Mae’s San Francisco Dungeness Crab Cioppino

dungeness crab for cioppino

Cioppino is properly a home dish, or not even a dish but a big, seasonal gesture that should last hours and stain shirts and leave fingers stinky for a day or more, even after frictional washing.

Be sure to read John Birdsall’s sublime celebration of San Francisco’s signature dish, cioppino in The Signal Things of San Francisco: Cioppino.


Serves 3-4


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dungeness crab

Mae’s San Francisco Dungeness Crab Cioppino

Cioppino a San Francisco fisherman’s stew consisting of Dungeness crab, cod, clams in a tomato broth, is properly a home dish, or not even a dish but a big, seasonal gesture that should last hours and stain shirts and leave fingers stinky for a day or more.

  • Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes
  • Yield: 4 servings 1x



4 live and lively medium-large Dungeness crabs

(about 6 pounds total)

Olive oil

Sea salt

¾ cup dry white wine

1/3 cup grappa

1 small handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

1 small dried chile

3 big cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

Zest of 1 lemon, pared off in relatively big pieces

3 cups good homemade mixed-meat stock, or chicken stock

1 (2-pound) can whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos, drained (liquid reserved) and roughly chopped

Black pepper

Optional (these will make your cioppino serve 6):

2 pounds halibut or Pacific rockfish, cut into large cubes

2 dozen littleneck clams in the shell, scrubbed


  1. Cut Up the Crab: Ideally, you’ll cut up your crabs while they’re still alive. Set a crab, top shell down, on your work surface and, with a large, heavy knife or Chinese cleaver, make one sure, swift stroke through the middle of the body. (If you don’t want to do this, bring a large pot of water to a boil and drop in your live crabs. Leave them for 5 minutes, then drain and proceed with the recipe.)
  2. Separate the Crab Pieces: Pull off and discard the mouth parts, abdomen plate and long, fleshy gills. Remove the liver and pancreas (the gushy part inside the body) and reserve. Once you’ve saved the guts, you can clean the crab under running water, which makes it less messy. Separate the claws and walking legs (leaving a section of the body attached to each) and gently crack each section with a hammer or mallet (don’t go crazy, just make a crack in each shell).
  3. Saute the Crab: Set a large, deep pot over medium heat and cover the bottom with a film of olive oil. Get this hot and drop in the crab pieces and a few healthy pinches of salt. Toss briefly, then cover and leave to steam for 5 minutes, or until all the pieces feel warm.
  4. Add the Wine: Turn up the flame and add the wine and grappa, the parsley, chile, garlic and lemon zest. Boil vigorously, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
  5. Add the stock: And the chopped tomatoes and their reserved liquid. (If you’re using the halibut or rockfish, add the pieces now.) Boil vigorously, uncovered, stirring everything around a few times, for 30 minutes. (If you’re adding clams, do it for the last 5 minutes or so of boiling.) The shells should have all turned a brilliant orange, with the tomatoes beginning to dissolve and the liquid reduced by about a quarter. Taste the broth, season with more salt if necessary and grind in some black pepper.
  6. Serve: In warmed bowls with good bread.
  • Author: John Birdsall
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 45 minutes
  • Category: Soup
  • Cuisine: California


  • Serving Size: 4

Keywords: cioppino, dungeness crab, rock cod, clams, tomato broth, san francisco

For more on this dish, read John Birdsall’s The Signal Things of San Francisco: Cioppino

Photo: Kimberley Hasselbrink