How to Season a Crawfish Boil
It's in the water, really. The difference between crawdads from Louisiana or crayfish from anywhere else comes down to the seasoning added in the boiling water. Cajun cuisine has been stereotyped along with Chinese, Korean, Indian, Mexican and Thai foods for being very hot and spicy. While not every Cajun dish causes tears and runny noses, many are generously seasoned. With any dish, the amount of pepper spice desired is easily adjusted and will not take away from your enjoyment if you don't break out in a sweat after a few bites. True Cajun crawfish boils can be painful to the outsider, but this usually happens when fingers get too close to the eyes. In order to season safely and in the proper amount, we need to first understand the seasonings.
Most recipes begin in one of two ways. They are either made from scratch or they are made from prepared mixes. Cornbread for example, can start from corn meal and/or corn flour, or from a blend of dry ingredients in a box. In both cases, a recipe is required to turn the raw ingredients into the finished cornbread. Crawfish boil seasoning is no different. If you wanted to, you could blend your own ratios of salt, cayenne, herbs, seeds and spices for the ultimate crawfish boil. Truthfully, most Cajuns don't even do this. Instead, most try a few pre-made mixes until they find one they like, and then make their own adjustments by adding a little more of this or a little more of that. Another reality of Cajun cooking is that it is not an exact science. If you are the type who uses teaspoons and cup measures for everything in the kitchen, you may need to enjoy a nice cold beer to loosen up a bit before getting started.
A variety of Crawfish boil seasoning mixes probably won't have their own dedicated real estate on grocery store shelves like they do in south Louisiana, but that's what the Internet is for, right? So how do you know which is the right one for you? You won't know until you try a few, and find one that suits your taste. Major brands such as Cajun Land, Konriko, Louisiana, Rex, Slap Ya Mama, and Zatarain's make seasoning blends specifically for boiling crawfish Cajun style. To eliminate any guesswork or measuring, some are made with the correct amount of salt, while others are perfectly calculated for a whole sack of crawfish. Currently, on many Louisiana cooking and LSU blogs, the buzz seems to be about a smaller local brand called Chackbay. True believers seem to swear by it. Some parts of Cajun country are known to sprinkle Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning on top of their crawfish before eating, the same way they do with Old Bay seasoning on crabs in Maryland. We've said it before, there's no right or wrong way.
Regardless of which brand you start with, you should know that these seasonings come in three different forms; mesh bags, liquid, and dry or powdered. To complicate things, most recipes call for a combination of seasoning forms. This is where the little of this and a little of that comes in. To make things worse, nearly all of the recipes written by anyone with experience highly recommend not following the very conservative directions on the spice package label. If you are the type who needs to follow directions on a package, just double the amount of product used and you won't have any problems. Another thing to remember when seasoning is that whatever you are cooking will absorb this seasoning and any salt. Duh. So, if you are cooking more than one batch, you will need to add more, between one-third and two-thirds of the original amount of seasoning and salt to batch number two and so on.
SALT. At this point, we should also mention the importance of salt, specifically the proper amount. Salt as a seasoning becomes more crucial as other flavor profiles increase. Flavor profiles are the overall tastes found in a dish, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Together in the proper amounts, they balance a dish. Basically they are the taste buds from that tongue chart we all had to learn in grammar school. The Japanese claim there is a fifth one called "umami". Well if the Japanese can have one, I say we chalk one up for the Cajuns, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Mexicans and Thai folks y'all, spicy to the sixth power. Spicy doesn't fall under any of the other taste buds, so why not have 6 of 'em. Going back to the crawfish boil, you've definitely got spicy, high levels of acidity from the citrus, not much in the sweet or bitter department, and some fat. OK, so fat isn't a taste bud, it's really more of a mouthfeel, so without getting too technical, we'll just say it plays a major part in balancing the dish. Salt in this case, will magnify the flavor of the crawfish itself and balance the intensities of the other flavors. So how much? Salt, like spice or seasoning, and flavor in general is very subjective. The best we can do is give you a range to stay within. You can always add, but trying to subtract salt gets a little tricky and involves expensive and complex desalinization equipment. For a sack of crawfish in a large crawfish pot (60 to 80 qt.) filled two-thirds full with water (40 to 53 qt) you will use between one and two "cylinder" boxes of salt, that's 1.5 to 3 pounds. Sounds like a lot, and it will taste like even more, just like the ocean even, but spicier. When boiling crawfish, the water will be much saltier and much spicier than the crawfish because they aren't going to be immersed for very long. Begin cooking with a whole box, and after the heat is off to begin the soaking, try a crawfish. Of course it will absorb more salt as it soaks, but it will at least be a good early reference point for adding more salt to taste. If you added any potatoes beforehand, they are a very good way to gauge the proper amount of salt, especially if you haven't added the crawfish yet. In between batches, salt additions may be necessary as your ingredients will have absorbed some salt in the water during cooking.
Mesh bag seasoning. These small 3-4 oz. bags come packaged a few to a box and are usually enough to season 4-5lbs of seafood each. Using the same principles as a tea bag, the flavoring ingredients steep in the boiling water, but stay contained in the bag itself. The bag contains spices in their whole or flake form, so it is a good choice for smaller batches and those looking for a moderate amount of flavor without overwhelming spicy heat. If you were to take the contents of the bag and put them in a blender or food processor, the resulting powder would add considerably more flavor and heat by increasing the surface area of the spices. Despite their less spicy nature, try to refrain from sniffing the bag at close range, it does contain potent ingredients. The mesh bags do not contain salt, so you will have to add salt to your boiling water prior to cooking. Bag seasoning blends will contain some or all of the following: pepper flakes, peppercorns, whole cloves, dried citrus peel, herb leaves (basil, bay, laurel, oregano, thyme), and whole seeds (allspice celery, coriander, dill, mustard).
Liquid seasoning, a.k.a. "Liquid Crab Boil". This liquid devil substance comes in 4 oz., 8 oz., 16 oz., and crowd dispersing 1 gallon bottles. Made of mostly oleoresin capsicum, as in OC spray or gas, this stuff is basically unpressurized pepper spray with subtle nuances of artificial lemon, garlic and spices. In a crawfish boil, it is distinct, quick acting, and powerful. In your eyes, nose, mouth or throat, it is a cruel reminder of a bad Cops episode. All joking aside, be extremely careful, a little goes a long way. True Cajuns would beg to differ; they would tell you to double the recommended amount listed on the side of the bottle. We would agree, tell you to wear gloves and safety glasses when handling it, and don't tease it or make it mad in any way. If you come across any recipe that calls for a whole 8 or 16 oz. bottle in addition to other seasonings, it was written by a true Cajun. In truth, you will want to use the liquid seasoning as a spice and flavor booster, in addition to the mesh bags or dry seasoning, just go easy at first. As a lone seasoning agent, it doesn't bring the whole party to the table in terms of well rounded taste. Like the mesh bags, it also does not contain salt. The liquid stuff is worth keeping around the house to use in recipes for crab bisques, gumbos, and anything boiled from potatoes to hot dogs; in addition to pest control and fending off home invaders. Liquid seasoning should contain some or all of the following: a warning label, a childproof cap, and a hazmat suit.
Dry or powdered seasoning. Sold in 1 lb. bags for cooking 10 lbs. of seafood, or large 3-6 lb. jars for a whole sack of crawfish, this is the seasoning of choice to start out with. Ideally, the dry seasoning is used with a little extra liquid or bag seasoning for well rounded flavors. It usually contains salt, but often not enough, so test with your veggies or potatoes before the crawdads make it to the boiling pot. Dry or powdered seasoning blends will contain some or all of the following: salt, cayenne pepper, black pepper, white pepper, paprika, mustard powder, garlic powder, onion powder, ground coriander, celery seed, lemon flavoring, ground herbs (bay leaf, thyme, oregano, basil) dextrose, MSG.
Straight cayenne pepper. In its pure form, ground red cayenne pepper is the staple ingredient for making adjustments to spicy heat. Purely optional, this is only necessary if the premade mixes aren't hot enough for you and your guests. It does however, make sense in between batches to adjust pepper levels without throwing off the balance of salt in the boiling water.
Hopefully we haven't completely overwhelmed you with everything you've read in this article. The idea here is to familiarize yourself with seasoning ingredients and their various forms. With this knowledge, you can make your own adjustments based on how you think your crawfish should taste in terms of salt and seasoning. The best thing you can do to improve your technique is to practice. You'll make a whole lot of friends and have some great memories along the way to crawfish boil perfection. We think it's resume worthy. We also recommend keeping a crawfish boil journal of sorts. Some people do this for wine tasting, but this is way cooler. In it, record the important things: pounds of crawfish, which cooking pot, amount of salt, seasoning, lagniappe extras, cooking times, soak times, batches, etc. Before you enjoy too many beers, write down your overall impression and what others thought; too spicy made me cry; not salty enough; my fingers are swollen now I can't get my ring off; potatoes turned into mashed potatoes; not enough beer, just right, thank you crawfish.com; etc. This way if you are one of the unfortunate ones who only gets to have boiled crawfish once a month during the crawfish season, you'll have some notes to refer to and make adjustments. With lots of practice, the sky's the limit, you may be able to quit your present job and boil crawfish for a living.