A seafood boil is one of two related things: a seafood dish or a party at which such a dish is to be served. When used to describe cooking, a seafood boil is basically just as it sounds: various kinds of seafood, typically crabs, crawfish, shrimp, and oysters, are boiled together in a large stockpot until cooked. Families and groups often host seafood boils, which are large gatherings where everyone eats from a communal seafood pot or pots. Seafood boils are believed to have originated in the American South and remain most popular in that region.
Generally speaking, seafood boils are very easy to make. There is no set recipe, and cooks often add their own twists and tweaks. A very basic seafood boil is little more than seafood, water, and spices. The seafood are typically cooked whole and often live: crabs, shrimp, and crawfish can be added to the seafood boil pot as soon as they are caught. Some cooks prefer to rinse them first, but others prize the just-caught salts and flavors.
Along the Louisiana coast and throughout the low-country region from Georgia to South Carolina, fresh seafood is usually vastly abundant. Shrimp boats regularly return with huge catches, shellfish are plentiful, and crawfish are easily caught in simple shore traps. In the right season, the key ingredients needed for a seafood boil are some of the cheapest foods available. It is perhaps for this reason that the seafood boil is a staple of both Louisiana Cajun cuisine and low-country cuisine.
Fish are some of the only seafood that are not commonly added to seafood boils. Seafood boils are limited to shelled seafood. A fish boil or fish fry is a separate kind of event.
Most of the time, cooks will heavily season the boiling water according to individual taste. Seasoning is usually peppery, often featuring cayenne, and aromatic, usually with a lot of herbs. Cooks may also add spicy sausage and vegetables — usually sweet corn and red potatoes — to the water as it boils. This both adds flavor to the seafood and produces seasoned, tasty vegetables.
Small seafood boils can be made for family dinners, but more often the boils are made as a part of large community gatherings, much as a potluck or a barbecue might be. Particularly during the height of seafood season, neighborhood blocks, church groups, and school communities in the American South get together to host major seafood boil events. Seafood boils can be held on closed-off streets, in parking lots, or in public parks, as well as being held indoors.
The most traditional way to serve food at a seafood boil is to cover tables in newspaper, then simply strain and pour out the seafood and any included vegetables directly onto the table. Participants do not usually use plates — most of the time, they eat the seafood right off the table. Some people use shell crackers, but others simply break the seafood open with their hands.