Learn about the following species groups (including their most common members, as well as purchasing, storage and cooking information), or select a specific species from the species list on the right.
Many Australians have happy childhood memories of catching Yabbies in a dam or creek, and possibly of boiling them up there and then in a tin over a campfire. Freshwater Crayfish (or crawfish as they’re known in North America) look rather like miniature Lobsters, that is the ‘true’ Lobsters of the northern hemisphere with large front pincers or claws rather than our own local Rocklobsters.
They are found in waterholes, dams, swamps, creeks and billabongs all over Australia, though the ones available commercially are now mostly farmed. They vary greatly in colour depending on their habitat, ranging from black to a greeny-brown or beige, and are nocturnal, feeding on decomposing plant or animal remains. Thus yabbying has long been a popular pastime on summer evenings, with nothing more than a bit of rotting meat on the end of a string as bait.
There are 3 types of Freshwater Crayfish sold commercially in Australia, all members of the Cherax species, which is indigenous to Australia.*
Marron (Cherax tenuimanus and C.cainii) is the largest and most highly prized of the Cherax species. Indigenous to southwestern Western Australia, it has now also been introduced to Kangaroo Island in South Australia. In 2002 Marron were divided into 2 distinct species: the Margaret River Marron (C.tenuimanus), endemic to the Margaret River region, and the Smooth Marron (C.cainii).
Redclaw (Cherax quadricarinatus) is native to tropical Queensland and the Northern Territory. The males have distinctive red patches on the outside of their large front claws, while the females lack these patches and tend to have smaller claws. Unlike Yabbies, they do not burrow but do like to live inside some type of ‘tunnel’ such as a hollow log.
Yabby (Cherax destructor), found throughout southeastern Australia and southwestern Queensland, is the most common of the Cherax species, it burrows into dam walls and levee banks and can even survive in temporary bodies of water by lying dormant in its burrow until rain falls. The name ‘Yabby’ comes from the Wemba Aboriginal language and is used commercially for all Cherax species other than Marron and Redclaw. Cherax destructor is caught commercially in NSW, Victoria and SA using baited pots and drop nets, but is mostly farmed. Other species sold as Yabbies include koonac (C.preissii, C.plebejus), and gilgie (C.quinquecarinatus), which are common in Western Australia, and white yabby (C. destructor albidus), which is farmed in Victoria and Western Australia.
Freshwater Crayfish are usually sold live, and should be lively with a hard shell (indicating that they haven’t recently moulted) and all limbs and antennae intact. Avoid green (raw dead) Crayfish as it’s hard to tell how long they’ve been dead for and the flesh deteriorates very quickly. If buying cooked Freshwater Crayfish, look for brightly coloured, firm, intact, lustrous shells, without any discolouration, particularly at joints, and a pleasant fresh sea smell. They should feel heavy for their size and their tails should be tightly curled.
The easiest and most humane way to kill any crustacean is to chill it in the freezer until it becomes insensible, but not long enough to freeze it (30-60 minutes depending on weight and container in which it’s chilled). Once chilled, it should be killed promptly by splitting in half or dropping into rapidly boiling water. See www.rspca.org.au for more details.
Live crustaceans should be consumed as soon as possible after purchase. Place live Freshwater Crayfish in a covered container, with ventilation holes in the top and wet butcher’s paper or cloth in the bottom and keep in the coolest part of the house (below 20ºC) for up to 2 days, keeping the paper or cloth wet. Wrap cooked Crayfish in plastic wrap or place in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months below -18ºC.
Cooking & Serving
Steam, poach, deep-fry, pan-fry, stir-fry, bake, grill, or barbecue Freshwater Crayfish. Undercook, rather than overcook, them, as they will continue cooking in the residual heat, if overcooked the meat will become tough. Use the head and shell to flavour stocks, soups and sauces. Freshwater Crayfish can be substituted in most recipes calling for Bugs, Crabs, Lobsters, Prawns or Rocklobsters.
To boil uncooked Freshwater Crayfish: chill well if they’re alive (see Killing above), then place into a large pot of rapidly boiling water, that has been well salted (¼ cup table salt to 4 litres water), for about 1 minute per 60g average body weight (timed from when the water starts to return to the boil), typically 1-2 minutes for Yabbies and Redclaws and 3-4 minutes for Marrons. Refresh in iced water.
To serve in shell (cooked or raw, see Killing above): place the crayfish on its back and split the length of the shell from head to tail. Remove the digestive tract (grey thread) running down the middle of the tail meat, and the tomalley or ‘mustard’ (liver), which is green in raw crayfish and yellowy-orange in cooked; some people retain this to enrich sauce or mayonnaise. grill, BBQ or bake in the oven, brushed with butter or olive oil flavoured with garlic and/or fresh herbs.
To serve meat only (cooked): twist the tail away from the head or, in larger specimens, place the cooked Crayfish on its back and, using a sharp knife, separate the tail from the head. Holding the tail, underside up, pinch the 2 sides together to crack the shell, then peel. Alternatively, use kitchen scissors to cut down either side of the underside of the tail shell, pull shell back and remove the meat in one piece. Slice into medallions or leave whole. Use crab crackers to crack the nippers and extract the sweet meat from larger specimens. Serve with mayonnaise (flavoured with garlic, herbs, horseradish or some of the ‘mustard’), olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette, or Asian dipping sauce. Do not recook cooked Crayfish; use the meat in salads, as a garnish for soups, tossed through hot pasta or in other dishes where it’s only lightly reheated, such as omelettes.
* Freshwater Crayfish shouldn’t be confused with Freshwater Prawns, which have an extended pair of front legs, but lack the developed nippers or claws of the Crayfish. Marine Yabbies (also called ghost shrimp) are different again; they live in deep burrows in the intertidal zone of salt water and are commonly used as bait in Queensland and northern NSW.