Food for thought: Green crab pastries pass UMaine taste test

For clam harvesters in Maine, invasive green crabs are voracious predators that threaten their livelihood.

One green crab (Carcinus maenas) can devour 40 half-inch clams in a single day, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

University of Maine food scientists Beth Calder and Denise Skonberg and former graduate student Joseph Galetti have a possible palatable solution: Turn the ravenous pillagers into minced crabmeat.

The crustaceans are an ample resource. Each female can produce about 370,000 offspring, according to the Maine Clammers Association.

Calder, Skonberg and Galetti say utilizing them as a food source could stimulate a commercially important green crab fishery, help clams rebound on Maine mudflats and provide a nutritious seafood option for locals and tourists alike.

And it turns out they taste good.

Skonberg, who applies food science principles to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of the seafood sector, says people frequently have called her, perplexed about how to stop the invasive marauders that devour mussels and clams and destroy eelgrass beds.

Some communities have opted to respond with fencing and netting strategies.

Galetti chose a mechanical separator and some mixing bowls.

In 2008, Galetti was a new graduate student at UMaine; he came to Orono with an undergraduate degree in culinary nutrition from Johnson & Wales University and the know-how to prepare nutritious, tasty food.

He concocted fried pastries (empanadas) filled with minced green crabmeat, onion, corn, red pepper, thyme and cayenne pepper.

Calder and Skonberg, both associate professors of food science in UMaine’s School of Food and Agriculture, advised Galetti on his master’s thesis project — the mechanical processing of the European green crab and the potential use of the mince in a value-added product.

Specifically, finding out what people thought of the empanadas.

In 2010, taste testers’ general response to the empanadas was promising. The consumers’ overall rating of the minced green crabmeat pastries was between “like slightly” and “like moderately.”

And more than 63 percent of taste testers indicated they would “probably” or “definitely” buy the product if it was available locally.

Mean scores for several empanada attributes were 6.5 for overall appearance, 6.0 for filling appearance, 6.6 for texture, 6.6 for flavor, and 6.5 for overall acceptability. A rating of 7 is equivalent to “like moderately” based on a 9-point scale that ranges from 1 = “dislike extremely” to 9 = “like extremely.”

The acceptability ratings are encouraging for ongoing product development and commercial production, say the researchers, especially considering green crab empanadas are a new food creation, and the 87 taste testers generally hadn’t eaten crabmeat in the form of fried appetizers.

Sixty percent of the 87 panelists from UMaine and the surrounding community reported they eat crab (rock crab or Jonah crab), or products that contain crab, “every few months.”

One-third said crab cakes are their major form of crabmeat consumption, followed by chowders/soups, seafood salad, fried appetizers and whole crabs. More than 60 percent of respondents said most of the time they eat crab it’s in restaurants.

Galetti, now a senior scientist for a seafood company in Massachusetts, reported that minced green crabmeat — flesh that’s been mechanically separated from bones or shells — is a good source of nutrients and is comparable quality-wise to other commercially available minced seafood products.

The trio brainstormed other potential minced green crabmeat product development options and came up with ravioli, wontons, dips, soups, quiches and stuffing.

Calder, a UMaine Cooperative Extension food science specialist and director of the Process and Product Review Testing Services, says because of green crabs’ relatively small size, picking meat by hand isn’t practical on a large scale.

Processors would need feasibility findings detailing whether they could get enough yield from green crabs to make it profitable to sell commercially.

Skonberg agrees a number of logistical questions need to be answered, including whether lobstermen would simultaneously harvest green crabs in separate traps.

“There needs to be a piece that takes it from scientific research to move forward to entrepreneurship,” she says.

If those unknowns are favorably resolved, perhaps green crab food products will one day be widely available in restaurants and seafood stores.

The team’s findings are in the article “Mechanical Separation of Green Crab (Carcinus maenas) Meat and Consumer Acceptability of a Value-Added Food Product” published in the Journal of Aquatic Food Product Technology, Volume 26, 2017.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777