8 Tips for Buying and Cooking Clams

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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

If you’ve never cooked clams in your own kitchen, you might have trepidation over buying the wrong kind or cooking them improperly. These bivalve mollusks (meaning two shells) have a lot of benefits, however. For one, they’re a low-fat, high-protein seafood source, packed with healthy minerals like selenium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and B vitamins. In addition, they’re one of the country’s most sustainable seafood resources — making them a smart choice to add to your dinner rotation. Plus, they’re delicious! Here’s what you need to know.

1. Look for closed shells when buying live clams.

Live clams that are in the shell are typically what the industry calls “shell stock,” says Doris Hicks, a retired seafood technology specialist who spent decades in seafood with Delaware Sea Grant. This means they’re harvested live from the water, so their shells should be tightly closed. Typically, they’re stored on ice — but not buried — in a supermarket. There should be some type of barrier between the clam and the ice, says Hicks, because fresh water will kill a live clam. 

2. Buy from a licensed reputable supplier.

It’s not the best idea to buy clams from any ol’ market — unless you can clearly tell where they’re coming from. Fresh clams should have a “Harvested in the USA” label, and the supplier should be able to tell you exactly when and where they were harvested (thanks to a tag with that information), says Sean Barrett, co-founder of the Dock to Dish Montauk, a fishery program in New York that includes a team of clam diggers. There should never be any smell to clams other than a hint of the sea, and clams in the shell should always be cold to the touch.

3. Check a live clam’s reflexes.

Sometimes, a live clam will open up its shell to breathe. If you see an open shell, tap on it lightly; a live clam will draw itself closed. If it doesn’t move, that means the clam has died. Any bacteria naturally present in the clam can then spoil the meat and potentially make it unsafe to eat — meaning you should discard it.

4. Don’t be afraid of a little dirt.

Most of the time, harvested live clams will be clean, but if there’s a little seaweed or mud on the shell, it’s OK. If you’re planning to cook them in their shells, rinse off any dirt right before cooking them, which helps them to stay moist, says Hicks.

5. Know how to store them properly.

When you buy live clams, you may think you need to use them right away. However, they’ll actually keep in the refrigerator for several days if you store in a container with a moist paper towel over the top.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

6. Go ahead and buy them pre-shucked (and a lot of other ways, too).

Don’t want to go to the trouble of shucking clams yourself, especially if you’re using the meat in something else like clam chowder? Buy them already removed from the shells. They’ll be sold in a lidded container surrounded by the liquid from the clams while inside their shells. Look for plump-looking clam meat in liquid that’s a creamy white to a light tan color. Or you can also find canned clams, which are already cooked (some of which are chopped, too) and ready to go into a recipe, like clam sauce for pasta; as well as frozen clams.

7. Freeze pre-shucked clams.

Not ready to use the pre-shucked clams you picked up at the store? They’ll keep for three to five days in their original container in the fridge, or you can also freeze them, says Hicks. To ensure freshness when keeping the container in the fridge, try the smell test: They should have a briny, ocean smell (anything that smells sour should be tossed).

8. Easy cooking methods are best.

Steaming is a near-foolproof way to cook live clams. You can add any flavor you like to the water (think: beer, wine, broth) and add the live clams to a basket over it, says Hicks. Use the clam “juice” that drips out during cooking as a broth to dip them in (or try dipping them in melted butter or a seafood seasoning, like Old Bay). Don’t toss the broth; you can use it later in a stew, chowder, or any type of seafood soup to add major flavor.

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