Robb Report Vices

Reaching the Boiling Point

Crawfish—the quintessential finger food of the bayou. Not only does this staple of Cajun cooking symbolize southern Louisiana, but its presence on menus across the country makes the bold declaration that spring is here . . . or, at the very least, right around the corner. Crawfish is casual, comfortable fare, perfect for communal picnic tables once the warmer weather arrives. For Chris Wilson, the former chef de cuisine and current culinary director at Emeril’s in New Orleans, a crawfish boil is his favorite thing to cook. “As a chef, you’re constantly critiquing your food and what you’re cooking,” he says. “When you have a day off, you want to keep it simple and light; you don’t want to be working.”

That’s right—despite their somewhat intimidating appearance, crawfish are straightforward and easy to cook. Of course, that doesn’t mean that backyard boil masters don’t make mistakes all the time. “It is really simple,” Wilson says, “but it’s really simple to do it wrong, too. It’s like cooking bacon. It’s so simple, but a lot of people screw up cooking bacon.”

Crawfish boils may be the Southern equivalent of a New England clambake, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in the South to participate. There are a number of Louisiana-based purveyors who will ship crawfish all across the country, but the cost can add up. For example, a 50-pound shipment of the live crustaceans (at their smallest size) will cost about $300 through the Louisiana Crawfish Company, so if you intend to relocate some bayou-based crawfish for your gastronomic enjoyment, you want to make sure that you do it right. Fortunately, Wilson shared with us the most crucial steps to assure a successful and succulent crawfish boil:

1.) You have to purge the crawfish before adding them to your pot. Crawfish live in mud, so if you don’t purge them first (an act accomplished by soaking them in highly salted water for 10 to 15 minutes), all of the dirt stored in their bodies will be released into your seasoned stock.
2.) Don’t forget the lemon. Centuries ago (long before the advent of refrigerators), a lemon wedge was served with fish because the citrus flavor would mask the otherwise “fishy” smell and taste of a piece of seafood past its prime. But don’t worry, that’s not the reason for adding lemon to a crawfish boil. “A crawfish boil always has spice,” says Wilson. “There’s a spicy, salty richness to it. Lemon helps to counteract the heat and the richness; it cuts through everything. A friend of mine taught me this trick just last season, so I add lemon extract to the broth.”
3.) Timing is everything. Your basic ingredients for a crawfish boil (aside from the obvious crawfish) include potatoes, corn, sausage, whole garlic, and mushrooms, though Wilson often adds artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, and mirliton (a southern squash). “You’ve got anywhere from six to 10 different ingredients and they all have different cooking times,” Wilson explains. “You have to stage everything; things that cook the longest go in first.”
4.) Let ʼem soak. When your boil is three-quarters of the way cooked, pull the pot off the heat and add a lot of ice. The weight of the ice cubes will push the crawfish down to the bottom of the pot, which is where all the spices also end up. The longer you let the crawfish rest on the bottom, the more spice and flavor they’ll absorb. This soaking period can last from 10 to 45 minutes. Just make sure to test a crawfish every so often, both for flavor and for the doneness of the meat. There’s nothing worse than an overcooked crawfish.

Finally, Wilson offers up one more important, though overlooked, aspect of the crawfish boil. The flavor of your finished crawfish will never match the flavor of your broth; so if you want extra spicy crawfish you need to produce an extremely spicy broth. However, some of the other ingredients in the pot will absorb spice better than others, and some vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower not only absorb the spice but also collect it in their florets. Wilson recalls a recent boil with his extended family, who were visiting from Connecticut. “They went for the broccoli because it was something they could relate to,” he says. “It wasn’t a good idea. My mother is still mad at me.”