This time of year may bring the city’s best weather and baseball season, but the most beautiful part of spring in Houston is the beginning of crawfish season. Used by fishermen as live bait to snag everything from catfish to bass, these tiny red crustaceans are a Louisiana and East Texas delicacy. Pretty much everyone has accepted the deliciousness of boiled crawfish steeped in Cajun spices and butter, but one controversial question remains: Should you suck the heads?
The tiny morsel of edible meat that a crawfish produces is located in its tail. When you’re attending a crawfish boil or eating a pile of mudbugs at a restaurant, many people just pinch off the tail, squeeze out the meat, and eat it, leaving the crawfish head behind. Most people also don’t eat shrimp or lobster heads, for example, which puts crawfish in the same boat as their similarly-shaped cousins.
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But those in the know, who really want to get the most out of their mudbugs, put the newly-dismembered crustacean’s head to their lips and take a long slow suck. When you suck on the crawfish head after eating the tail, the crawfish experience becomes truly transcendent. “The moisture and the flavor is all in the head,” says Underbelly and One Fifth chef Chris Shepherd. “Yes, the tail is the meat, but the head is the essence of life.”
At first glance, this culinary curiosity seems a little off-putting — why would you want to suck out the brains of a sea creature? — but disgust directed at people who suck crawfish heads is totally misplaced. First, crawfish don’t actually have “brains,” or at least the way we think of a brain as humans. Crawfish don’t have central nervous systems, which means that their “brains” are actually a series of receptor cells on their antennae and legs. These receptor cells tell crawfish when predators are near, but don’t produce complex thoughts.
But for anyone that’s ever peeked inside a crawfish, there is an organ inside that is frequently mistaken as a brain or a big glob of crawfish fat. That mysterious blob is actually the crawfish’s hepatopancreas, which according to the Louisiana State University Agricultural Service, functions somewhat like the human liver, filtering out toxins and other substances that could potentially harm the crawfish. In terms of flavor, the hepatopancreas (often called “crawfish butter”) is sort of like what foie gras would taste like if it came from the sea. As such, it’s a poor man’s delicacy.
The flavor of the hepatopancreas is further amplified when you add the piquant combination of cayenne pepper, paprika, oregano and other herbs that go into a traditional crawfish boil. Those spices pool in the heads of the crawfish as they are boiled, which is why many experienced crawfish cooks leave their mudbugs to soak in the warm bath of spicy water for a few minutes to intensify the spiciness after cooking.
Bryan Davis, who oversees the weekly crawfish boils at Agricole Hospitality’s Eight Row Flint, suggests that sucking the heads is the only true way to experience the actual flavor of the crawfish. “Go to any backyard crawfish boil, and you will find a ring of people around the pot, debating the best way to cook crawfish,” Davis tells Eater. “However, there is no question that the best way to taste a cook’s style is to rip off the tail, and suck all the flavor from the head of the crawfish. It’s like a chef dipping a spoon into their favorite dish and saying, ‘Here, try this!’”
For those who are still not convinced, crawfish enthusiasts on the Gulf Coast aren’t the only ones who enjoy eating the spiced hepatopancreas of crustaceans. On the East Coast, the same organ in lobsters and crabs is called “tomalley.” According to Cook’s Illustrated, tomalley is prized for its creamy texture and intense, concentrated lobster or crab flavor. The organ is eaten on its own as crabs are picked, or spread on toast like foie gras.
There is, though, a real technique to sucking the heads, and it definitely requires a little practice to refine your personal technique. A first-time head sucker might be tempted to inhale deeply, which can result in a gnarly spray of spices that will leave them coughing and sputtering. To get it right, one must suck slowly — definitely don’t inhale — and make sure to savor the rich flavor of the crawfish butter and the spicy juices. As you suck, give the head a little pinch to ensure that the juices don’t come rushing out all at once.
If you’ve been eating crawfish all this time and leaving the heads behind, you’ve sadly been missing out. Now that crawfish season is in full swing, you’ve still got a few months to perfect your sucking technique and enjoy plenty of hepatopancreas at Houston’s best crawfish haunts before the mudbugs are done for the year.