If you’re a seafood lover and have never cooked clams at home, it may seem like a bit of a production to get at the relatively small amounts of meat contained within their shells.
Harvesting the meat from mollusks is a little more involved than obtaining the relatively big chunks of flesh that you can more easily be retrieved from other marine invertebrates, such as lobster and shrimp.
But, the process itself is a lot of fun, especially shared with family and friends, and when you do reach the treasure, it tastes twice as sweet because of your dedicated labors.
And once you’ve cooked up that first batch of shellfish, you’ll see just how easy it is to enjoy these delectable marine mollusks in your own kitchen. Let’s have a look at how to expertly deal with clams, and then we’ll go over five easy cooking methods that will have you preparing gourmet shellfish-infused dishes in no time.
Where to Buy and How to Shop
At your fish market, ask the fishmonger for the day’s freshest catch. And when in doubt, give it the sniff test: clams, oysters and shellfish should smell like the ocean, and that’s all. Any overly “fish”’ smell means they’ve been sitting around too long, and are past their prime.
When purchasing, the shells of fresh clams, oysters and mussels need to be tightly closed, or just slightly ajar. And if they are open a little, they should quickly close when tapped lightly. If they don’t close, they’re not fresh and probably dead… meaning they’re not suitable for cooking or consumption.
Look for the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP) tags at your fish market, or the equivalent in your area (CSSP in Canada). This federal program regulates the commercial production of shellfish and harvesting from safe waters.
And, if you plan on gathering your own shellfish, always check with your local ocean and fishery department to ensure that the area you plan to harvest in is safe.
How to Store
Even though they may not look very lively, fresh shellfish are indeed alive and need to breathe. Sealing them in a plastic bag will smother them, so be sure to poke numerous holes in the bag with a wooden skewer.
Or, a better alternative is to place the shellfish in a bowl half filled with crushed ice, then cover with a wet, clean towel. Put a bit more ice on top of the towel to keep it moist, and place the bowl in the coldest part of your fridge. Drain off any meltwater that collects in the bowl, and use within a day or two.
How to Prepare
If you collected your own clams, purge them of any sand in their stomachs as outlined in Step 1 of Steaming below. Then, with a stiff brush, give them a good scrub under cold running water. If any barnacles are growing on the shells, scrape them away with another shell and remove the tangled “beard” from mussels.
If any shells remain open when you give them a light tap, discard them. From here, proceed with your recipe directions.
How to Shuck
You can buy tubs of shucked meat at the market, but really, half the fun is in shucking them yourself.
For any dishes that require clam meat only – such as chowder, pasta sauce or battering and deep frying – you’ll need to shuck your clams first.
- Place the clams on a baking sheet and place in the freezer for five to ten minutes, so that the meat loosens from the shells a bit.
- Hold the shell so that the hinge is against the palm of your hand.
- Insert the edge of an oyster shucker’s knife, or a dull kitchen knife, between the top and bottom shells. Slide the blade all around the shell so that you cut right through the hinge, opening the shell.
- Slip the knife edge between the meat and the shell to remove.
- Proceed with your recipe directions.
With their wavy “lips,” oysters require a bit more technique to shuck. But, it’s easy to get the hang of it. You’ll need an oyster knife and a tea towel, or an oyster shucker’s glove.
- Scrub and rinse your oysters under cold running water, discarding any that remain open after tapping.
- Place the oyster, flat-side up,* on a cutting board or non-slip work surface. Firmly grip the oyster with a tea towel, or wear a shucker’s glove, and leave the hinged end exposed.
- Place the tip of your oyster knife between the two shells, on either side of the hinge. Applying firm but gentle pressure, press inward. Twist and wiggle the knife tip with gentle pressure until the blade has made its way inside.
- Continue to twist and press the knife in until the top shell pops open. Try to retain the flavorful oyster liquor by keeping the shell level as you shuck.
- Clean any grit from your knife, then pry the shell open by inserting the knife tip in a couple of more spots, twisting it to release the shell completely. Run the knife edge along the inside of the upper shell to cut the muscle attaching it to the top shell.
- Run the knife edge along the inside of the lower shell, and gently cut the oyster free. Leave in the half shell until ready to use, then proceed as directed in your recipe.
Or, to serve raw, transfer the oyster in the bottom shell to a bed of crushed ice to keep it level and retain the juices. Serve immediately, with seafood cocktail sauce, lemon wedges or a dash of hot sauce.
* Note: Oysters are not composed of two equally shaped shells. The top shell is flat, while the bottom one where the oyster resides is cupped.
How to Steam
- To prepare the clams, soak in a bucket of ocean water to purge any sand from their stomachs. Or, make a weak brine with non-iodized salt (iodine will kill any mollusks) at the rate of 1/3 cup salt to one gallon water. Soak for 15-30 minutes.
- Under fresh running water, scrub shells with a stiff brush.
- Discard any specimens that stay open.
- Add clams to a large steaming kettle, adding ½ cup water for every pound, and bring to a boil.
- Or, for a tasty broth, replace one or two cups water with one or two cups white wine, garlic, bay leaves, parsley, thyme and the juice of one lemon – great for dunking with a nice crusty loaf.
- Steam for 2-10 minutes, depending on the species. Remove as they open, and give the unopened ones a little extra time… Some may be a bit stubborn about relaxing their shells.
How to Grill
Grilling shellfish is super easy. Clean and rinse as above, then place the shells on a grill pre-heated to medium high.
For oysters, place the bottom, rounded shell on the grill. Close the grill lid and cook 5-8 minutes, depending on their size or until they pop open. Remove with tongs, place in a serving dish and drizzle with herb butter. Serve with lemon wedges.
Baked clams can be stuffed with an assortment of different ingredients, but they do particularly well with a bit of cheese, some breadcrumbs and herbs.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and spray a baking sheet with cooking spray.
- Place the clams in a large bowl or bucket with enough water to cover them. Stir in one cup of cornmeal and 2 tablespoons of salt and let them soak while you prepare the stuffing. Soaking in cornmeal will help to purge the clams and loosen the shells.
- Prepare the stuffing – mix ingredients until they’re moist enough to form a mold, but not oozing liquid.
- Remove the shellfish from their cornmeal bath and pry them open with your fingers, or with a thin, dull knife wedged between the shells. Stuff the open shells with enough dressing to completely cover the meat.
- Position the stuffed clams on your prepared baking sheet and bake for 10-14 minutes, or until the stuffing turns golden brown.
- Remove from the oven and transfer to a serving platter.
Our recipe for Linguine with Baked Clams includes a tasty suggestion for making the dressing.
The Classic Clambake
You don’t need to go to the beach for a clambake, you can have one in your own backyard on the grill… minus the sand! And if you want to get really authentic, get some seaweed from your fish monger and put a layer on the bottom of your roasting pan.
The quintessential seafood stew, bouillabaisse is hearty, rich and delicious – and uses large amounts of seafood, including clams. If you can’t find the exact seafood or specific varieties called for in your recipe, improvise.
It’s a very flexible dish and the basics – potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, fresh herbs, white fish, clams, prawns, mussels, and lobster – make it easily adaptable to the seafood available in your region. Please see our recipe for detailed instructions on preparing a delicious bouillabaisse.
Whatever your level of expertise in cooking shellfish, you can easily enjoy the delicious flavors of clams, oysters and mussels with just a few simple steps. Enjoy some this summer – you’ll be happy as a clam that you did!
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.