How to Clean and Cook Clams
In the hierarchy of shellfish, clams have often gotten a bad rap for being one of the less luxurious or refined forms of seafood. However, when treated properly, these humble mollusks have the potential to offer up a world of recipe possibilities that require minimal time and effort.
Though some might be turned off by past experiences involving clams with a tough, rubbery texture or sandy grittiness, with proper cleaning and preparation they can be a delicious addition to any dinner spread. Whether you shuck them, steam them, eat them raw, or work them into a comforting recipe, learning to cook and clean clams the proper way at home will make you totally reevaluate the way you think about these clammy creatures.
Buying and Cleaning
When purchasing clams from your local fishmonger or grocery store, look for clams that smell fresh, not fishy, and show minimal signs of cracks, damage, or open shells. After you’ve chosen the perfect bag of mollusks, it’s best to keep the clams in a cold environment while transporting and storing them, and to cook them as soon as possible.
Though ideally clams will be cooked the day they’re purchased, they can be stored for up to two days in an open container in a cold refrigerator, optionally with a layer of damp paper towels covering them. Though your first instinct might be to submerge the clams in water while they’re being stored, there’s a high chance this will kill them before they can be cooked, so its best to keep them in a dry container with plenty of airflow.
Before cooking, it’s important to weed out any clams that might be dead or damaged, as consuming these could be a health threat. Start by tapping the shells of the open clams with a spoon, which will cause any live mollusks to close their shell tight. Any clams that remain open should be tossed in the trash, along with any that have cracks in their shells, as these openings can potentially let in bacteria. The exception to this rule is soft shell clams, which won’t close up completely but should react to tapping by moving its neck slightly; any that don’t react should be discarded.
Add all healthy clams to a bowl of cold water mixed with 2/3 cup salt per 8 cups of water and allow them to soak for 30-60 minutes to remove lingering sand or dirt. After the initial soak, move them to a second bowl of clean, salted water and soak for an additional 20 minutes. Any clams that float to the top of the water rather than resting at the base of the bowl should be thrown away.
After soaking, remove the clams from the bowl by hand—using a strainer could result in the sand going back into the clams—and scrub each with a brush under running water to guarantee there’s no dirt remaining on the surface.
For shell-free recipes like clam-covered pizzas and classic chowders, you may want to remove the meat from the shell before cooking if the recipe calls for raw, uncooked clams. The colder a clam is, the easier it will be to shuck, so stick the mollusks in the freezer for 15 minutes before allowing them to warm up for a few minutes, which will relax the clams and make them more pliable.
To open the shell and extract the meat, hold the clean clam in a kitchen towel in your palm and carefully drive a small, sharp knife—or shucking knife—into the crack between the shells, moving the blade around in a semi-circle until it the top shell has separated enough and can be pulled up. Use the knife to remove the clam meat and the muscle from each side of the shell, and add to a bowl along with any juice or brine, which will add some delicious clam flavor to your recipes.
The most classic method of cooking whole clams in the shell is to steam the mollusks, with the option of using water, beer, or white wine with the spices, herbs, and additional ingredients of your choice. While this method itself is super simple, clams can be extremely delicate and overcook easily, which will result in the chewy, rubbery texture that can give these mollusks a bad name.
When steaming clams, it’s important to limit the liquid to a small amount, so that the clams don’t become completely submerged and overcooked. Fill a stockpot or deep pan with about ¼ inch of the liquid of your choice over medium-high heat. For an extra depth of flavor add butter, garlic, white wine, or beer to the pan. Once the liquid begins to boil, add the clams, cover the pot with a clear lid, and reduce the heat to medium-low.
Keep a close eye on the clams, which will take between 5-10 minutes to cook depending on the size. Once a clam is fully cooked, the shell will open up wide, and you’ll want to remove it from the heat source as soon as possible after opening to avoid developing that dreaded rubbery texture. Any clams that don’t open up during the cooking process should be thrown away, as they aren’t safe to eat.
While this method is done with the help of an oven, it still takes advantage of steam to open up the delicate seafood. Add your clams to a baking sheet covered with semi-sheer parchment paper and top with lemon juice, butter, and a splash of white wine, before folding the paper over and sealing the sides, creating an enclosed pouch that will trap the steam in. Cook the clams in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, keeping an eye on the clams through the paper and removing them as soon as they’ve opened up. Serve with the cooking juices and crusty bread for a delicious dish.
Grilling is a super-simple and unexpected way to cook whole clams, and can be done via two methods. The first is to add the cleaned clams directly to a hot grill, allowing them to cook for 3-10 minutes until they’ve opened up. Remove the clams immediately once the shells have opened, repositioning any that haven’t yet opened to a hotter portion of the grill if necessary. Any that don’t open up after 10 or so minutes should be tossed.
The other grill method involves creating a pouch, similarly to the baking method, which will trap flavorful liquid in to make for moist, delicious clams. Add some minced garlic, butter, and a few drops of water to some heavy-duty grilling foil, add your clams, and seal up the edges, leaving some extra space at the top of the packet for the steam. Check the clams every couple of minutes and remove them as soon as the shells have opened.
Once you’ve cooked your shellfish to perfection, you have the option to serve them whole, clambake style, or to add the cooked clam meat to a variety of recipes.
For some shell-on recipe inspo, try these recipes for Spanish Style Clam Stew with Garlic Toast, Sausage Clams with Chickpeas, Clams with Israeli Couscous, and Steamed Clams and Tomatoes with Angel Hair Pasta. Or, ditch the shell and whip up a comforting dish like Linguini with Clam Sauce, Clam Stuffed Mushrooms, Clams Casino with Pancetta, or Clam Fritters.