Fresh Clams: Preparation and Cooking Tips

Overcooked clams are like shoe leather

Clams
Alexandra Grablewski/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Clams are a delicious seafood, but cooking them at home can be a little intimidating at first. You'll want to know how to prepare fresh clams, discover the secrets to shucking them, and learn how to properly cook these mollusks so they don't end up tasting like shoe leather. 

It's really not as difficult as it sounds. We'll guide you through everything you need to know about cooking fresh clams and share recipes for some of our favorite clam dishes.

How to Prepare Fresh Clams

The first step you need to take is to scrub the outside of the clams thoroughly with a stiff brush. Since clams naturally burrow in the sand, they need to be purged of grit. Crunching down on grains of sand will certainly diminish your enjoyment of this flavorful seafood.

To remove the sand before cooking, cover the clams with salt water: a mixture of 1/3 cup salt to 1 gallon of water. Let this sit for several hours. Adding 1/4 to 1/2 cup of cornmeal helps expel the dark matter and sand from the clams' stomachs and also whitens the meat.

If you are shucking your own, the shells will be easier to open if you freeze them for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the clams from the freezer and let them sit for a few minutes before attacking the shells. As they warm up, the muscles relax and the shells will open slightly so you can get your clam knife inside.

Remember to shuck over a bowl to save all that wonderful juice, which is known as clam liquor.

You may also want to remove the tough skin covering the neck of longneck clams. Slit the skin lengthwise and remove it. You can ground the skin and add it to chowder or creamed clam dishes.

Clam Cooking Tips and Hints

Once your clams are cleaned, you're ready to eat or cook them. The smallest clams are the most desirable for eating raw and the larger they get, the tougher the meat will be.

If you're going to eat unshucked clams raw, be sure to serve them cold so the shells are easier to open. The clam juice that you save while shucking can be poured on top of the open clams. Many people prefer to squeeze fresh lemon juice and add a dash of Tabasco sauce as well. If you like, serve cocktail sauce ​and horseradish as additional condiments.

Cooking clams can be tricky, but it's quick and not a difficult task. Whole clams have finished cooking when the shell opens. If the shell does not open after cooking, discard the clam. This tells you that it was not alive and that it may be contaminated with bacteria or toxins (this also applies to other bivalve mollusks like oysters and mussels).

Do not overcook clams or it will be like eating shoe leather. Add them to the heat at the last minute and cook gently over a low heat. The longer that clams are on heat, the tougher the meat will become.

When you're making white chowder, take a tip from professional chefs. To get tender clams, soak the clams in milk or cream (whichever is specified in the recipe) and add them last along with the cream. Cook only until heated through and do not boil.

Larger clam shells can be boiled and scrubbed to use as unique serving pieces.

Selecting and Storing Clams

As with most types of seafood, it's important that you know some basic facts about clams. For instance, you'll want to know how to select the best clams and properly store them when you get them home. There also many varieties of clams you can choose from.

If you enjoy digging for your own clams, make sure that you know how to avoid paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). This is a potentially fatal marine biotoxin (one clam is all it takes) that is present on both coasts of the United States. While commercially sold clams and seafood are inspected, you need to take proper safety precautions before clamming on your own.

Favorite Clam Recipes

Signature clam dishes include New England clam chowder and Manhattan clam chowder. These are perfect recipes for those large clams you didn't want to eat raw and great comfort food on colder nights.

Fried clam fritters (also known as fannie daddies and boat steerers) and clams casino with tempting ingredients like bacon, butter, and red bell pepper are two more American favorites. When you're in the mood for a seafood stew, try cioppino, which originated in San Francisco. A recipe of Italian-American heritage is clams posillipo in which clams and other seafood are cooked with garlic, red peppers, tomatoes, and seasoning.

Keep in mind that clams may be substituted in most oysterscallop, and mussel recipes, and vice versa. You'll want to understand how to adjust recipes and brush up on clam measurements, equivalents, and substitutions. This should open up a great variety of cooking options with your new found knowledge of preparing clams.

If you find that you cannot get enough clam recipes and information, two books that we can recommend are The Compleat Clammer and The New England Clam Shack Cookbook.