How to cook clams

Since we moved to Cape Cod, I’ve learned a lot about clams. They were my first, and remain my most dependable, source of self-procured animal protein, and I figure Kevin and I have harvested at least fifty pecks since we got here. A peck is ten quarts, so that’s enough for even the slowest of learners to get the hang of them.

As a food, clams are a bit inscrutable. The flesh is locked up tight between two shells and, once released either by shucking or by cooking, reveals a mysterious anatomy unlike that of the birds and mammals we cooks are used to.

There are some go-to recipes for clams, like chowder and clam sauce and stuffed clams, but I think clams’ culinary utility extends farther. The discovery I’ve made about them is that, if you handle them right, you get a neutral, albeit salty, protein that can go almost anywhere.

While “co-hog” might sound like what Kevin and I do to the dessert, it’s also the pronunciation of “quahog,” the hardshell clam native to our area. Quahogs go by other names, depending on size. The smallest ones are littlenecks, followed by top neck, cherrystone, and chowder.

I don’t believe there are any hard-and-fast size delineations, but a littleneck is about two inches across, top neck a little bigger, cherrystone up to three inches, and chowder bigger than that. How’s that for definitive?

A clamming expedition generally yields a mix of sizes, and we usually eat littlenecks and top necks raw, and cook the rest. And, because I have vast clam experience, I’m going to break out of my pattern of blathering about what we do here and actually talk about something useful, like turning clams into a neutral, salty, cheap, healthful, all-purpose protein.

And, although it is a cruel twist of fate that consigns a singularly unskilled photographer with woefully inadequate equipment to the task of photographing the least attractive of all edible creatures, I’m going to include pictures.

It’ll be fun.

You start with a bunch of quahogs. Ideally, they’re cherrystone-size and above. Since each clam requires a bit of work, and the big ones don’t taste appreciably different from the small ones, big ones are ideal. Less work, same product. But use what you have.

If they’re dirty, give them a rinse. There’s no need to get them sparkling clean, but you’ll probably be cooking with the liquid you steam them in, and you don’t want it dirtied by a lot of sea schmutz.

Next, steam them. Put them in a pot, but don’t fill it all the way to the top; the clams need some room to open. Put just a little bit of liquid in the pot. Just a little bit. Just enough so you have an eighth of an inch or so in the bottom of the pot. As the clams open, they release liquid, so you need just enough to get them started. If you start with too much liquid, your clam juice will be too dilute.

Which liquid? I’m glad you asked. Water is clearly traditional, and if you use it, you will end up with a nice bit of traditional clam juice at the bottom of your pot. But, depending on your application, you might want to try something different. If you’re doing a clam sauce or chowder, vermouth is great (and is required for my clam sauce recipe). Red or white wine, if you have it around and it’s not expensive, works like a charm. If you’re going to make a chili-style concoction (and clam and chipotle combine beautifully), steam them in a little beer.  Think outside the faucet.

Cover the pot, and put it over high heat until you start to see traces of steam leaking out under the lid. Then turn the heat down, or you’ll end up with clam juice bubbling out and making a mess. But don’t open the pot. You need the steam to build up in there and, as they say in the barbecue world, if you’re looking, you ain’t cooking.

When you suspect the clams have opened, that’s when you open the pot. It’s probably somewhere between five and ten minutes. You may hear them rustling around in there as the shells pop open, and that’s a good clue.

If some of the clams have opened but some haven’t, take out the opened ones with tongs, and put the top back on to keep steaming the rest. If, after a couple of iterations, you have one or two stubborn hold-outs, don’t throw them away – yet. Turn the heat off, and just leave the clams in the hot pot with the lid on. Chances are good that, after a while, they’ll give it up. Just give ‘em time.

Any clam that doesn’t open goes in the garbage. It was dead to begin with, and you don’t want to eat it.

Once the clams are cool enough to handle, pull them out of their shells. If one or both of the adductor muscles (those chewy round cylinders) come with it when you pull the clam body out, that’s fine. If they stay behind, attached to the shells, just leave them. It’s not worth the effort to get them out.

And now the fun begins. First, you want to separate your clams into two parts. There’s a section that’s the belly and foot, and it’s surrounded by a bunch of other stuff, including the adductor muscles (if they came out), the mantle, and various mysterious innards. There are two reasons to separate one from the other.  The first is that, if there’s any grit in your clams, it will usually be caught in between these two parts, and if you rinse as you separate, you will de-grit very effectively.  The second reason is that, if you decide you want some larger pieces of clam in your dish, you’ll want to cut those pieces from the belly-and-foot part.  (All this will make sense once you read the rest of the directions)

So, pull off the outer part with the mantle and mysterious innards – it comes off easily — from all your clams, and you’ll be left with two piles, one of belly-and-feet and one of everything else.

At this point, you have to decide whether to leave the bellies intact.  They contain the grayish-greenish stomach contents, which aren’t disgusting or bad-tasting, but they will give your clams a greenish cast if you leave them in. I usually squeeze out the bulk of them, but leave some bits behind.

And now comes the crucial step in transforming clams into a  neutral, salty, cheap, healthful, all-purpose protein. The big secret? You chop them in little pieces. Really little pieces.

When people say they don’t like clams, it’s almost always the texture they’re objecting to. And, let’s face it, tenderness isn’t a virtue that falls to the lot of the clam. At best, they are toothsome. At worst, they give rubber bands a run for their money.

Which is why, once you have your de-bellied, rinsed clams all ready to go, you just throw them in the grinder, all the parts together. If you don’t have a grinder, you can do this by hand, but it’s a big enough job that you’ll probably end up with imperfectly chopped clams and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Get a grinder.

I use the one attached to my KitchenAid stand mixer, an appliance you will have to pry out of my cold dead hands. Well, one of my cold dead hands. The other will be holding the VitaMix.

That pile of ground clams is your neutral, salty, cheap, healthful, all-purpose protein. And, if you started with a peck, you’ll have about six cups of it.

You can make this process either easier or more difficult, depending on your application and inclination. If you simply took the clams out of the shells and tossed them in the grinder, you’d be fine. You might have a bit of sand and you’d definitely have all the stomach stuff, but spicy composed dishes hide a multitude of sins.

And, if you wanted a few bigger pieces of clam in your dish, you chop the bellies and feet (the more tender parts) by hand, and just put the remaining miscellanea through the grinder. After you’ve done this once or twice, you’ll get a sense for how persnickety you want to be, and whether you want bigger pieces in your dish.

Below are links to some of the clam recipes I’ve developed over the years (some of which were written before I saw the light, and call for chopped clams), but there are a zillion other things you can do with them. Once you have ground clams, the world’s your oyster.

Perfect White Sauce
Clam and Andouille Stew
Clams Fra Diavolo
Goan Clams

10 people are having a conversation about “How to cook clams

  1. YUM!!!! Growing up on the Cape, I have been eating shellfish since before I can remember I think I may have been weaned on clams. I do not remember my grandfather but I remember the back of his green jeep willies wagon. He never went anywhere without his claming gear. Waders,fork and basket. Not to long ago I noticed the back cab of my dads pickup looked startlingly familiar. Tomorrow for sunday dinner my Dad will be serving up raw quahogs that he dug recently, as well as some steamed quahogs(yum!) My Mom is also making fishcakes, and my husband beans.(another fave) All for my birthday, and I am honored.. Love your post.

  2. My parents once drove me to San Francisco to put me on a north-bound bus. We stopped at the wharf and had lunch. I ordered a large bucket of steamed clams, and since we were near North Beach, they’d been steamed in white wine with garlic. When my mom wanted one of my clams, I generously gave her the biggest one (after all, she’d driven me all the way to the city just to catch a bus), and I returned my attention to my lunch. About five or so minutes later I looked up and mom was still chewing vigorously. “Good God!” I exclaimed. “Is that the same clam?!” She rolled her eyes and nodded in assent, her atitude one of resolution and perseverance.

    I think maybe that was the last time I was that generous to my mom. I think it might have been the last time I had clams, too. Need to rectify that. The clams, I mean. I’m more careful with mom these days; she’s a bit of an antique.

  3. Great post! Quahogging has always been an important pastime for my family. In fact, I’m pretty sure my mom picked out her vacation home in Falmouth because of a good quahog spot nearby. But my family’s never been too creative in serving them. It’s basically either raw, stuffed or with linguini and white wine sauce. So I was pretty sick of that by the time I was a teenager. When I was living on the Cape and picking more regularly, I was always looking for new ways to prep them and I used your excellent Goan Clams recipe a couple times. Looking forward to trying a few more of these recipes.

    On a side now, if anyone out there needs a Quahog-themed rock band for any reason, my brother and I play in one called BLACK WAMPUM.

  4. Just the word ‘quahog’ brings back thoughts of my Bostonian grandmother making stuffed quahogs for Thanksgiving every year. (She also made grapefruit with brown sugar under the broiler but, seriously, over quahogs?!? No contest.) Clams are like gold dust here, even in cans they’re hard to come by. I’m wickedly envious of your clam bounty.

  5. ..ah this brings back memories of youth..digging clams and cutting my feet on broken shells…those clams are monsters compared to the ones we always got! wow! We always steamed them in seawater..but the best way to eat smaller clams was always greasily fried..and chowder of course!

  6. I love your website and enjoy reading about all your activities. I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts and spent summers on the Cape. I now live in the midwest and the only thing I miss about about New England is the seafood. I fished inshore and offshore up and down the coast, ran a string of lobster pots, scuba dived, dug clams, picked up oysters and raked scallops every chance I got. There isn’t any thing better tasting or better for than seafood eaten the same day it comes out the ocean. People who buy from the markets have no idea of the difference 1 day can make.. I enjoyed your boat naming contest and fully understand why you couldn’t pick one. It is a very personal thing and the answer will come in time. My last boat was named Dragonfly. The name struck me one day while fishing off Chatham. When I wasn’t catching anything I would flitter about from place to place to find where the fish were. Just like a dragonfly lands here and lands there for very short periods of time. It will come to when you least expect it and it will descibe you or your dreams in one or two words.

  7. We never steam clams open, because they tend to get tough after you cook them again in whatever dish you are preparing. Cooking with raw clam gives you the chance to cook them very briefly and avoid an excessively chewy texture. All the old Cape Codders open quahogs by knife – even the old ladies! We open them over a bowl to catch the liquor, putting the meats in another bowl. Chopped, minced, or ground clam can go in a fine-mesh sieve to drain out any additional liquid. This method also prevents watering down your clam liquor.

    • Bethany, I have no doubt that yours is the optimal way to do it. But I have to get WAY better at opening clams (or help from some slave labor) before I’ll tackle it. But, if you want to invite me to YOUR house …

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