If you're a fan of salty, sweet seafood that doesn't break the bank, you've likely tried imitation crab. This product is one of the most ubiquitous imitation food items out there, and despite not being real crab, it's hardly unpopular, with its global market share valued at over $6 billion in 2023, according to a report by Fact.MR. Imitation crab meat is made from a fish paste called surimi, created by grinding white fish like pollock together with binding agents and flavorings. The surimi is then shaped into a stick, with a coating of food dye giving it an orange-red exterior that mirrors the natural coloring of crabs and crab meat.
However, while imitation crab sticks are frequently eaten as quick and convenient snacks, it's difficult to figure out what to do with them beyond that. Seafood purists also tend to find imitation crab sticks somewhat lacking in flavor, especially when compared to real crab meat. Luckily, help is at hand for both of these issues. There are a range of hacks that you can perform with imitation crab that can improve on its gentle taste with various additions or cooking methods while simultaneously opening up brand-new ideas to serve them.
Bake Them For A Crispy Snack
Imitation crab sticks don't need any cooking at all and can be eaten straight from the packet. While this is enough for some people, cooking them can open up entirely new dimensions of flavors and textures. Baking crab sticks is one of the quickest ways to do this, with the dry heat of the oven serving to firm them up and turn them lightly crispy.
To bake crab sticks, all you need to do is peel them into strips and place them on a tray (we'd advise using a nonstick one), before baking them on low heat for about 45 minutes. Baked crab sticks don't require any fat to be cooked this way, but if you want to crisp them up even more, toss them in some oil or melted butter before baking. Cooking crab sticks can help to intensify their sweet notes, but bear in mind that you don't have to eat them without any seasoning. Feel free to sprinkle on any herbs or spices of your choice, or toss in some minced garlic, which can bolster the sweetness of the fake crab meat. Baked crab sticks are also excellent served with a spicy dipping sauce.
Add Old Bay Seasoning For Some Spice
The relatively neutral flavor of imitation crab lends itself to a host of seasonings, but none are better than Old Bay. This seasoning blend and crab meat are a match made in heaven, with Old Bay frequently paired with the crustacean in steamed crab recipes, crab cakes, and seafood chowder. Created in the Chesapeake Bay area, Old Bay is a complex mix of spices like mace, allspice, paprika, nutmeg, and ginger, with some red pepper flakes for heat and cardamom for added fragrance.
Old Bay and imitation crab work well together as they both provide flavor notes that the other food item doesn't have. Imitation crab's light sweetness rounds out the spicy, rich flavor of Old Bay, whereas the spice blend gives the fake meat some much-needed piquancy and savoriness. You can use Old Bay with imitation crab meat in a wild variety of ways, but arguably the easiest is to just sprinkle some over before baking or air-frying the crab sticks. One of our favorite ways, though, is to whip together a simple dipping sauce made from Old Bay, lemon juice, ketchup, and honey, and dunk your imitation crab sticks straight in.
Air Fry Them For A Crunchy Edge
At this point, everyone's aware that air fryers can be used to cook pretty much anything. This hack, though, might surprise you. Throwing your imitation crab sticks into the air fryer is a fast, simple way of intensifying their flavor and giving them a premium crunch to get your teeth around. This hack, which has seen popularity with food innovators over on TikTok, takes little more than shredding your crab sticks by hand, coating them in oil, and then popping them in your appliance.
When you air fry crab sticks, they develop the same crunch texture that baking them does, in a fraction of the time. The strips of imitation meat essentially turn into crab chips, with their long, thin shape perfect for scooping up your favorite dip. The best part is, you don't even have to shred them to perform this hack. If you're feeling particularly lazy, you can simply air fry them whole. Doing this will give you way more textural contrast, with the outer strips of meat becoming crispy and slightly burnt, and the inside remaining soft and juicy.
Seasoned Butter Can Elevate Imitation Crab Meat
Elevating imitation crab meat to make it taste like real crab is pretty tough, but not impossible; all it takes is a little seasoned butter. The combination of crab meat and seasoned butter is a classic one, and the milk fats in the butter give the seafood a richness and smoothness that isn't present in its lean meat. Simultaneously, crab's sweet flavor notes give the butter a lightly sugary undertone, with the saltiness of the meat intensifying every other taste present. The seasonings you add to your butter, meanwhile, provide extra spice or herbal flavors, creating a hugely complex flavor.
When you use seasoned butter with imitation crab meat, though, a miracle occurs. The fake meat is elevated, and the butter gives it a luxurious flavor, making the imitation meat taste virtually identical to real crab. You can serve the two together by using the seasoned butter as a dip, or by pouring the butter straight over the crab sticks. One of the best things about seasoned butter, too, is that the world's your oyster when it comes to what seasonings you want to use. If you prefer something more herbal, freshly chopped parsley, chives, or tarragon all pair wonderfully with the imitation meat.
A Simple Spritz Of Lemon Juice Can Enliven Your Crab Sticks
Sometimes, the easiest hacks are the best. Lemon juice is one of the quickest additions you can make to imitation crab meat, and it can provide a lot of flavor in a simple squeeze. The juice has an acidic kick that brightens up all types of food. Its tart, zippy flavor gives a much-needed sourness to imitation crab meat, which has a mildly sweet flavor, making the snack way more interesting.
There's another reason lemon juice improves the flavor of your crab sticks, though -- it makes you better at tasting food. Acidity causes your mouth to increase its saliva production, and this saliva helps kick our taste buds into gear, making our tongues more capable of picking up flavors. As such, the flavor of your crab sticks becomes more intense. You can hack them even further by sprinkling on a dash of salt alongside the lemon juice. As salt has the same effect that acid does on saliva production, it makes a one-two punch of concentrated flavor.
Mix Crab Sticks With Mayonnaise For A Simple Salad
Stuck for lunch ideas? Crab sticks have got you covered. Use imitation crab to make a simple kani salad, a dish with a name derived from "kanimaka," the Japanese word for imitation crab sticks. Kani salad is made by shredding the crab sticks into thin strips and combining them with shredded vegetables like carrots, cucumber, and scallions. The mixture is then coated with Kewpie mayonnaise and lemon juice, with some black sesame seeds added in for extra crunch and nuttiness.
This easy salad lends itself to a huge range of extra ingredients. If you're craving a bit of extra sustenance, mixing in thin rice noodles or glass noodles can provide some valuable carbohydrates and give the salad a slightly more slippery texture. You can also add in any other shredded vegetables you like, such as zucchini or cabbage, or some fresh beansprouts for extra crunch. It's worth bearing in mind that you can also make this salad with real crab meat, but using surimi-based sticks keeps the cost down and arguably makes the shredding process easier, as all you need to do is peel them.
Combine It With Real Crab To Make Things Fancier
Try as you might, you can never make imitation crab taste exactly like the real thing. However, you can get pretty darn close -- and combining it with regular crab meat is one of the best ways to do it. Imitation crab meat is specifically designed to mimic the taste and appearance of crab, so when you mix the two, it won't distract from the real meat's visual impact or flavor too much. This is especially true if you're mixing the two with a sauce or coating it all in seasonings or butter.
The question remains, though, as to why you would mix the two in the first place. The answer is simple: Cost. Imitation crab is roughly a third of the price of real crab, and if you're cooking for a big group, you simply may not have the budget to buy large amounts of the latter. Mixing in imitation crab, though, lets you save some money without having to alter the taste of your chosen meal too much.
Eat Imitation Crab Meat With Wasabi And Ginger
Imitation crab meat pairs naturally with rice, and is a particularly popular ingredient in sushi. However, while the combination of the two provides a gentle duo of flavors, it tends to go heavy on starchy, sugary notes. One way to cut through this is with the addition of wasabi and pickled ginger. Whether you're adding them to imitation crab meat on its own, or dolloping them on top of a stuffed maki roll, the pepperiness of wasabi and sharp spiciness of ginger create a rounded flavor profile.
When eating wasabi, it's important to be sparing. Imitation crab meat has a light flavor, whereas wasabi is strong and pungent. Adding even just a bit too much will leave your food tasting unpleasantly fiery, while simultaneously causing your nose to start burning. Pickled ginger, meanwhile, is traditionally eaten between pieces of sushi to cleanse the palette, but it also adds spiciness, sweetness, and notes of vinegar. With imitation crab sticks, you can either use it as a condiment to heighten the natural flavors of the crab meat or go for the more traditional style of eating it between bites of crab sushi rolls.
Pack It Into Crab Cakes
Making homemade crab cakes is phenomenally satisfying, and surprisingly easy to do. If you're daunted by the idea of using fresh crab, though, or simply aren't excited by spending top-dollar on crab meat, your favorite imitation brand will do the trick. Imitation crab meat is ideal for use in crab cakes as the additional seasonings and flavorings used can help to mask the slightly artificial flavor of surimi. As the delicate flavor of crab meat often gets swallowed up in crab cakes by spices, lemon juice, and onion powder, you may not even notice any difference.
If you're using imitation crab in crab cakes, though, there are a few things to bear in mind. It's best to pulse the imitation meat in a blender to break it up slightly so that big lumps don't ruin the consistency of the cakes. This is a fine balance, though, as if you blend them too much, they'll turn into a paste -- so stop when they've reached a flaky consistency. Imitation crab is also way lower in protein than regular crab meat, so you might find that your crab cakes satisfy your hunger slightly less.
Marinate It In Soy Sauce
Imitation crab meat covers a few of the main tastes, like sweet and salty. Some brands, though, can be slightly lacking in umami, which is what gives food its savoriness and depth. One speedy way of imbuing crab sticks with this essential flavor is by marinating them in soy sauce. Both light and dark soy sauce can give any food, including crab sticks, a "meatier" flavor, thanks to the fermented soybeans that deliver umami in such abundant quantities.
Soy sauce can also make crab sticks look more appealing by deepening their color. When you then cook them, by baking, air frying, or pan frying the meat, their color develops further. This is particularly noticeable when using dark soy sauce, which has a higher sugar content and can help the sticks light caramelize.
Remember, however, that if you're using a marinade of just soy sauce, things can become quite salty. We would recommend using soy as a base and adding complementary flavors to round it out, like honey, rice vinegar, and chili oil. Doing this will make each imitation crab stick into a mouthwatering morsel full of intense flavors.
Steam Your Crab Meat For Better Texture
Imitation crab meat can be seriously let down by its texture. When eaten straight from the fridge, it can have an overly firm, rubbery quality, making every bite slightly squeaky and distracting from its subtle fish taste. However, you can soften them up with a quick steam. Simply place your unwrapped crab sticks into a steaming basket, and put that on top of a pot of gently simmering water. Steam them for around 10 minutes, or until they're warm and soft.
This can be a great method if you want to cook crab sticks without adding any extra fat or flavor. When they're warm, the imitation crab becomes more tender, imitating the texture of gently cooked fish (or, indeed, real crab). Steaming crab sticks, though, can take an attentive eye, as if you overdo it, the meat will start to fall apart, separating into strips and becoming waterlogged. To check whether they're done, spear one with a fork or a toothpick. If it moves through the meat with minimal resistance, you're good to go.
Read the original article on Daily Meal.