Clams are “bivalve mollusks.” The mollusk part means, in general, that they have shells; the bivalve part means that they are double-shelled. They are found on both coasts of North America and on the coasts of Europe.Clams are “filter feeders”: they pump water through their opened shells. This not only brings in oxygen for them to breathe, but also microscopic plankton which they strain through their gills and trap. Mucous carries the trapped food from their gills to their stomachs.
Clam flesh is firmer than that of mussels or oysters. For eating raw, generally the smaller the clam the better. As they get bigger and older, they get tougher and have a stronger flavour. These older ones are better chopped up and used in stews, soups and other dishes, rather than served on their own as a feature. Pacific clams are usually cooked anyway, as they are as a whole generally too tough to eat raw (with exceptions such as Butter Clams.)
The colour of clam meat will vary from grey to greenish-grey to beige to dark orange.
Clams on the shell are usually sold fresh and alive. When handled, if they are alive, they should close up as a defensive reaction. If they don’t close up, they are dead, and should be discarded as they may already have started to go bad. Soft-shell clams are an exception: with their necks, they can’t close their shells all the way anyway. Fresh clams should have no fishy or ammonia smell to them.
Allow about 500 g or (1 pound) per person unshelled, which should yield around 125g (4 oz) of actual meat per person.
Shucked clam meat can be bought canned, bottled or frozen.
There are two types of clams, Soft Shell and Hard Shell.
To clean clams, scrub the shell first with a brush. Then soak the clams in salt water for about 20 minutes to allow them to expel sand. Adding cornmeal (optional) will encourage the clams to purge dark stuff from their stomachs and will whiten their meat. Per 4 litres (1 gallon) of water use 115g (1/3 cup / 4 oz) of salt and 50 g (1/4 cup / 2 oz) of cornmeal. Drain, repeat two more times. If any clams float to the top during the soaking, discard them.
Before trying to open clams, refrigerate them for an hour to relax them, or freeze for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from freezer or fridge, let sit 2 or 3 minutes. As they warm up again, they’ll relax their muscles and the shells will open a tidge, which is all the opening you need. Insert the end of a blunt knife into the clam shell, and twist it to force the shell open. Be very careful when shucking clams, as the knife often slips. Some people buy special clam knifes, and keep a pair of work gloves in the kitchen to make it safer.
Don’t discard the juices inside; this is called “Clam Liquor”. You want this juice as well, so don’t just tip it out. Consequently, don’t shuck over a sink; do it over a bowl or platter. With some clams, you need to remove and discard the stomach (the dark part.)
To make the necks more tender (that is, on clams with necks): cut the necks off, slit them lengthwise , and then remove the tough skin (some people say they parboil them first as well before doing any of this.) You can still use the skin, just grind it or chop it up finely.
You can cook clams whole in their shells without shucking them on your grill, barbeque or in your microwave. You can also steam them unshucked. Just cook until the shells open; discard any that don’t open. As individual ones open, remove them and sit in a bowl or plate ready to serve.
When cooking clams in something, you need to cook clams slowly at low temperatures, as high temperatures make them rubbery. Always add clams in last to what you are making. Basically, only cook clam meat until heated, never boil it. When making chowder, first soak the clam meat pieces in the milk or cream you are going to use to flavour the milk or cream better; this way, you won’t have to boil the clam meat in the chowder to get the flavour out.
Chill well clams that you plan to serve raw for people to shuck themselves, as it will make them easier to open.
Oysters, Mussels, Scallops, Snails, Mushrooms.
A 6 1/2 oz (185g / 190 ml) tin of Clam meat yields 1/2 cup of Clam meat pieces, drained plus 1/2 cup (4 oz / 125 ml) of juice.
Keep clams cold until ready to cook or serve. Refrigerate covered with something wet, such as a tea towel or paper towel. Don’t put live claims in a sealed container or covered in fresh water, or you will kill them. During storage, discard any whose shells open. If you can keep them truly cold, just above freezing, you should be able to store them about 5 days.
Once shucked, put them in sealed container in their own juices for up to a week.
Wash and shuck before freezing, then freeze them in their own juice for up to 3 months. Thaw in the fridge, not at room temperature, as they are very susceptible to bacterial infection. You can’t cook clams at a high enough temperature to make them safe again without turning the clams into little bits of shoe leather for tiny people.
Literature & Lore
“Clams — I simply cannot imagine why anyone would eat something slimy served in an ashtray.” — Henry Beard (Author & humourist)
“She ate so many Clams that her stomach rose and fell with the tide.” — Louis Kronenberger (American critic and author, 1904-1980)