Live Crawfish Farmers 101
All farmers market their crawfish live, and a large portion of the final consumer product is live crawfish. Live crawfish command the highest prices, with the largest animals bringing premium prices. Producers of large crawfish have a competitive advantage, especially when the supply of live crawfish exceeds demand. When there is an oversupply, the larger crawfish usually remain in the live market while the smaller crawfish are processed for meat. Most producers sell live crawfish to a primary wholesaler or a processor, although a few sell directly to retail stores, restaurants and consumers. In Louisiana, red swamp crawfish have greater consumer appeal in the live market than white river crawfish, although this preference is usually not seen outside of traditional southern Louisiana markets.
Highest demand for crawfish by both retail consumers and restaurants occurs on weekends, even in Louisiana. The short shelf life of crawfish (no more than several days) largely dictates harvesting schedules and market plans. It also limits regional and national distribution.
Whether served in households or restaurants, live crawfish are usually boiled or steamed and eaten while hot and fresh. Crawfish are not considered a staple food; rather, they are generally associated with social occasions, and no food exemplifies the Cajun cultural atmosphere more than fresh, boiled crawfish coupled with spicy vegetables and cold beverages.
Processed and prepared products When crawfish are abundant or when live markets become saturated, a portion of the annual crop is processed and sold as fresh or frozen abdominal or “tail” meat. The most popular processed product is cooked, hand-peeled and deveined meat, which is usually sold in 12-ounce or 1-pound packages. This may be packed with or without hepatopancreatic tissue (in Louisiana, frequently referred to as “fat”), which is an important flavoring in Louisiana cuisine and is savored for its distinctive, rich flavor. Smaller crawfish are usually processed for the tail meat market, leaving the larger individuals for the more profitable live market.
The abdominal meat yield for cooked crawfish is, on average, about 15 percent of live weight, but meat yield varies with factors such as sexual maturity and size. Immature crawfish generally yield 4 to 5 percent more meat than mature individuals because they have smaller claws and thinner shells. The cooking time and peeling technique used also can influence meat yield because all processing is by hand. Early in the production season (November to March), when a high percentage of the crawfish are immature, meat yield can be as high as 22 to 23 percent. Late in the season (April to July), when most crawfish are mature and have heavier exoskeletons and large chelae (claws), meat yield can be as low as 10 to 12 percent of body weight. Abdominal meat is used in many ways and can be substituted for shrimp in many recipes.
The amount of crawfish processed for tail meat in Louisiana varies annually, but since the introduction of inexpensive procambarid crawfish meat from China, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of the annual crop is now processed for meat. Another product form is cooked, whole crawfish, usually served fresh and hot, with a small volume also sold as frozen product to be heated before serving. Traditionally, crawfish in the southern U.S. are cooked with red pepperbased spices/seasonings, and often with onions, potatoes and corn to complement the meal. One extracts the edible portions of the whole crawfish by hand.
Increasing in popularity in Louisiana, and within the range of delivery for live crawfish outside of Louisiana, are retail outlets and restaurants that serve hot, boiled crawfish. Small, seasonal “take-out” outlets have developed wherever live crawfish can be readily obtained. Many businesses also cater boiled crawfish to large groups, parties and festivals, using custom boiling rigs. Prepared, frozen crawfish dishes, although still accounting for only a small portion of total sales, have helped to increase the distribution of processed abdominal crawfish meat through valueadded products.
Soft-shelled or “soft” crawfish were once an important product in Louisiana. Production technology and markets for this product were developed in the mid-1980s, but the industry has since declined to a small number of producers, primarily because a large market never developed and the cost of production is relatively high. In processing soft crawfish, the gastroliths (two hard, calcium carbonate structures found in the head immediately before and after molting) must be removed. Soft-shelled crawfish are excellent table fare, much like the soft-shelled blue crab, and the edible portion varies from 92 percent if only the gastroliths and gills are removed in processing to about 72 percent if both the mouth/eye section of the head and the hepatopancreas are removed.