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Austin's crawfish season is here: Meet the people who make it happen

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
Marcus McNac, who runs Crimson Creek Smokehouse, a food trailer off U.S. 290 near Dripping Springs, serves crawfish at weekend boils during the spring.

When Stuffed Cajun Meat Market opened 11 years ago, Kurt Knies wasn’t even sure he would put crawfish on the menu. 

“Almost from the first day, we started advertising that we were going to carry crawfish, and it became a business for us,” he says. “They found us real fast.” 

“They” are the crawfish lovers who now flock to Stuffed, a food market at 12226 RM 620, to buy freshly boiled crawfish or live crawfish that they can boil at home. 

“It ramped up real fast. By the time we opened, all the Katrina transplants were already here and they were looking for a business like us,” he says.

More:It's boil season, baby: Where to get crawfish this spring in the Austin area

Calls for crawfish used to start in February, but Knies says they keep coming earlier and earlier. “The way Austin has been growing, it’s not just the Cajuns any more,” he says. “Now it’s the Californians. It’s the people moving here from Kansas.”

Teaching customers about how to make roux or how to peel crawfish is part of the job, and he’s watched countless first-timers become crawfish regulars.

Stuffed Cajun Meat Market general manager Miguel "Ducky" Guzman carries out two bags of live crawfish to a customer in early March.

Knies says it’s more than an excuse to host a party; it’s a rite of spring. 

“It’s so many people’s ritual,” Knies says. “They get together with their same buddies every year and do their crawfish boils. As soon as Christmas is over and the new year starts, people start thinking about Mardi Gras. The calls and emails start coming in.” 

Business is booming

This year’s crawfish season had a slow start due to the deep freeze that brought everything to a halt at Mike Frugé’s crawfish farm outside Lafayette, Louisiana. 

“The season itself had already started later than usual, so the freeze was significant,” Frugé says. The good news is that warm weather has returned, and the crawfish are starting to feed heavily again, which means retailers, like Stuffed, can finally sell those big “I’ll pinch your finger off” crawfish, as Knies calls them. 

More:How to make a king cake for Mardi Gras (and where to find a plastic baby)

Frugé has been selling to Knies for 8 years, and over those years, even more rice farmers are getting into the crawfish business. Total crawfish acreage has doubled in the past 20 years

Vietnamese-style crawfish from La Crawfish are tossed in a chile oil before serving.

The commercial crawfish industry dates back to the 1800s, and today, about 1,000 crawfish farmers harvest between 120 million and 150 million pounds each year, bringing some $300 million to the state’s economy. 

“There used to be three or four crawfish trucks on I-10 and now you see 30,” Frugé says. 

Although you can find crawfish farms almost anywhere you’ll find rice farms, 90% of the farms are in southern Louisiana, particularly on the western side of the state.

“It’s called a crawfish farm, and that doesn’t mean I lift up a big net and scoop up what I need and bring it to customers,” Frugé says. 

After the rice is harvested each July, the farmers flood and seed the fields, and by November, the first of those crawfish are big enough to harvest. Frugé says that at his farms, about 20 workers go out each day to catch them with baited traps, leaving several weeks between each field’s harvest to allow the crawfish to grow into the prized peak season size that customers love.

Frugé Seafood in Louisiana raises crawfish that it sells to retail markets and restaurants in Texas and Oklahoma.

Crawfish season used to start in earnest in March, but as the climate has warmed in recent years, they are shipping bags as early as January. 

“They are a wild-caught species in a controlled environment,” he says. “I provide an environment for the crawfish to live in, but I still have to lure and catch them.”

Frugé sells crawfish in Texas, Oklahoma and a little in Louisiana. Exporting mudbugs to the Lone Star State has become big business in the past 10 years. Crawfish can range in cost from $2 to $8 per pound, and they are often sold in 30-pound bags. A pound of large crawfish might include 10 to 15 of these small crustaceans.

They ship some live crawfish nationally using gel packs to keep them alive on the journey, but for the most part, Frugé’s product is sold at bars, restaurants and food trucks throughout Texas. 

It’s an easy way to draw in more customers during a part of the year when sales are typically slow, and those patrons typically spend more on beer while they are at it, he says. 

Stuffed Cajun Meat Market sells live crawfish as well as cooked at its retail market in North Austin.

The fact that crawfish aren’t available for most of the year adds to their mystique. “People have this pent up demand,” Frugé says. “As soon as they come off the holidays, it’s like, ‘Boom, lets go have a crawfish boil’.” 

Getting into the season

In Louisiana, you can get crawfish every day of the week from restaurants and roadside food trucks. Here in town, Stuffed Cajun Meat Market starts selling their own boiled crawfish first on Friday and Saturday, and then by April, they’ll boil crawfish 7 days a week. Other restaurants serve them year-round, using frozen whole crawfish during the offseason, which usually starts around July. 

Many crawfish lovers say the only way to eat them is cooked from fresh. At the beginning of the season, live crawfish are small and expensive, but they get cheaper and larger as the season rolls on. (Customers can also buy frozen crawfish tail meat all year long, which Knies says is what cooks will typically use in gumbo or etouffee.)

Live crawfish are sold in bags, and customers should keep them alive before cooking them, says Stuffed Cajun Meat Market owner Kurt Knies.

Vietnamese crawfish restaurants, including La Crawfish in South Austin, serve several styles of crawfish, including a hot-and-sour version served in a spicy chile oil and another tossed in a garlic butter sauce.

When COVID-19 hit last year, Knies says his to-go business went up by 500%, and they quickly shifted from selling 85-pound bags to 10- or 15-pound bags and freshly boiled crawfish. “We were boiling crawfish every day of the week starting in March,” he says. 

So what are crawfish lovers to do during our second spring of the pandemic? Knies says many customers are hosting socially distanced boils or they are continuing to cook smaller batches at home.

Stuffed Cajun Meat Market owner Kurt Knies and general manager Miguel "Ducky" Guzman inspect live crawfish before selling them in early March.

Mardi Gras took place during the middle of Austin’s deep freeze and winter storms, so sales were down, but now that the season has officially started, Stuffed Cajun Meat Market is selling thousands of pounds of crawfish each weekend. Even though boils look a little different this year, Knies says he expects Good Friday and Mother’s Day to be their biggest sales days of the year. 

“The grass is green. We’re all coming out of the winter, out of our shells,” Knies says of this time of year. "It’s a celebration of life and spring. Crawfish boils have come to represent that for so many people.”

'Crawfish is a religion'

Marcus McNac, who runs Crimson Creek Smokehouse with his wife, Jamie, hosts crawfish boils each spring, a tradition he picked up when he was a student at Louisiana Tech University. 

McNac grew up in Oklahoma, where crawdads were used as fishing bait. He remembers the first time he had them. 

“I ran track at Louisiana Tech, and we had just finished with track practice,” he says. Across the street was a gas station with a food truck selling crawfish. He didn’t know anyone ate what he’d considered bait. His curiosity got the best of him, so he tried one. “And that was it,” he says. “Two months later, I won the crawfish eating contest,” eating 3 pounds, 2 pounds and then 1 pound of crawfish faster than his competitors. 

The following crawfish season, he started cooking them. “Crawfish is a religion for a lot of folks in Louisiana,” he says. 

McNac says first-time crawfish cooks should always buy more than they think they’ll need and shouldn’t be afraid of the spice. 

McNac spends hours getting his water just right. Although you can buy liquid season mixes, McNac says he prefers to use the dried mixes, as well as onions, peppers and garlic. As the broth simmers in his 80-quart pot, the water condenses, so the first batch won’t be as hot as the last, McNac says. 

The key to flavorful crawfish is leaving them in the water after they’ve boiled so they can soak up the flavor. 

“You don’t want a bland crawfish,” he says. “And if you have extra, peel the tails, put them in a freezer bag and use it in something like mac and cheese.” 

He par-cooks the potatoes and puts them in a cooler to stay warm while he preps the broth and cooks the crawfish. Corn is the last thing to go in. 

Customers who boil a lot of crawfish and eat a lot of boiled crawfish will ask him to cook other ingredients, too, like mushrooms, asparagus, green beans, cauliflower and artichokes.

He’ll also throw in a head of garlic sliced crossways. “Get a loaf of French bread, chop it up and then take the garlic and squeeze it on there,” he says. 

He says he likes to save some of the broth, freezing it in an ice cube tray. Then he can use a cube of the broth in a soup, sauce, bloody mary or michelada. 

You can use leftover crawfish tails in dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya or mac and cheese.

McNac, who is hosting a big boil at Crimson Creek near the Nutty Brown Cafe on April 3, the day before Easter, says if he’s learned one thing about boiling crawfish over the years, it’s that everyone does their crawfish a little differently. 

Some cooks add dried orange rinds in the broth; others use lemongrass and ginger. Some toss the cooked crawfish in additional spices or lemon juice. McNac leaves the onions and peppers in the broth, but at other crawfish boils, you’ll find the onions and peppers mixed in with the crawfish piled on a paper-covered table.

Cooking a big batch of crawfish brings friends together in a unique way, McNac says. People linger for a long time, tossing the heads and peeling the tails. They laugh and talk and create something special, McNac says. “It turns into a good time when there’s crawfish involved."

Mushrooms, green beans, cauliflower and artichokes are some of the ingredients Marcus McNac has cooked in a crawfish boil. McNac first fell in love with crawfish while attending Louisiana Tech University.

How to make boiled crawfish

If you're going to boil crawfish at home, you need a large pot; a seafood spice mix or liquid to season the broth; live crawfish; and any other ingredients you'd like, such as corn, potatoes, sausage, shrimp, mushrooms and garlic. A strainer or basket is also helpful to remove the crawfish from the broth after they have cooked. 

Kurt Knies, owner of Stuffed Cajun Meat Market, says cooking the crawfish isn't hard and keeping the crawfish alive before you cook them is the most important part. (Cooking dead crawfish can lead to food poisoning, so don't eat them if they don't seem healthy and alive before cooking.) Crawfish need to breathe air or they can smother, he says, so if you have to keep them overnight, store them in a cooler with ice covering them. 

The cooler must be able to drain as the ice melts. If the water collects in the bottom of the cooler, it will drown the crawfish. Keep the lid to the cooler propped open just enough to allow some air in. If you are purchasing live crawfish, he recommends picking them up as close to when you are going to boil them as possible. 

When you’re cooking the crawfish, plan to let them soak in the water after they’ve boiled, which helps them soak up the spices. Once the crawfish begin to sink below the water surface, they are ready to eat.

When it comes time to cook the crawfish, bring an ample amount of water to a boil and add the seasonings. Add crawfish, corn, potatoes, sausage and other ingredients. Bring the water back to rolling boil, and then turn heat completely off. Add any additional seasonings and stir. Let them soak for 30 minutes, and then serve. Other cooks, like McNac, boil the crawfish for 15 minutes and add par-cooked potatoes and corn toward the end before letting all of the ingredients soak in the liquid for 15 minutes. 

Serve hot. If you have any leftovers, peel the tails before storing and freeze immediately.