Imitation crab meat, sometimes called surimi, is a popular ingredient in many dishes like seafood salads, sushi rolls, and more. While not actually made of real crab, imitation crab does provide a similar flavor and texture when prepared properly. Knowing how to handle and cook imitation crab is important to bringing out its best qualities.
What is imitation crab meat made of?
Imitation crab meat is a seafood product usually made from Alaska pollock fish that has been cooked, pulverized, and formed to mimic the flake and texture of real crab meat. The key ingredients in imitation crab meat typically include:
- Alaska pollock fish surimi – A white fish paste made from filleted, deboned, washed Alaska pollock fish
- Egg whites
- Wheat flour
- Crab flavoring
- Red food coloring
- Sodium tripolyphosphate – An additive to help retain moisture
By combining these ingredients, manufacturers are able to create a product that looks and tastes very similar to real crab meat. The addition of crab flavoring and red food dye gives it the signature crab taste and appearance. However, imitation crab is much lower in fat, calories, and cost compared to real crab.
Can you cook imitation crab meat?
Yes, you can cook imitation crab meat, however it requires some modifications compared to cooking real crab. Here are some tips for cooking imitation crab meat successfully:
- Use gentle heat – Imitation crab contains surimi made from fish paste, which can become rubbery if cooked at too high of a temperature or for too long. Use medium-low to medium heat.
- Cook it briefly – Just a quick sauté or warming is needed. Excessive cooking times can make the crab meat tough.
- Add it at the end – For dishes like seafood pasta or stir fries, add the imitation crab right at the end to gently heat through.
- Moisten it – Imitation crab can dry out during cooking. Adding a bit of liquid like lemon juice, white wine, or seafood stock can help keep it moist.
- Avoid freezing it after cooking – Freezing cooked imitation crab meat can damage the texture.
What dishes can you make with imitation crab?
There are many delicious ways to use imitation crab meat in recipes:
- Sushi rolls – California rolls, crab salad rolls, tempura rolls
- Seafood salad – Classic crab salad, imitation crab pasta salad
- Dips – Hot crab dip, chilled crab dip with crackers
- Appetizers – Stuffed mushrooms with crab, crab stuffed avocados
- Casseroles – Creamy crab bake, imitation crab quiche
- Sandwiches – Imitation crab melts, crab salad sandwiches
- Crab cakes
- Toppings for pizza, salads, and breakfast dishes like eggs
- Soups – Imitation crab wonton soup, creamy crab bisque
Imitation crab also works well in stir fries, fried rice, omelets, pasta dishes, and more. Mix with mayo and lemon for a quick crab salad or dip.
Can you eat imitation crab meat raw?
Raw or uncooked imitation crab meat is not recommended. Imitation crab is produced from fish surimi that has been cooked during processing, so any additional cooking is just meant to warm through or lightly heat. Consuming imitation crab straight from the package without cooking poses some risks:
- Foodborne illness – Raw seafood always carries a risk of bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Cooking helps kill bacteria.
- Texture – Raw imitation crab has a rubbery, sticky texture. Cooking makes it tender.
- Taste – The crab-like flavor develops more when heated. Raw tends to be bland.
- Chemical additives – Some additives like sugars, phosphates and flavoring are more suitable for cooked crab.
For optimal flavor and food safety, it’s best to cook imitation crab rather than eating it straight out of the package. Use it cooked in your favorite crab recipes instead of raw.
Is imitation crab meat healthy?
Here is a look at how healthy imitation crab meat is:
Overall, imitation crab can be a nutritious choice when prepared properly. It provides protein without much fat or calories. But sodium content can be high, so moderation is key, especially for those limiting salt intake. Some may also want to avoid the additives and highly processed nature of imitation crab.
Is imitation crab meat gluten free?
Most imitation crab meat contains gluten from added ingredients like wheat flour. The main exception is if you can find brands specifically labeled “gluten free” imitation crab. Here’s a closer look at whether it typically contains gluten:
- Contains wheat flour – Many brands use wheat flour as a binder and to provide texture.
- Risk of cross contamination – Even if no gluten ingredients are listed, manufacturing can lead to cross contamination.
- Check labels carefully – Look for gluten-free certification and confirm no gluten ingredients.
- Higher cost – Gluten-free options are usually more expensive.
- Deli products may contain gluten – If served at salad bars, delis, etc., cross contamination is likely.
Your safest option if eating gluten free is to choose reputable brands that clearly state “gluten free” on their packaging and have trustworthy certification.
How long does imitation crab meat last?
Properly stored, imitation crab can last:
- Unopened shelf life – About 2 years in the freezer; 6-12 months in the refrigerator
- Opened shelf life – About 6 months in the freezer; 3-5 days in the refrigerator
Keep imitation crab stored at a consistent temperature below 40°F. Use within a few days of opening for best quality. Discard if you notice an unpleasant odor or appearance.
Can you freeze imitation crab meat?
It’s possible to freeze imitation crab meat to extend its shelf life. Here are some freezing tips:
- Freeze it uncooked – Wait to cook imitation crab until you thaw it.
- Portion it – Individually wrap servings in foil, bags or airtight containers.
- Remove air – Squeeze out excess air before sealing.
- Avoid freezer burn – Use heavy duty foil or freezer bags.
- Label containers – Mark contents and freeze date.
- Thaw in refrigerator – Move frozen crab to the fridge 1-2 days before needed.
Frozen imitation crab can be kept for about 6 months before quality begins to decline. Thawed crab is best used immediately in recipes rather than refrozen.
Imitation crab meat makes a flavorful, low-calorie addition to many dishes. While not real crab, it mimics the taste when heated through gently during cooking. Imitation crab works well in appetizers, salads, sushi, casseroles, sandwiches and more. For the best quality, cook it briefly over medium-low heat, add liquid to keep it moist, and avoid refreezing it after thawing. Store uncooked imitation crab in the refrigerator or freezer, thaw before using, and enjoy it cooked for delicious crab flavor at a budget price.