Clams are often thought of as the poor man’s oyster, but we think it’s high time to move the clam to the top of our “favorite shellfish” list. Here’s everything you need to know about how to clean them, cook them, and enjoy them.
Types of Hardshell Clams
Members of the clam family manifest their differences in size and shell hardness. Littleneck, middleneck, topneck, cherrystone, and chowder clams are considered hardshell clams because they have a shell that’s much thicker and more durable than the thin, brittle shells of softshell (steamers, razor clams, and geoduck) clams. This how-to will focus on the more common and readily available hardshell clams.
Littleneck Clams—1 1/2″ to 2″ wide, littleneck clams are small, tender, and best steamed open in a flavorful broth or eaten raw on the half shell.
Middleneck Clams—2 “to 2 1/2” wide, this variety falls right in between top and littlenecks and lends itself well to being steamed, grilled, or eaten raw.
Topneck Clams—2 1/2″ to 3″ wide, typically eaten raw on the half shell, grilled open.
Cherrystone Clams—About 3″ wide, these are best for making stuffed and baked clams, like clams casino.
Chowder Clams—4″ to 6″ wide, these are far too big to eat raw and best used as their name implies: for chowder. The meat is tough and chewy and benefits from being chopped up and cooked for a long time.
How to shop for and store clams
Look for clams that are tightly closed and free of any foul smells. Avoid any that have cracked or chipped shells. When traveling, make sure the clams are in a bag with some sort of ventilation instead of a completely airtight bag. Store them in a single layer on a baking sheet or in a 13″-by-9″ baking dish (use two if necessary), covered with a clean, damp kitchen town in the coldest part of your refrigerator.
How to check for dead clams
Clams are alive and respond to temperature, so if the air around them is a little warm, they may start to open a bit. If you tap it and it closes, it’s still alive and kicking. If you tap it and it stays open, it’s a dead clam and must be discarded.
How to shuck clams safely
Clam shucking can actually be a bit more challenging than oyster shucking, so if you have a lot of clams to shuck, using a wire-mesh glove will be well worth it. If you only have a few, a clean, thick kitchen towel will do the trick. Hold the clam in your non-dominant hand with the edge of the clam facing out and the hinged part toward your palm. Using a straight clam knife or paring knife, work into the seam of the clam and twist the knife, using the same motion you would use with a key in a lock, to pry it open.
How to purge clams
After scrubbing the clams, place them in a large bowl or plastic container and cover them with ice-cold water and kosher salt. Let them sit for at least 20 minutes or up to 2 hours. This will allow the clams time to spit out any extra sand and grit that they may be hiding in their shells. A lot of cooks will also add cornmeal to the water while purging clams with the idea that the cornmeal acts as a sort of irritant to the clams, causing them to open and purge any sand that may be trapped inside. While this hasn’t been proven to be entirely true, the truth is that whether or not you add cornmeal to your purging water, salt is what the clams really need. Soaking the clams in salt water and allowing them time to cycle clean salt water through their shells is what will cause them to purge the trapped sand.
What to serve with clams?
Depending on how you choose to prepare them, clams can accommodate a variety of sidekicks. Toasted, crusty sourdough bread is the best match for clams steamed in broth, but they can also go on top of flatbread or into a creamy, lemony pasta.
Store leftover cooked clams in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Uneaten shucked raw clams should be tossed out.
Need more clammy goodness? Check out these harissa clams or this spicy green chile clam chowder.