Eating crawdaddies, crawfish, and crayfish (same thing) at a backyard crawfish boil is less about savoring the little lobster-looking seasonal gem and more about party endurance and launching an all-day friendship marathon.
Putting on a legit, successful crawfish boil is not something you can do without care and preparation. I am here to tell you it is less daunting if you have a clear-headed guide. That’s me. You can do it, and you will be everyone’s best friend if you don’t blow it.
I first had a plate of crawdads in Austin, Texas, at the Shoal Creek Saloon. I ordered 2 pounds, thinking this would be a massive feast. My friend Eric, who had invited me, ordered five pounds and was eating the tails and sucking their brains out like it was an ordinary move. I felt skeptical because Eric has nothing to live for. He’s the kind of guy who could eat a Hershey bar’s wrapper and not know it or care. The cartilage at the end of a chicken bone? He’s here for it. His courage wasn’t mine.
I was scared to suck the brains out for fear of tasting some weird, lousy goo, but after a few glasses of Lone Pint’s Yellow Rose IPA, I turned into a crawdad-brain-sucking zombie. I started to like the brain-suck’s fish stock flavor, but it got too salty, so I switched to sucking the head of every fifth one or so.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover the joys of a proper backyard boil over a restaurant experience. After my tasty experience in Texas, I went to a real-deal crawfish boil in a backyard in Louisiana. There is no turning back. It is the best.
I turned to kickass New Orleans crawfish boil expert, musician for The Afghan Whigs, and producer at Marigny Studios, Rick G. Nelson, for guidance on how to pull off a perfect crawfish boil. One that will pull all the friends that you didn’t know you had out of the woodwork.
The Takeout: What is the first step for throwing a crawfish boil for, say, four people?
Rick G. Nelson: Uh, invite 20 more of your friends. Four people is tight, but you’ll be eating a lot of crawfish. On average, you should gauge about 3-5 pounds per person. They usually come in 39–40-pound sacks. I think the smallest you could find is a 30-pound sack.
TO: So, invite 10-12 people per 40-pound sack. Do you go to a frozen seafood dealer?
RGN: No. You do not want your crawfish to be dead. Shrimp can be cooked once they’re dead. If a crawfish is dead before you cook it, bad news. A surefire sign to figure it out: if the tail is curved after cooking, it’s good to go. If the tail is straight, throw it out because it was dead before cooking it.
TO: What do you look for in a good bag of crawfish when you’re examining the bags to buy?
RGN: Where I’m from, if you serve a sack of dead crawfish, you’ll go out of business in a day. You may have a handful of dead ones; that’s okay. Once you boil it all down, it will add to the seafood stock of what you’re creating.
TO: Where do you go to get your favorite bags?
RGN: In New Orleans, my favorite spot is Bevi Seafood. You can get it pre-boiled or not. They have all these sacks iced, and you pull your car up with your ice chest and drive away. It’s easy.
TO: So that’s how we get the grub. And we know we must plan ahead of time and get enough folks to come over. What’s the next step when you get home with the mudbugs? Do you buy a ton, cook it all and eat it over the next few days?
RGN: You need to eat it all that day. Half your sack may be dead if you try and do it over two days. Once you have the crawfish in the cooler, start your boil. A rookie mistake is to begin the stock and dump them in right away.
TO: Do you use your own seasoning?
RGN: No. The first thing I do is a use a Zatarain’s powder boil, I use half the jar, and I use liquid boil concentrate, a whole one called Pro Boil. Keep in mind that I’m using a 100-quart pot, and I use an 80-quart basket.
Put your basket in the pot. Fill the pot with the basket inside of it halfway with water.
I cut up a dozen onions, and I put them on the outside of the basket. The basket is for the crawfish. I put the lemons on the outside too. I also use a whole grapefruit and then do not oversalt it. Liquid boil and powder boil has plenty of salt. Maybe add a cup of salt if you need it.
Another rookie mistake is filling the water up too high. Once your crawfish goes in, it will overfill if there’s too much water in the pot. Just fill it up halfway with water. Put the core of a pineapple in there too!
I work on the stock for two hours until it all marries. Then once it is all married, put the potatoes and garlic in first (because they’re dense) for about 10-20 minutes before the crawfish.
TO: How do you get the poop out of the crawfish?
RGN: The step before you cook ’em is to purge the crawfish of the poop. So, sort out your first serving amount of crawfish and dump them into another ice chest. Fill the chest with water until the crawfish are covered in water, sprinkle salt on top. Wait for a bit. It makes them poop everything out of their system. Empty it and flush it with fresh water. The chest will go from brown to clear. The salt makes the crawfish poop, like a deveining process. They shit it all out.
TO: So you get the stock going, let it marry for 2 hours, then right before you cook, give the crawfish a salt diuretic. Then is it cooking time?
RGN: Your pot should have a rolling boil; dump the purged crawfish into the pot/basket. Add mushroom and sausage into the basket. You could put a shoe in there, and it will taste great. The crawfish will bring the temperature down, so get it back to a rolling boil.
TO: Is this corn time now?
RGN: Yes. But freeze the corn. Take your frozen corn and put it in, swirl it and leave it for 20-30 minutes, and the cold corn will make the crawfish not heat too rapidly. You don’t want soggy crawfish, and you don’t want the tails too hard. Add one sacrificial beer to the boil now. Drink beer the whole time. I’ve never heard of a boil without beer.
TO: How much corn?
RGN: In New Orleans, they sell corn already halved. They know it’s for boils here. I’d have one or two per person. Just see how many will fit in the basket.
TO: So, people need to be ready to eat three meals that day?
RGN: Each sack gets me three solid boils for ten people. And, yeah, you eat it throughout the day, so don’t load up on the first boil. After the first boil, see if you need to add more spices; you most often do. The third boil of the day is the best.
TO: Any secret tips to feel like a pro?
RGN: Yes! After the third boil, stir some crawfish stock into a bloody mary mix, add Worcestershire sauce and vodka, and you will have the best bloody mary of your life.
To me, it’s all about the experience of prolonging the day and hanging outside with your friends. It’s all about the camaraderie; the crawfish is secondary. I actually like the crawfish more than my friends. I am just kidding, of course.
TO: Of course.
1. I wake up and spend about an hour at the grocery store to get all my ingredients, ice, and beer.
2. I start my boil around noon, I get the broth cooking, and the first people can show up around 2 p.m. Purge at 2:30 p.m.
3. We put in the first purged crawfish at around 3, then we’re ready to eat around 3:30 or 3:45.
4. Then you purge the poop from the next round at 5:30. Serve round two around 6 p.m.
5. Get the rolling boil up again, and add more spice. Wait another 20-30 minutes.
6. Purge again in the second ice chest, add more spice or garlic or onions from the table to the pot, and you just put all that magic back in the boil.
7. Serve the third boil to your tipsy pals around 9 p.m.