This recipe for Beer Steamed Clams with bacon and shallots is one of my friends’ favorite summer dishes. You can have it on the table in an hour or less, with only 20 minutes of hands-on cooking time.
Of the flavors I crave when summer comes calling, fresh, steamed clams are near the top of the list. Meaty, juicy, and briny, I feel like I’m sitting seaside whenever I’m lucky enough to have a bowlful in front of me, even when I’m in my solidly terrestrial backyard.
One of my favorite ways to prepare clams is with a simple beer steamed method. The process is a quick one, making this recipe perfect for warm weather entertaining.
Infused with the flavors of a crisp lager, smoky bacon, delicate shallots, and herbs, this is a clam dish you’ll want to savor slowly, on the patio, with friends. Beer steamed clams are perfect as an appetizer, early evening nosh, or a light dinner.
What Kind of Clams Should I Buy?
I like to use small hard shell clams for this recipe, such as littlenecks. The larger varieties in the quahog family tend to be a bit too tough for this recipe (I save them for stuffing and chowder).
If you’re able to source them, Manilas also make for delicious beer-steamed clams. They’re nice and plump, but their shells are thinner, so they cook faster. While a littleneck will need 5-10 minutes to open under steam, a Manila clam will only need 3-4 minutes.
Soft shell “steamers” (Ipswish) can also be substituted, but since they’re more likely to be harvested wild, they’ll require a more thorough “purging” of sand and grit before cooking. Like Manila clams, they’ll steam in less time than littlenecks.
See my Fresh Clams Guide for detailed instructions on the necessary cleaning techniques for all of these clam varieties.
You’ll want about 3 pounds of clams for this recipe to serve 4 people. The count of how many clams you’ll get in that quantity depends on the variety. Littlenecks typically weigh in at 10-12 clams per pound, Steamers 9-10 per pound, and Manilas 10-15 per pound.
Can I Use Any Beer to Steam Clams?
Yes, and no. Technically, any beer can be used as a steaming liquid, but flavor-wise, some are better suited to complementing delicate, sweet clams than others.
The subtlety of a fresh clam can be easily overpowered by sauces and liquids that are too strong. If you’re lucky to have fresh clams on your plate, you’ll want to be able to appreciate their natural, briny flavor!
With this in mind, I tend to stay away from heavy brews, or anything that’s substantially hops-forward, so that the steaming liquid doesn’t taste bitter.
I like to choose a beer that’s light and crisp, and usually go with a wheat beer, such as Belgian-style Witbier or German Hefeweizen. I often use Allagash White (one of my all around favorite craft brews from Maine). Pale lagers are also excellent. Be careful with some of the “summer brews”–I’ve found a few of them to be too hoppy for this dish.
Among widely-distributed commercial beers, I’ve used Budweiser, Heineken, and Stella Artois to steam shellfish, all with good results.
That said, there’s still some latitude here to play around with different beers and compare the outcomes. The clams should really be the star of the show here, though, and you always want to taste the clams first in the dish, and the beer as a complementary flavor.
Taste-wise, the dish should always turn out as “clams with beer” not “beer with clams”!
How to Serve Beer Steamed Clams
You’ll want to serve these clams as soon as possible after cooking. They can get a little withered the longer they sit. There’s nothing like a plump, juicy clam right out of the steaming pot!
Since clams usually open at different rates, I remove them from the pot one at a time as they open and transfer them to large serving bowl. Then, I spoon ladlefuls of the warm, salty, bacon-studded steaming liquid (broth) over them before garnishing with chopped fresh parsley and lemon wedges.
I like to reserve about half of the broth to serve on the side, so that guests can dip their clams individually as they eat them, or spoon extra into their bowls. Don’t forget the grilled bread! It’s perfect for dipping into the broth that accumulates in your dish.
We always enjoy these al fresco, with a warm breeze, a cold glass of beer or iced tea, and honestly, not much conversation, except for the occasional “yum” or “so good“. In our house, this dish is quintessential summer eats!
Beer Steamed Clams with Bacon and Shallots
- 3 pounds small hard shell clams, such as littlenecks (about 30-36 clams), cleaned and purged (see notes)
- 4 slices bacon 4 ounces, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
- 1/2 cup shallots , chopped
- 2 garlic cloves , chopped
- 12 ounce bottle pale lager (nothing too bitter)
- 2 small sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- cracked black pepper
- lemon wedges (for serving)
- grilled baguette slices (for serving)
- Clean and purge clams using the instructions in my Fresh Clams Guide. Cultivated clams should only need one, 20 minute, soaking. Discard any clams that are chipped, don’t close when you gently tap them on the counter, or float when you soak them.
- Add bacon to a cold, heavy-bottomed pot, place over medium-high heat, and cook until just starting to brown. Add shallots and a few grinds of black pepper and continue cooking until shallots are softened and bacon is lightly crisped. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant.
- Pour the lager into the pot and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom to release any browned bits. Add clams and thyme sprigs, cover, reduce heat and steam for 5-10 minutes (depending on variety), gently shaking the pan a few times, until clams have opened. (I start checking a few minutes early and remove them as they open to avoid overcooking.)
- If some of the clams don’t open, cover and continue cooking for an additional 3-5 minutes, checking them often. Discard any clams that haven't opened after this time.
- Place clams on a serving platter and pour about half of the steaming liquid over them. Sprinkle with parsley. Pour the remaining liquid in a bowl for dipping. Serve with lemon wedges and grilled bread.