What Is Imitation Crab?

You love real crabmeat, but is imitation crab a worthy substitute? What is imitation crab?

Crabmeat is delicious but it’s also very seasonal—and expensive! Here’s what you need to know about the next best thing: imitation crab.

What Is Imitation Crab?

Just as the name indicates, imitation crab isn’t crab at all, but instead a puree of fish. It’s usually whitefish with a mild flavor like pollack, whiting or haddock, or a blend. The other ingredients may include crab extract, natural coloring and a binder like egg white.

Imitation crab is formulated to have a similar flavor, texture and appearance to typical cooked fresh crab.

How Is Imitation Crab Made?

To start, the whitefish is minced very finely or pureed into a paste. The Japanese name for imitation crab, surimi, translates to “minced fish” because of this first step in the process.

Next, the meat is seasoned to take on the sweet and briny flavor of natural crab. Once the puree is seasoned, it will be shaped depending on the final goal of the product: crabmeat flakes, chunks or crab sticks, which have the appearance of a crab leg and are often used in California rolls and other types of sushi.

If you’re hoping to eat the imitation crab as a vegan substitute for crabmeat, you’re likely out of luck. Almost all imitation crab is made from a base of fish. Even more surprising is the fact that imitation crab may not be gluten-free! Sometimes flour or other grain-based products are used for texture and binding to give the imitation a more crab-like feel.

Is Imitation Crab Healthy?

According to our dietitian, Peggy Woodward, RDN, a 3-ounce serving of imitation crab contains 85 calories, 6 grams of carbohydrate, 25 milligrams of cholesterol and 841 milligrams of sodium. The same-size serving of cooked crab has 101 calories, 0 grams of carbohydrate, 91 milligrams of cholesterol and 324 milligrams of sodium. Both imitation crab and fresh crab have just 1 gram of fat per serving.

The imitation crab is slightly higher in sodium and carbohydrates, but the difference is small. Since it can have additives like sugar and MSG, imitation crab is not as healthy as the real deal. But using the much more affordable imitation crab in recipes will still give you the benefit of a generally healthy meal, like these Avocado “Crab” Boats. If you’re still not convinced, learn how to cook crab legs at home.

How to Cook with Imitation Crab

Use imitation crab as a tasty addition to pasta, salads, soups and chowders. It’s much less expensive than real crabmeat, so it’s a great way to get that full crab flavor in your meals and appetizers without breaking the bank. It’s easy to cook with and requires no special preparation.

In instances like this Baked Crab Dip or Crab-Topped Fish Fillets, imitation crab can be used in a 1:1 ratio in place of the fresh crab in the recipe.

Use Imitation Crab to Make Seafood Salad
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Mandy Naglich
Mandy is a food and beverage writer with bylines at WNYC, Munchies, Mic and October. She's a Certified Cicerone and award-winning homebrewer living, writing and cooking in New York City.