Love fresh clams? Learn everything you need to know about buying, cleaning, and storing clams, plus recipe ideas, with this comprehensive guide.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
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1. The Basics: Exactly What are Clams?
Like mussels and oysters, clams are mollusks belonging to the bivalve family (meaning that they have two hinged shells). They can be found in both fresh and saltwater, but the clams we eat are saltwater varieties.
Unlike mussels and oysters, which attach themselves to rocks and substrate, clams bury themselves in the ocean’s sediment (sand and mud). How deep they bury varies by variety.
Popular Types of Clams for Cooking
Thousands of clam species have been identified in the wild, though not all are edible. You’ll most often come across these types of clams in recipes and restaurants:
Hard Shell Clams (“Quahogs”)
Quahogs include littlenecks, topnecks, cherrystones, and chowder clams. These clams have short siphons (the part of the clam that filters sea water for feeding) and bury themselves in shallow sand. Hard shells are often cultivated, and are the type of clam you’ll find most often at the seafood counter.
Manila clams are also a hard shell variety, but their shells are thinner than quahogs. They’re native to the Pacific ocean and were unintentionally introduced to the northwest coastal region of the United States around 1920 via a shipment from Japan.
Manilla clams are similar in shape and size to littlenecks, but they’re meatier and take about half the time to cook.
Cooking Methods: Hard shell clams are great for steaming, stuffing, frying, pasta dishes, and chowders. If you like raw clams, littlenecks and cherrystones are good choices.
Soft Shell Clams (“Steamers”)
Also popularly called Ipswich clams and longnecks, soft shell clams bury themselves deeper in sediment than hard shells, and have larger siphons. These siphons can restrict the clam’s ability to close its shell all the way, so it’s especially important to de-grit them before cooking. Soft shell clams are most often harvested wild.
Unlike crabs, you won’t be able to eat the entirety of a soft shell clam. The clamshell is thinner and more brittle than its hard shell cousins, but not edible.
Cooking Methods: Soft shell clams are most often served steamed, grilled, or fried.
Razor Clams: Atlantic Jackknife and Pacific Razors
Atlantic Razor Clams (“Jackknife Clams”) are soft shell clams that are longer and thinner than other varieties. As their name implies, their shells look like a barber’s straight-edged razor. The flavor is delicate and sweet.
Don’t confuse Atlantic Jackknife Clams with Pacific Razor Clams! They are two entirely different species. Pacific Razors are wider, meatier, and have a stronger flavor than Jackknife clams.
Cooking Methods: Atlantic Jackknife Clams are best served steamed, grilled, or sautéed, paired with a sauce that won’t overpower their delicate flavor. (You’ll often find them paired with Asian flavors.) Pacific Razor Clams are great fried, grilled, steamed, sautéed, and in ceviche and chowder.
2. Tips for Buying Fresh Clams
The clams at your seafood counter or fish market are alive. Perished clams develop bacteria quickly, so it’s imperative to make sure you’re working with living clams before you start cooking.
Here’s what to look for at the market:
- You’ll find fresh clams on ice in the seafood case, either in breathable bags (mesh/perforated) or loose. The bags will usually have a harvest tag attached, with location, date, and “use by” information. If the fresh clams are loose, you can ask your fishmonger to show you the tag.
- Hard shell clams should be tightly-closed. If you find that any are open when you get them home, gently tap the shells on the counter or flick them with your finger and wait a few seconds. If they’re alive, they’ll close up. Any clams that don’t close, or that have chipped or cracked shells, should be discarded.
- Since soft shell clams often can’t close all the way, tap or touch the side of the shell or the siphon to see if either moves. If the siphon is small enough to retract, it will. If there’s no response to tapping or touching, the clam has perished and should be discarded.
- Fresh clams shouldn’t smell fishy. Their aroma should be clean and briny, like the ocean and salty air.
- Don’t transport or store the clams in a tightly-closed bag. Fresh clams need to breathe, even on the ride home from the market. Restricting their air circulation could smother and spoil them. Keep the top of the bag open.
3. Storing Fresh Clams
I almost always cook my clams the day I buy them, when they’re at their absolute freshest. That said, with careful storage, you can refrigerate fresh clams for 24 hours (many sources say up to 48 hours, but I rarely hold them longer than a day).
To store, I like to transfer the clams from their bag to a mesh colander. If you’ve bought a lot of clams (more than 2-3 pounds), split them between several colanders so they don’t suffocate each other.
Stand the colander in a shallow bowl and cover the clams loosely with a damp paper towel. This adds some moisture to the environment so the clams can continue to breathe. Refrigerate.
I like to check the clams a couple of times during storage so I can refresh the paper towel, discard any clams that have perished, and drain off the liquid accumulated in the bowl. Clams that have died during the process can contaminate the rest of the bunch, so you want to get them out of there as soon as you can.
Before cooking, go through your freshness checks again. Do not store clams submerged in a bowl of water.
4. How to Clean Fresh Clams
Most fresh clams should be scrubbed and purged of grit before cooking. The process is essential for wild clams and not-always-necessary-but-I-do-it-anyway for farmed.
The majority of clams you’ll buy at the in the grocery store at the seafood counter or the seafood market are either cultivated in an environment that doesn’t produce a lot of sediment, or have been pre-purged before being sold. Most of the time, all these clams need is a thorough scrub on the outside.
That said, I almost always give them at least a short soak, out of an abundance of caution. Several years ago, I made Linguine with Clams with a bag of littlenecks that I was assured had been pre-purged. Long story short: the entire pan of pasta ended up in the trashcan.
Nothing ruins a recipe more than a mouthful of sand! It’s probably overkill, but I’d rather take a little extra time to soak the clams than end up with an inedible dinner.
Step 1: Clean the Shells
To start the cleaning process, rinse the clams under cool, running water and scrub the shells well with a stiff brush. Scrape any barnacles or debris with the tip of a paring knife, if needed.
Step 2: Purge the Clams in Saltwater
De-grit the clams using the standard ratio of 1/3 cup non-iodized sea salt or kosher salt to 1 gallon of cold water (45-48 degrees F), soaking the clams in 20- to 30-minute increments.
As the clams breathe in the clean saltwater, they’ll release their sediment, which will fall to the bottom of the bowl. Depending on how sandy the clams are, you’ll want to repeat this process 2-3 times with clean batches of water.
If you decide to soak cultivated/pre-purged hard shell clams, they’ll only need one soaking, while wild or soft shell clams might need three (or more).
Always use a slotted spoon or your hands to lift the clams out of the water, rather than pouring the whole thing into a colander and letting the grit pour back over the clams. When you’ve finished the process, place the clams in a colander and rinse well with cool water.
Should I Add Cornmeal to the Water?
It depends on who you ask! Cornmeal is one of the most hotly-debated techniques in clam prep.
Many cooks argue that allowing the clams to “feed” on the cornmeal with the salt water pushes more debris out of their bellies, speeds up the process, plumps them, and lends a sweeter flavor to the meat. Others find the addition unnecessary. This article from Food52 shows a good side-by side comparison of steamers purged with cornmeal and without.
Personally, I’m torn on the process. I’ve tried it a few times with wild steamers, and while they were certainly plump and clean, we enjoyed the saltwater-only batches just as much.
If adding cornmeal, go with about 1/4 cup (medium grind) to a gallon of water.
How to Clean Fresh Clams
- 2-3 pounds fresh clams
- 1-3 gallons cold water (45-48 degrees F), divided
- 1/3 to 1 cup non-iodized sea salt or kosher salt , divided
- Inspect clams. Discard any that with chipped or cracked shells.
- If using hard shell clams, check to make sure that they're tightly closed. Gently tap any open clams on the counter and see if they close. If they remain open, discard.
- If using soft shell clams (which won't fully close), tap or touch the side of the shell and/or siphon to check for movement. If the clam doesn't respond to the stimulus, it has perished and should be discarded.
- Scrub clams under cold running water with a stiff brush to remove debris. If needed, use the tip of a paring knife to scrape off any barnacles.
- In a large bowl or tub, combine 1 gallon of cold water with 1/3 cup of salt. Stir until salt is dissolved. Add clams, refrigerate, and let soak for 20-30 minutes. (The water should cover the clams by at least 1-1/2 inches). Discard any clams that float.
- Lift clams from the bowl with a slotted spoon or your hands and discard water. If there is no sediment at the bottom of the bowl, the clams are ready to cook (common with cultivated and pre-purged hard shell varieties).
- If there is sand/grit in the bowl, rinse and repeat the soaking process 1-2 more times (or more), depending on clam variety and how much sand the clams contain. Use 1 gallon of water and 1/3 cup salt each time, soaking for 20-30 minutes.
- Place purged clams in a colander and rinse well with cool water. Cook clams as desired.
5. Fresh Clam Recipes
There are so many delicious ways to prepare fresh clams! Here are a few of our favorites to get started:
- Beer Steamed Clams with Bacon and Shallots (Striped Spatula)
- Linguine with Clams (Linguine alle Vongole) (Striped Spatula)
- Grilled Clams with Garlic Parmesan Basil Butter (Suburban Soapbox)
- Chorizo Stuffed Clams (Wicked Spatula)
- Steamed Clams with White Wine (Everyday Maven)