The Pairing

Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes

Paircraft / Pairings / Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes

OVERVIEW

One of my favorite dishes is crab cakes. I like them made mostly of crab with very little “cake.” So when PairCraft asked me to find the right wine to pour alongside this recipe, I gladly accepted the challenge. As I discovered, the key to pairing with this dish is working with its inherent richness and toastiness.

–Christy Canterbury, Master of Wine

The Recipe

Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes
Active time: 15 min. | Total time: 1 hour 15 min. | Makes 7 crab cakes

Fresh-from-the-bay crab, pan-caramelized into rich cakes—no recipe is quite so luxurious, and few are as effortless. Other than the luscious crab meat, just about everything is likely already in your pantry or fridge. The result is so good, you don’t need sauce to enjoy them. The original recipe comes from chef Andrew Zimmern, via Food & Wine.

Ingredients

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
1 egg, beaten
1 pound jumbo lump crab meat
20 Saltine crackers, crushed
1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil, for frying
Lemon wedges (optional), for serving

Directions

  1. 1. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire, Tabasco, and egg until smooth.
  2. In a medium bowl, toss the crab with the crackers. Fold in the mayonnaise mixture. Chill 1 hour.
  3. Form crab mixture into 8 patties. Over medium-high heat in a large skillet, heat oil until shimmering. Cook cakes until golden-brown and heated through, 3–4 minutes per side.

The Methodology

What a treat it was to spend time feasting on crab cakes and sipping through a diverse range of wines to find the bottles that paired perfectly with the dish. The results were unexpected but brilliant

The Wines
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Methodology Wines CrabCakes
The Wines

I blind-tasted 34 wines for this crab cake pairing. We gathered ideas from other sommeliers, chefs, wine store pals, websites, books and magazines. The collection of wines included fizzes, off-dry whites, bone-dry whites, oaked reds, and fortified wines. Plus, I chipped in six ideas of my own in three categories: a bubbly, two perky and savory whites, a creamier white without overt oak flavor, a robust rosé and a dry, fortified wine.

The Process
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PairCraft Process
The Process

I blind-tasted 30 wines in the initial two rounds, first alone and then with the crab cakes. I came away with nine solid choices and three pretty good ones. Then, we added four more wines as I honed in on the flavors of the crab cake ingredients—and the subtleties that threw off some of my initial expectations. Typing up notes on flavor, weight, texture and refreshment for each wine and cross-comparing my findings, I encountered some surprises but was reassured by the consistency of the findings.

The Goal
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Goal CrabCakes
The Goal

My goal was to find a wine that could stand up to the mellow spice in the crab cake while melding with its caramelized richness. The results thrilled me, especially as they include a diversity of styles. The good news is that you don’t have to buy the same wines that I tasted. Instead, simply follow the wine profiles that best match this primo crab cake recipe.

I blind-tasted 34 wines for this crab cake pairing. We gathered ideas from other sommeliers, chefs, wine store pals, websites, books and magazines. The collection of wines included fizzes, off-dry whites, bone-dry whites, oaked reds, and fortified wines. Plus, I chipped in six ideas of my own in three categories: a bubbly, two perky and savory whites, a creamier white without overt oak flavor, a robust rosé and a dry, fortified wine.

I blind-tasted 30 wines in the initial two rounds, first alone and then with the crab cakes. I came away with nine solid choices and three pretty good ones. Then, we added four more wines as I honed in on the flavors of the crab cake ingredients—and the subtleties that threw off some of my initial expectations. Typing up notes on flavor, weight, texture and refreshment for each wine and cross-comparing my findings, I encountered some surprises but was reassured by the consistency of the findings.

My goal was to find a wine that could stand up to the mellow spice in the crab cake while melding with its caramelized richness. The results thrilled me, especially as they include a diversity of styles. The good news is that you don’t have to buy the same wines that I tasted. Instead, simply follow the wine profiles that best match this primo crab cake recipe.

Methodology Wines CrabCakes
PairCraft Process
Goal CrabCakes

Christy’s Pairing Philosophy

With food and wine pairings, I look for a match, a complement, or a contrast.

Match: A wine and a food have similar weights, flavors, and possibly textures. For example, a big, lush white wine with lots of weight and texture might be a match for the crab cake. Such pairings can be sublime in their continuity yet risk being “matchy-matchy” and creating palate fatigue.

Complement: The wine and food share a common flavor, texture, or acidity level. There is one link, rather than many, that brings them together. For the crab cake, this might be the toast and spice notes from the oak in a barrel-aged wine.

Contrast: The wine and food seem wildly different, but some quirk or trait in the wine brings a contrast that creates an intriguing connection. For the crab cake, that might be a wine with high acidity.

Commonly, pairings match or complement. But I was craving refreshment for this hedonistic dish, and I thought that a contrast would deliver a “wow” factor. That isn’t how this tasting turned out.

Looking at the crab cake ingredients, I knew there were some tricky, underlying factors:

Crab Legs
Crabmeat

Sweet
Savory
Rich
Succulent

Dijon Mustard
Dijon mustard

Spicy
Tangy

Mayonnaise
Mayonnaise

Creamy
Mildly tangy
Rich

Saltine Craker
Saltine crackers

Salty
Toasty
Drying Texture

Tabasco
Tabasco

Spicy
Tangy

Worcestershire Sauce
Worcestershire

Sweet
Tangy
Salty
Pungent

In sum, there’s luscious crabmeat made creamier with mayo then contrasted in texture by crunchy crackers. Everything is perked up by spice, tang, and pungency.

The Tasting

The best pairings were two tried-and-true classics and one so out of the box that it’s hard to believe it works until you try it.

WineGlass White

Toasty, Oaky, and Textured Works

So much for my search for a savory, salty wine with a zippy contrast! These wines generally were too subtle for the crab cake, and their racy acidity tasted screechy against the richness of the crab.

But oaked white wine worked incredibly well. The pan sear that burnishes the crab meat combined with the Saltine crackers creates a seamless link to a wine that has spent some time in new barrels during fermentation and aging. There are three reasons.

First, barrel-makers char oak staves to introduce additional flavors into a wine: toast, caramel, and spice. These create direct flavor links between the wine and the crab cake.

Second, barrels allow wines to interact with the tiny quantities of oxygen that infiltrate the pores of the oak. This creates wines with broader textures than those that have been aged in non-porous stainless steel. Barrel-aging boosts a wine’s silkiness, making its texture as big and luxurious as the crab cake’s.

Third, while in barrel, the wine is in contact with the lees, or spent yeast cells that have fermented it. These cloud-like lees taste like rising bread dough. So, the wine picks up bread-like flavors akin to the Saltine crackers, as well as additional texture from the lees.

The best white variety to go with the crab cake was one that is often barrel fermented and aged: Chardonnay. Still, Chardonnay is a chameleon, crafted into many styles. Unoaked Chardonnay was too light and lacked complexity. Very oaky, very buttery styles of Chardonnay upstaged the crab cake’s flavor. A  Chardonnay between those two extremes worked best.

The best white wines to pair with the crab cake were moderately oaked but balanced by medium acidity and generous apple flavors.

Toasty, Oaky, and Textured Works
Collapse
WineGlass White

Toasty, Oaky, and Textured Works

So much for my search for a savory, salty wine with a zippy contrast! These wines generally were too subtle for the crab cake, and their racy acidity tasted screechy against the richness of the crab.

But oaked white wine worked incredibly well. The pan sear that burnishes the crab meat combined with the Saltine crackers creates a seamless link to a wine that has spent some time in new barrels during fermentation and aging. There are three reasons.

First, barrel-makers char oak staves to introduce additional flavors into a wine: toast, caramel, and spice. These create direct flavor links between the wine and the crab cake.

Second, barrels allow wines to interact with the tiny quantities of oxygen that infiltrate the pores of the oak. This creates wines with broader textures than those that have been aged in non-porous stainless steel. Barrel-aging boosts a wine’s silkiness, making its texture as big and luxurious as the crab cake’s.

Third, while in barrel, the wine is in contact with the lees, or spent yeast cells that have fermented it. These cloud-like lees taste like rising bread dough. So, the wine picks up bread-like flavors akin to the Saltine crackers, as well as additional texture from the lees.

The best white variety to go with the crab cake was one that is often barrel fermented and aged: Chardonnay. Still, Chardonnay is a chameleon, crafted into many styles. Unoaked Chardonnay was too light and lacked complexity. Very oaky, very buttery styles of Chardonnay upstaged the crab cake’s flavor. A  Chardonnay between those two extremes worked best.

The best white wines to pair with the crab cake were moderately oaked but balanced by medium acidity and generous apple flavors.

Ask a Scientist: Why Do Crab Cakes Go with Oaked Wine?

Two major factors explain why a pan-seared crab cake and oaked wines go so well together:

  1. Three amino acids (glutamate, guanylate, and inosinate) are responsible for the meaty flavor that we call umami. Crab meat contains all three. Umami provides volume and texture in the mouth, and so does wine that is aged on the lees (spent yeast). So crab meat pairs well with wines, like many Chardonnays, that are aged on lees.
  2. Both pan searing and the toasting of oak barrels involve Maillard’s reaction, which is a reaction between sugars and amino acids accelerated by heat. Maillard’s reaction enhances the umami taste and promotes the development of aromatic compounds that release aromas with caramel, spicy, toasty, and smoky notes, some of which are also detected in pan-seared foods.

– Benoît Marsan, Ph.D., Université du Québec à Montréal; President,  Scienceetvin.com

WineGlass Champagne

Bubbly to Start and to Finish

Chardonnay-based champagne also paired beautifully. While champagne itself rarely sees oak aging, it does spend time in the bottle on the lees for the second fermentation that creates its bubbles. Also, many non-vintage, Brut-style champagnes are blended from both young and older wines. Those older wines contribute complexity and the toastiness that develops with age.

Champagne has lots of natural acidity; it can be plenty tart. Plus, bubbles accentuate acidity. This provided that refreshment factor I was looking for. However, rather than a savory, salty champagne, the ones that worked best were those with sweeter brioche and ripe apple flavors, which married delightfully with the sweet crab meat.

While champagne is often thought of as a wine for appetizers, when crab cakes are the main course, bubbles work throughout the meal.

Bubbly to Start and to Finish
Collapse
WineGlass Champagne

Bubbly to Start and to Finish

Chardonnay-based champagne also paired beautifully. While champagne itself rarely sees oak aging, it does spend time in the bottle on the lees for the second fermentation that creates its bubbles. Also, many non-vintage, Brut-style champagnes are blended from both young and older wines. Those older wines contribute complexity and the toastiness that develops with age.

Champagne has lots of natural acidity; it can be plenty tart. Plus, bubbles accentuate acidity. This provided that refreshment factor I was looking for. However, rather than a savory, salty champagne, the ones that worked best were those with sweeter brioche and ripe apple flavors, which married delightfully with the sweet crab meat.

While champagne is often thought of as a wine for appetizers, when crab cakes are the main course, bubbles work throughout the meal.

WineGlass Red

Red Wine Can Sing with Shellfish

I was surprised to see three red wines up in the blind tasting. Then, I was blown away when the boldest, most complex bottling made for a bull’s-eye pairing.

The winning red wine, an Australian Shiraz, had spicy overtones and rich, coconut-y flavor that meshed with the toast, spice, and richness of the crab cake. Importantly, the wine’s generous oak flavor didn’t taste as is sometimes the case, like a layer cake of fruit and oak. Rather, the flavors melded harmoniously. It tasted like the wine had aged a long time in barrels, just as Worcestershire sauce does to create an integrated flavor from an array of pungent ingredients.

Another key point is that some of barrels used to age the wine were made from American oak, which often tastes of coconut. It is sweeter and softer than French oak. This, along with the wine’s boisterously ripe fruit, combined well with the sweetness of the crab meat.

Lastly, the wine’s tannins (the astringent compounds in wood as well as in grape skins) were smooth and sculpted. There was no jarring dryness to clash with the sweet shellfish. Similarly, the wine’s medium level of acidity, while not jolting, helped lift some of the heaviness of its fruit and oak, allowing it to partner with—not overpower—the crab cake.

Red Wine Can Sing with Shellfish
Collapse
WineGlass Red

Red Wine Can Sing with Shellfish

I was surprised to see three red wines up in the blind tasting. Then, I was blown away when the boldest, most complex bottling made for a bull’s-eye pairing.

The winning red wine, an Australian Shiraz, had spicy overtones and rich, coconut-y flavor that meshed with the toast, spice, and richness of the crab cake. Importantly, the wine’s generous oak flavor didn’t taste as is sometimes the case, like a layer cake of fruit and oak. Rather, the flavors melded harmoniously. It tasted like the wine had aged a long time in barrels, just as Worcestershire sauce does to create an integrated flavor from an array of pungent ingredients.

Another key point is that some of barrels used to age the wine were made from American oak, which often tastes of coconut. It is sweeter and softer than French oak. This, along with the wine’s boisterously ripe fruit, combined well with the sweetness of the crab meat.

Lastly, the wine’s tannins (the astringent compounds in wood as well as in grape skins) were smooth and sculpted. There was no jarring dryness to clash with the sweet shellfish. Similarly, the wine’s medium level of acidity, while not jolting, helped lift some of the heaviness of its fruit and oak, allowing it to partner with—not overpower—the crab cake.

WineGlass Red

Bold Flavor All the Way

The best food and wine pairings aren’t just about a specific grape or a region. How a wine is made will determine how it tastes with food, just as a recipe dictates the flavor and texture of a dish.

Boldly flavored, non-sparkling wines with medium acidity and lots of baking flavors (brioche, as well as cinnamon and other baking spices) worked best with this dish. Interestingly, the considerable density of the crab cake could take not only full-bodied wines but also higher alcohol levels, even over 14%.

There is one more link. All the wines recommended are complex and intense. They are high-quality wines, and they can be expensive. Since you’re shelling out (pun intended) for jumbo lump crab meat, you might be okay spending a bit more on the wine as well.

Bold Flavor All the Way
Collapse
WineGlass Red

Bold Flavor All the Way

The best food and wine pairings aren’t just about a specific grape or a region. How a wine is made will determine how it tastes with food, just as a recipe dictates the flavor and texture of a dish.

Boldly flavored, non-sparkling wines with medium acidity and lots of baking flavors (brioche, as well as cinnamon and other baking spices) worked best with this dish. Interestingly, the considerable density of the crab cake could take not only full-bodied wines but also higher alcohol levels, even over 14%.

There is one more link. All the wines recommended are complex and intense. They are high-quality wines, and they can be expensive. Since you’re shelling out (pun intended) for jumbo lump crab meat, you might be okay spending a bit more on the wine as well.

Toasty but Bright Bubbles

Sparkling wine with medium-plus acidity, a creamy texture and flavors of brioche, toasted nuts, spice, and apples

Such as

Pol Roger Brut Reserve

Perfect Pairing
Christy says: "The wine brings refreshment, and the food and wine are on equal playing fields of complexity and flavor. The velvety quality of the bubbles combines with the svelte, melt-in-your-mouth texture of the crab for silky harmony. The pairing finishes seamlessly."
Buttery but Balanced White

Full-bodied, oaked white wine with medium acidity, a velvety texture, and flavors of melted butter, toast, and apples

Such as

DeWetshof Estate "Lesca" Chardonnay

Perfect Pairing
Christy says: "This is a brilliant pairing. The wine is swank. It's generous. It's been aged in oak barrels. Like the crab cake, it has toastiness, an unctuousness. They're both full-throttle. There's nothing I ever learned about wine pairing that would have led me to think that oaked wines would be best for the pairing, and they are."
Juicy, Oaky Red

Full-bodied, oaked red wine with medium acidity, a velvety texture, and flavors including toast, spice, and coconut.

Such as

Elderton "Estate" Shiraz Barossa

Perfect Pairing
Christy says: "Here is a voluptuous, oaked wine that works with seafood, which we are taught cannot happen. Its spiciness, robustness, and big, juicy fruit go with the Dijon, the creaminess, the succulent fat of the crab, and the savory Worcestershire sauce. The oak pairs with the toasty, pan-fried crust. They have a similar body and texture. Each has complexity."
Christy Canterbury, MW, was the 7th woman in the US to earn the Master of Wine title. Christy speaks and writes about wine and designs wine programs for hospitality venues and private clients. www.christycanterbury.com

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