Mistakes To Avoid With A Seafood Boil

Seafood boils are a timeless tradition in the U.S., with the roots of this succulent spiced dish in Cajun cuisine originating in the Deep South of Louisiana. Spicy crawfish boils have been adapted to low country shrimp boils, and less spicy crab ones with buttery sauces. Some regional varieties include boiled eggs, while some recipes add onions. 

What a boil truly represents is the spirit of sharing and making a seafood dish go further. A seafood boil is fun, theatrical, and messy. There's no standing on ceremony and that's what everybody loves no matter who they are or where they come from. There's something about boiled seafood, sausage, potatoes, and corn that brings people together. Get the different elements right, such as the seasonings and quantities, and you're good to go. However, before you fire up your spicy, salted water check out some classic mistakes to avoid with a seafood boil.

Using the wrong type of seafood

You won't see a fragile piece of trout added to a bubbling seafood boil. It's best to avoid flimsy fish fillets. Classically you add shellfish such as shrimp, crab, and crayfish. You can boil whole crab or crab legs and varieties that are often used are Dungeness, snow, blue, and king crabs. You can devein and shell shrimp, leave them as they are, or leave the tail on. For a meatier morsel, use colossal or tiger shrimp. 

Other great seafood choices include lobster tails which you can halve if they are quite large. Maine and spiny lobster tails are often recommended. Clams and mussels need to be cleaned thoroughly beforehand, and scallops are also delicious in a boil. In terms of fish, while less common in a boil, choose a meaty-enough one, such as swordfish, then it won't fall apart. You might want to opt for frozen seafood that you can thaw out for a boil to keep costs down, too. 

Cooking with the wrong type of pot

One of the most obvious mistakes to avoid with a seafood boil is using the wrong pot. When it comes to choosing the right one, consider the type of boil you're orchestrating. If it's going to be a big seafood blowout outside, then you've probably got the space and setup to get a big pot bubbling away. If you're confined to your kitchen stovetop but have a hungry crowd to feed, then you might opt for a couple of pots. Either way, they need to be able to fit the ingredients at once, as they all end up in the same pot in the end. 

A good-sized pot to use is a 60-quart or an 80-quart one. It also helps if there's a strainer inside, although it's not essential. That way, you can lift the cooked seafood, sausage, and veggies out of the water and drain them more easily. However, a colander will suffice, along with some tongs. A 12-quart stockpot might be big enough if there's less than a handful of you. A good rule of thumb is to use a pot that's around twice the size of the amount of seafood you're boiling. An alternative method is to make an instant pot shrimp boil.

Not adding the right amount of water

With a seafood boil, you're adding spices to water to cook in rather than creating a stock or a sauce. However, this still requires some recipe-following or understanding of how much water to use in relation to the quantity of spices you're adding. The amount of seafood you're boiling is also a huge factor, of course, as is the type. If you're throwing some huge crabs into the pot, then you may need more water so that they aren't sticking out. First, think about the size of the pot that will comfortably hold your main ingredients. Don't just think about the seafood, but also corn and potatoes. 

Next, fill that pot up around ¾ or ⅔ full with water. Once you add the seafood and veggies the level will rise. You will want what you're cooking to be fully under the water but also able to move around so that the spicy, salty water can circulate as it bubbles away. Take care not to fill the water up too much or it might boil over the side. It's going to be easier to top up a little than take out excess water once you've added everything you need to. 

Not adding lemon

The acidic notes of fresh lemon are an essential element to a seafood boil. You can incorporate lemon in three different ways: in the boil water, the boil sauce, and when serving. A citrus punch livens up any dish, and adding lemon juice to a spicy, salty boil creates balance and freshness. Cut a lemon and leave it to the side while you are making a boil to tone down the pungent aromas of the seafood as you're cooking. Or add to the water quartered and serve up along with the other ingredients on the table. You can also add fresh lemon wedges and slices to the arrangement of seafood, potatoes, corn, and sausage as a garnish that grazers can squeeze on just before eating. 

Lemon is perfect to add to a buttery boil sauce, too, as the acid cuts through the butter. The sour tang naturally complements seafood and ensures that the sauce isn't too rich. It gives the sauce a marvelous flavor and brings out the other flavors such as garlic, spices, and dried herbs. In terms of quantity, try combining a couple of tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice with three sticks of melted butter for the sauce. 

Not adding a balance of seasonings

One of the most important mistakes to avoid with a seafood boil has to be getting the seasonings right. There are plenty of packet mixes to choose from, but you might want to make your own to create a customized blend, while cutting down on salt, too. What seasonings you use depends on the type of seafood boil you're making. These may include Cajun seasonings, Old Bay, paprika, and cayenne. You're not going to be serving the water up like a broth, so it should be fairly salty. Dried herbs add flavor, along with red pepper flakes, pickling spices, and bay leaves, plus mustard seeds and celery seeds. 

For a simple low country boil, add salt and Old Bay to water and beer. Shrimp is often added to this type of boil and it isn't as spicy as Cajun boil. Meanwhile, for a classic Chesapeake crab boil, you'll want to dial back the seasonings in the water, but add them to the seafood and other ingredients once they are cooked. The balance of seasonings needs to be followed through to the boil sauce, too. 

Not adding the right potatoes

Potatoes soak up the flavor of a spiced, salted boil. To make an authentic Frogmore stew use small potatoes as they don't take as long to cook. And since you make this recipe with shrimp, you don't want to be waiting for too long for the veg to cook. You can cut large potatoes up, however, you might prefer to keep them whole and small. They are less likely to mush up in the pan as the water boils and the corn bangs against them, or to soak up as much liquid. 

In terms of choice, red potatoes are a classic to use in a boil. They look fabulous and won't disintegrate in the hot water boil as they are nice and waxy. When cooked, they won't taste overly soft, yet they also add a subtle sweet flavor. This complements the succulent sweetness of the shrimp and corn and contrasts with the spicy salt water perfectly. Another good choice that adds a buttery flavor is small Yukon gold potatoes. For a rustic look and nutty notes use fingerling potatoes. Or what about a mixture of all three? 

Not adding smoked sausage

While you can experiment with the type of seasoning you use in a seafood boil and the sauce to go with it, don't make the mistake of adding the wrong type of sausage. Traditionally, smoked sausage pieces are added to the seasoned water. A classic variety to use is Andouille, the U.S. version of this French sausage is used in Cajun cuisine and is spiced and double-smoked. These sausages are already cooked and are also used in a low country boil. 

Alternatives include Polish kielbasa or Spanish chorizo.  What's great about these is that they are robust enough to add a different texture to the meaty, spicy, and firm boil. You want to cut the sausages into inch-long pieces so that they are well-proportioned with shrimp, small potatoes, and corn cobs. If you want to play down the heat, source a smoked sausage that isn't as spicy. 

Overcooking or undercooking the seafood

If you're using local crabs for a seafood boil, then you can no doubt source them fresh. However, crabs often come already cooked and frozen. You need to thaw them out in the fridge before adding them to the pot. And then it's not a case of undercooking or overcooking, but rather making sure they are fully warmed through. With raw seafood, undercook it and you might be serving up a health problem. However, since shrimp and crayfish cook pretty quickly, it's more likely that you'll overcook it. Seafood that's so rubbery it bounces off the boil table is hardly appetizing, so timings are key. 

You can often tell when seafood is cooked because it turns from being translucent or a grey color to an opaque, pink-tinged white. If you want to make sure, check that the internal temperature has hit 145 F. You may need a few minutes or up to five for raw shrimp and crayfish to cook in a boil. It's no surprise that crab legs take longer, even if they are cooked, and this could be up to 7 minutes. Clams, although small, may be ready at the 10-minute mark but could take up to 15 minutes. If you add lobster to a boil, expect it to take around 15 minutes and raw crab could take up to 20 minutes.

Adding the ingredients in the wrong order

Once you've got all the seasonings worked out and sourced the right ingredients, a seafood boil isn't a complex dish to make. However, one of the most classic mistakes to avoid with a seafood boil is to assume that there isn't a process to follow. There is an order of what to add to the boil and when so that everything is cooked just right.

Bring seasoned water to the boil and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Add the potatoes to the seasoned water and get them cooking away first. After around 6 minutes, add halved and shucked corn cobs and sausage pieces once the potatoes are a little soft. Continue boiling for the same amount of time again. If you're using cooked seafood, such as thawed-out crab legs, then add them to the pot and turn off the heat. They should still warm through in a matter of minutes or continue cooking the seafood. Or make a Cajun crab boil by adding Dungeness crab, snow crab, and crawfish to a simmering pot at the same time as the potatoes and corn. Simmer for 10 minutes, turn off the heat, and leave for 30 minutes.

Getting the quantities wrong

If you're serving a seafood boil with a lot of classic Southern sides like creamy homestyle mac and cheese, then you'll need less to go around. However, if this dish is the main event, and it really is worth it if it is, then you'll need to adjust the portion sizes accordingly. If you're planning on a big outdoor affair with continuous beer and seafood boil, you won't want to run out of shrimp. If you know crab leg fans are avidly waiting, then you might want to up the quantity and offer less crayfish. While there aren't any hard and fast rules, not getting it right is a mistake. Think about how many types of seafood you're adding and what vegetables, as well as whether diners are hearty eaters or not, and how long the feasting will go on for. 

Make sure that each person has at least a few potatoes and a couple of pieces of corn. Account for 4 ounces of sausages per diner and around a pound of seafood. If you're going to shell-on shrimp this amount should suffice, but if you're using whole, intact shrimp then you'll want to increase the amount by about a third. This is because once you take the head off, the weight reduces by about this amount. 

Creating a sauce that tastes too strong

A dipping sauce for a seafood boil, or one that you serve with the ingredients, doesn't have to be super subtle tasting. Think about how a sauce that promises buttery richness that's spicy, sweet, and a little acidic is going to take your seafood to another level of yumminess. Simple to make, a seafood boil sauce can be powerful as long as it isn't so mighty that it detracts from the succulence of a shrimp. A great way for the sauce to mirror a Cajun boil, for example, is to make it using the liquid from the pan. 

After draining the seafood, reserve 2 cups of the boil water and add 3 tablespoons of butter. Heat the mixture on the stove so that it reduces, and you get a robustly flavorful, creamy sauce. Imagine this drizzled over freshly boiled crab and crawfish. You can also add butter to the boil itself as well as make a sauce out of it. A spicy or smoky remoulade sauce is a great choice if you want a creamy, spicy, briny taste. Clarified butter gives an unmistakably fresh taste, and flavoring butter with garlic is an excellent combination. 

Oversalting the sauce

It's so satisfying to dunk a boiled shrimp or lobster tail in a rich, tasty sauce. Be it buttery and sweet or spicy and bold, what you don't want your sauce to be is salty. Why? Think about it — seafood is already high in sodium and has a salty taste. Added to this, a lot of seafood boil seasoning mixes that you add to the boiling water are super-high on this front, too. Since a lot of sauces for a seafood boil contain butter, you can use salted butter to enhance the flavor, but then avoid adding any salt beyond this. 

To boost the flavorful taste of a melted butter sauce without added salt, try adding other seasonings. You can follow this approach when adding seasonings to the boil itself, too. For example, be sure to use Old Bay seasoning so that there's less of a need for salt. Spices that add smokiness and heat, and sweet-tasting garlic create a lift to the sauce that complements the saltiness of the seafood. Serve the sauce in ramekins dotted around your seafood boil table or toss your seafood in it. Make a spicy seafood boil sauce by adding hot sauce to melted butter, with Old Bay, cayenne, and smoked paprika. Add boiled shrimp, clams, and mussels to the sauce skillet. 

Not serving in a messy way

A seafood boil is a roll your sleeves up and dig in kind of deal so save this dish for an outdoor shindig when you're in the mood for good food and friends. The traditional way to serve a boil is by draining off the water and tipping the seafood, sausage, potatoes, and corn onto newspaper. You can also use brown butcher paper or even cookie sheets on a table that's covered with paper. Another variation, if you want to protect a table is to cover it with plastic first before laying down the paper. 

The idea is that the paper absorbs any excess water that's bound to be there even if you've drained the ingredients properly. Forget cutlery, and while you can be forgiven if you want to offer paper plates, they're not a necessity. As everyone hungrily dives in, just make sure there are enough napkins or kitchen roll available to wipe hands and mouths. To elevate the table, you could add decorative elements such as a net under the paper as a nod to this being the catch of the day. If you do want to create place settings, keep tones organic, add individual metal buckets for discarding shells, and offer a wet cloth for each person to clean up with afterward.

Not supplying the right serving utensils

Grabbing a deveined, shelled shrimp from a seafood boil and dipping it in a homemade sauce is a tad messy. But that's the fun of this type of feasting table. However, when grappling with a Dungeness crab in a Cajun boil or shell-on crayfish with a Louisiana-style boil, getting to the meaty parts isn't so easy. The fact that you use your hands to eat does mean that you can dig in with your fingers and pull hard shells apart. A knife and fork aren't going to be of any use though. Have you ever tried to use cutlery to get the meat out of an Alaskan king crab leg? 

Common mistakes to avoid with a seafood boil include not supplying the right serving utensils. A large crab leg can be spiky with a hard shell, so rather than creating a frustrating food experience, add a few crab crackers to the table. Another great way to smash open a shell is with a special mallet, and you really can't get all the succulent meat out if you don't have a picker. Other bits of eating kit you might want to offer are seafood scissors, lobster shellers and crackers, and crab forks. These make for an easier eating experience and also possibly avoid injury from someone trying to bite into a crab claw!