Published May 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
If you can't find fresh crabmeat, don't despair. There are several packaged options that are almost as good.
Like much of the ocean’s bounty, fresh-off-the-boat crabmeat is best—sweet and tender with a touch of salinity. Most of the crabmeat eaten in this country, however, isn’t fresh, but prepackaged Blue Swimming Crab from the South Pacific. Packaged crabmeat often doesn’t cost much less than freshly shucked meat, and even the cheapest brands are shockingly expensive compared with other processed seafood like tuna or salmon—anywhere from $0.90 to almost $2.00 per ounce. The advantage is that, unlike fresh crabmeat, the packaged kind (which comes both refrigerated and canned) is readily available in most supermarkets.
To find a worthy substitute for fresh crabmeat, we sampled five nationally available brands of crabmeat both straight from the package and in our recipe for crab cakes. We ruled out finer, flakier backfin meat (made from pieces that fall apart during extraction from the shell) from the start, choosing to test only more desirable lump and jumbo lump meat.
In both the straight tasting and our crab cakes, we strongly preferred the two refrigerated products—and for good reason. To be shelf-stable, most canned crabmeat is typically pressure-heated at high temperatures (220 to 250 degrees), but the trade-off is drier, chewier meat (our tasters described some of the canned brands as “fibrous” and “cardboard-y”). Manufacturers of canned crabmeat also often add additives such as citric acid to prevent discoloration or offset moisture loss during heat processing, but some don’t do the meat any favors; we found products with added citric acid, like our least two least favorite brands, mushy and spongy. Refrigerated crabmeat, on the other hand, is typically processed at lower temperatures (182 to 190 degrees) and is considerably juicier and more tender—and also pricier. Our favorite boasts “sweet,” “meaty,” and “plump” pieces that most closely resemble fresh crabmeat—a product we think is worth the $1.69-per-ounce splurge every now and then. Our canned Best Buy, processed at a lower temperature than most other shelf-stable products (220 degrees), is an acceptable, slightly more economical ($1.38 per ounce) alternative.