Demystifying the Crawfish Boil

William Stitt, of Bill-E's in Fairhope, pulls back the curtain on the springtime staple.

Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

With the tilt of a basket, lunch rolls out in a cloud of steam. Corn on the cob, red potatoes and pounds of crawfish spill into a metal trough, ready to be picked clean by waiting and eager hands. Enjoying his role as the orchestrator of today’s crawfish boil, William Stitt gives a much welcomed — though unnecessary — demand: “Dig in.”

Stitt, owner of Bill-E’s in Fairhope, knows a thing or two about boiling crawdads. While working at a restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi (where the Yazoo City native attended college), he spent plenty of days on “the Grove, ” passing out entire Igloo coolers full of crawfish to hungry fraternity and sorority members. Upon relocating to Fairhope, Stitt and a business partner even invested in a “crawfish wagon,” which ran in Baldwin County for a handful of years under the control of their sons. “We wanted our boys to learn what it meant to run a business,” Stitt explains.

But don’t think for a second that his mudbug boiling is confined to business hours. When it’s just family or a small group of friends, Stitt says crawfish is always his first choice, if the time is right. March is usually the month when the crawfish stars align — “that perfect window between winter and spring,” he says. Pounce too early in the season, the shells are often too hard; wait too long, and the meat can become grainy during the dog days of summer.

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“Crawfish is a party food,” Stitt says, noting the conversations that naturally arise over the sheets of newspaper and piles of paper towels. “From someone saying, ‘Ew, I don’t want to eat that,’ to, ‘Look how much that guy just ate!’ It’s just hysterical to me.”

For whatever reason, strong opinions swirl around crawfish: the proper way to purge them before cooking, whether or not to suck the head, whether to eat them hot or cold, spicy or mild — or whether to eat them at all. With Stitt, there’s no shortage of crawfish opinions.

“Sucking the head is required, ” he declares. Other mudbug no-no’s? “Overcooking is the worst thing I see, ” says the experienced chef. “Or someone showing up looking for dipping sauces for the crawfish.”

One way in which Stitt’s crawfish recipe breaks from the norm is his inclusion of pork lardon in the pot. But can you blame him? As the brain behind Bill-E’s Small Batch Bacon, Stitt has learned to complement many meals with his smoked creation, and his crawfish boils are no exception. These days, he continues to peddle the red pinchers at Bill-E’s if a group calls and asks him to host a crawfish boil. “What I sell is a party at the restaurant, ” Stitt says. “We’ll build a menu to fit your needs, and everything is set up, served and cleaned up.”

In other words, it’s a crawfish party made easy. But if it’s the do-it-yourself, backyard boil you’re looking for, fear not. Stitt’s got the lowdown on the mudbug boil.

Stitt Tips

• On storing live crawfish before a boil: “Dump them out of the sack into an ice chest and cover them with water. Hang that empty sack over the edge and drop the lid of the ice chest down on it to allow a little air to get in. You can keep them alive like this for two to three days if needed. Pull out the tab and let the water drain out two or three times. That’s a good way to keep the crawfish alive and purge (clean) them at the same time.”

• “Reheating crawfish the next day never turns out great. Instead, pick the meat out, put it in a Ziploc bag and freeze it. Then you can use it for crawfish étouffée, crawfish dips — a million different things.”

• “Things are gonna get messy, so be sure to have plenty of paper towels on-hand. As for the spiciness, beer cures a lot of problems.” MB also suggests putting out moistened hand towels and slice lemons for a quick and fragrant clean up.

Bill-E’s Low-Country-Style Crawfish Boil

Equipment needed:
• big pot (60-quart is good) with a basket insert
• high-pressure propane burner and propane
• long table covered with newspaper, for serving

3 pounds small-to-medium red potatoes
15 lemons
3 pounds uncooked Bill-E’s pork belly, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 1/2 pounds crab boil
3 bottles hot sauce
40 – 50 pounds live crawfish, rinsed in fresh water and kept moist (typically one sack)
24 3-inch ears frozen corn on the cob

1. Fill pot about three-quarters full of water. Fill the basket insert with potatoes, lemons and Bill-E’s pork belly and cook on high heat. When pot starts boiling, add crab boil and hot sauce. Let boil for 10 minutes.
2. Add crawfish and bring pot back to a boil (about five minutes).
3. Once it’s boiling again, shut off the heat. Add frozen corn and stir.
4. Let it all soak together, uncovered, for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. To serve, cover a table with newspaper. Strain the contents of the pot using the basket insert and dump everything onto the covered table. Finally, dig in with all your friends. Serves 20 – 25

Bill-E’s Crawfish Butter

Use your crawfish leftovers to whip up a dish of butter for future use.

1/2 gallon seafood stock (can cook down shells from shrimp or crabs and keep frozen)
1/4 pound crawfish tail meat
1/2 pound butter
1/4 cup Bill-E’s Bacon drippings
salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. In a large saucepan, reduce seafood stock until it becomes a syrup, then cool.
2. Chop crawfish tail meat, then place all ingredients in a food processor and puree. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Transfer butter mixture into a container and chill until ready to use. Makes 3/4 pound

How to Peel Crawfish Like a Pro

1. Break off the head: Squeeze head and tail lightly, twist and pull apart.

2. Suck the head: Every true crawfish eater sucks the head. Enjoy the spices from the boil and the crustaceans flavorful fats.

3. Get the meat: Grip the end of the tail with your fingers and grab the meat with your teeth. Pull to remove.

4. Enjoy: ‘Nuff said. No sauce required.

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