based on some of those preferences.” 

The grade of crabmeat — which can range from jumbo lump to claw — also changes to meet different foodservice markets such as casual, fast casual or fine-dining applications. 

“The way you mix that crabmeat together and how much you add kind of dictates the price point on that product,” she explains.

With their ability to meet different demands in the foodservice market, it’s no surprise that crab cakes continue to grow in popularity. Tippett cited a Mintel study that showed a 2 percent increase in crab-cake menuing from 2007 to 2011. The report also lists crab cakes within the top 10 seafood entrée applications, falling below salmon and sushi but above tilapia and fried shrimp.  

On the retail side, Tippett says Phillips — which produces the No. 1 selling crab cake in the retail market, according to A.C. Nielsen syndicated data of the 52 weeks ending Sept. 12 — has seen strong growth in the past few years, but unit sales have been fairly flat from September 2011 to September 2012. 

“We still highly anticipate increased demand to continue over the next few years as new markets are exposed to the concept,” she says.

In reaching those new markets, the American classic has come a long way from the Maryland shore. Tippett says Phillips has seen acceptance of crab cakes in numerous international markets like Canada, Mexico, Japan and even the United Arab Emirates.  

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com 

Find other SeaFood Business articles with crab cakes here.

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