Why Eat It
Nutrition Chart

Why Eat It

These bivalves are, for the most part, caught in local waters. Easterners eat Atlantic clams, and Westerners enjoy Pacific varieties, but similar types of clams are harvested--dug from the sand at low tide or scooped from beds in deeper waters--on each coast. They are available all year.

Clams may be hard-shelled or soft-shelled. The edible portion may consist of the muscles that operate the shell; the siphon, or neck (through which the bivalve takes in water); and the foot, which it extends from the shell to propel itself through sand. In general, clams are sweet and a bit chewy; flavor and relative tenderness depend on the size and species.


Geoduck: The Pacific geoduck is a large soft-shell clam weighing two to four pounds, with sweet, tasty flesh. It can be shucked and sauteed, and it also makes a tasty chowder.

Quahog: The hard-shelled clam called a quahog is the largest eastern type, ranging from about 1 1/2" to 6" across. The clams called cherrystones and littlenecks are not different species, but just smaller-sized quahogs: Cherrystones measure less than 3" across, littlenecks about 2" to 2 1/2" (there is also a West Coast clam called a littleneck, though it's a different species). Full-sized quahogs are sometimes called chowder clams, as they can be tough and are best cut up and cooked. (Depending on size, cooked quahogs are used in chowder or baked with a crumb stuffing.)

Razor clam: Wide razor clams are named for their resemblance to an old-fashioned straight razor and the sharpness of their shells; usually steamed, they are commercially marketed on the West Coast, but not in the East. These razor clams are sometimes available in Asian and specialty seafood markets.

Steamer: A third type of eastern clam is the soft-shelled steamer, which has a long siphon that projects from its thin, brittle shell. As the name suggests, this type of clam--about 2" long--is usually steamed, but it can also be shucked and then sauteed or deep-fried.

Surf clam: Also called a sea clam, skimmer clam, or chowder clam, the surf clam is the most common eastern species. Large and comparatively tough, it is commonly cut up and used in recipes; most surf clams are canned.

Butter clam: A small Pacific clam.

Pismo clam: Large Pismo clams, found on the California coast, are scarce and delicious.


Clams are sold fresh, in the shell, or shucked and packed in their own juices (liquor). You can also buy shucked clams frozen or canned. They are available in one form or another year-round.


In many states, the harvest of clams is monitored by the National Shellfish Sanitation Program. Packaged shellfish bear a sticker from the state agency; items sold in bulk have a tag that the fish dealer should show you on request (although there's no way of proving that the tag came with the shellfish you're buying). As with finfish, your nose and eyes can tell you a lot about the merchandise. Clams should smell briny-fresh.

Clams that are sold live offer specific signals of freshness: They should be tightly closed (so that you can't pull them apart), or should close tightly when the shell is tapped; don't buy clams with open or cracked shells. Clams that seem especially heavy for their size should be avoided as they may be full of sand. The protruding necks of soft-shell clams should retract when you touch them.

Freshly shucked clams should smell perfectly fresh, with no trace of ammonia or a "fishy" smell.


Possibly the most perishable of all foodstuffs, clams are highly susceptible to bacterial contamination and growth once they die or get too warm. Therefore, when you buy live clams, it is imperative to keep them cold until you are ready to cook and serve them.

Store live clams in the refrigerator, covered with wet kitchen towels or paper towels. Don't put them in an airtight container or submerge them in fresh water, or they will die. The key is to keep them truly cold: if possible, at 32°F to 35°F. Within that range, clams should keep (in a live state) for about four to seven days. Be sure to remove any that die (look for open shells) during that period so they do not contaminate the remaining clams. Shucked clams should be kept in tightly covered containers, immersed in their liquor; they, too, should keep for up to a week.

You can freeze shucked raw clams in their liquor in airtight containers. Most types of frozen raw or cooked clams will keep for two months if the freezer is set at 0°F or colder. Be sure to thaw frozen clams in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.


Unless you have experience shucking live clams, it's safer and faster to have this service performed by the fish seller. If that isn't possible, or you want to store the clams unshucked, then do it yourself. Just be sure you have the right tools: A clam knife is about the size of a paring knife, but has a stronger, wider blade and a rounded tip. It's not uncommon for the knife to slip while you're applying pressure to open a shell, so wear a pair of work gloves to protect your hands on these occasions.

To shell clams: First discard any clams with broken or gaping shells--they have died and are not fit to eat. To prepare the remainder, scrub the shells (with a stiff brush, if necessary) and rinse under cold running water.

All clams should be rinsed--and preferably swirled about--in several changes of cold water to loosen the grit they accumulate. Some people like to take this a step further and purge the grit by soaking clams in salt water--usually a gallon of water to which 2 teaspoons of salt have been added. You can also try using a cup of cornmeal instead of, or in addition to, the salt. Let the clams sit in this solution in the refrigerator for two to three hours.

Hard-shell clams are easier to open if you place them in the freezer for 10 minutes before opening them. Hold a clam in your gloved palm, rounded-side up, with the shell's hinge toward your wrist. Working over a bowl to catch the juices, push the knife blade between the shell halves from the front (use the fingers of the hand holding the clam as a vise to press the knife into the shell toward the heel of your hand). Twist the knife when it is well inside to separate the half-shells. Cut the muscles on each side of the hinge, then cut the interior muscles to free the clam. Soft-shell clams are easier to open (you can use a regular paring knife); you'll also need to pull off the dark membrane that covers the edible "neck" of the clam.

Broiling/grilling: Clams in their shells can be cooked on a grill until the shells open. Shucked clams can be oven-broiled if given a crumb coating to protect them from the intense heat--a good alternative to frying them.

Microwaving: Arrange clams in a microwaveable dish, hinges toward the outside of the dish. Tent loosely with plastic wrap and microwave until the shells open and the seafood tests done.

Poaching: This cooking method works well for shucked clams. Poach clams in fish stock, or a mixture of water and lemon juice or wine (flavor the poaching liquid with herbs, if you like). Bring the liquid to a gentle simmer, add the clams, partially cover the pan, and poach until done. Watch carefully as clams cook quickly.

Sauteing: This method for cooking shucked clams traditionally requires quite a bit of butter or oil, both for flavor and to keep the delicate shellfish from sticking to the pan and breaking apart. For a healthier low-fat saute, be sure to use a nonstick pan; spray it with cooking spray or brush it lightly with oil. A light dredging in flour or breadcrumbs will also help keep the shellfish from breaking up. As a further precaution, shake the pan gently and turn the food carefully. Remove the clams from the pan promptly when they are done or they will continue to cook (and will be likely to overcook) from the heat retained by the pan.

Steaming: Clams in their shells are often served simply steamed or are steamed to open them before continuing to cook them by another method. Rather than steaming them in a rack over boiling water, clams are often steamed in a small amount of liquid: Place them in a pot with about 1" to 2" of boiling liquid (water, wine, or seasoned broth), cover, and steam over high heat until the clams open (but for a minimum of six minutes for safety's sake). Discard any clams that do not open. For clam sauce, the clams are steamed in broth or white wine until they open, removed and set aside. The cooking liquid is strained and added to a pan of sauteed garlic and shallots. The clams are chopped, tossed in the pan and the whole is tossed together with pasta, chopped parsley and a small amount of butter.

Nutrition Chart

Clams/6 raw

Total fat (g)
Saturated fat (g)
Monounsaturated fat (g)
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
Dietary fiber (g)
Carbohydrate (g)
Cholesterol (mg)
Sodium (mg)
Vitamin B12 (mcg)
Copper (mg)
Iron (mg)
Manganese (mg)
Phosphorus (mg)
Selenium (mcg)

Date Published: 04/20/2005
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