Steaming clams is incredibly simple. You basically just add heat. And clams, gotta bless em, are such sweet forgiving critters... even when you mess up a bit, they're still delicious. But you won't mess up, because here are our best tips.
Keep your clams in a refrigerator until you're ready to cook them. If they've been in cold storage for a few days, they might gape open slightly... this is ok. They're cold. Live clams should still close up when you tap on them or warm them up a bit. Dead clams will gape open completely and should be thrown out.
Rinsing / Soaking:
Before you cook the clams, rinse them under fresh water to remove any grit or algae from the shells. Use your senses as you do this: listen for clunkers (sign of a dead clam or chipped shell). Smell anything off? Toss it. And look for mudders (which are dead clams full of mud). These are terrible to cook, and they're sneaky because they don't sound hollow.
We give the clams time to purge before we ship them, so most of us don't soak our clams. If you want to take this extra step to be sure they're free of grit, just put them in cold fresh water for about half an hour, changing the water two or three times. (This piece of advice comes from our good friend and amazing chef Renee Erickson). Don't let them sit in fresh water for too long, because that will kill them eventually. Keep in mind soaking reduces their salt content, so you might need to adjust your seasoning. (Unsoaked clams bring plenty of salt to whatever dish you're preparing).
Put clean clams in a pot or a pan with a lid. Add a bit of liquid to get things started... wine, water, or chicken stock will work... but just a splash. Clams release liquid as they cook. Steam the clams on medium heat, with the lid on, for 5 to 7 minutes. Clams cook like popcorn: some cook faster than others. Stir or shake the pot during cooking so that all the clams have room to open up.
(Savory and manila clams cook up slightly differently from one another - read below for more detail).
Almost every clam recipe out there will tell you to toss the unopened clams. This is good advice. BUT if you know that the clams were alive and happy when you put them in the pot, you have a bit more leeway. Crowded clams can't open, and undercooked clams don't open, so give the late bloomers a bit of space, and a bit more time on the stove, before you toss them out.
There's often a little bit of sand in the bottom of a clam steaming pot, so keep that in mind as you prepare your meal.
Plan on a half pound to 2 pounds per person, depending on the dish.
Pictured below: nice clean clams. Read on for more tips!
Tip 1: Watch the heat
When we say medium heat we mean it... don't turn the dial up. Cooking slowly will help all the clams open. Cook them too fast, and you risk overcooking them, which can cause them to be a bit tough and fall out of their shells. Still yummy, but tough.
Tip 2: Know your species
There are many different species of clams in the PNW. We sell two types: manila steamer clams and purple savory steamer clams. Another popular steamer clam, which you might find if you're digging clams on a public beach, is the native littleneck (aka white clams). There are a few key differences in how you cook the various species:
Manila Steamer Clam - Manilas are the most common clam eaten on the west coast and the most important commercial species... most recipes are written with them in mind. Generally they're fully cooked by the time they open up. If they're undercooked, they won't open. If you overcook them, they'll fall out of the shell.
Purple Savory Clam - Purple savory clams are meatier and softer in texture than a manila... they're somewhat like a mussel. They flash open when exposed to heat, so an open clam isn't necessarily fully cooked. You can eat them at any point, but if you like a fully cooked clam don't be afraid to cook them a bit longer once they've opened.
Another difference between savory and manilas has to do with biology: savory clams are bimodal benthic feeders, meaning that they have two ways of procuring their planktonic food: they siphon it directly out of the water (like manilas do), and, sometimes, they extract it from sand. Because of this latter technique, they're more likely than manilas to have sand in them. We purge the clams before they ship, but can't guarantee they won't have sand... so if you're going to soak clams, soak savories. Just put them in a bowl of freshwater on the counter for 20 - 30 minutes (changing the water every 10) while you prepare the rest of your dinner.
Native Littlenecks: These are hard to find in stores, but if you're ever harvesting your own clams on a public beach in Hood Canal you'll likely end up with some littlenecks in your bucket. They're similar in texture and flavor to a manila, and you can cook them the same way as a manila. One main difference we've noticed is that littlenecks are harder to remove from the shell after they've been steamed. Littlenecks don't have as long a shelf life as Manila clams do... they die sooner once they're out of the water, and their shells are more fragile. These two reasona are why they aren't often sold commercially.
Below: A manila, a littleneck, and a purple savory, sitting pretty.
Tip 3: Add Flavoring
Clams are salty, sweet and satisfying all by themselves, but they definitely play well with others. Most steamed clam recipes will have you saute the extra ingredients (garlic, shallot, etc) in the pan before adding clams. You can follow a recipe, or just kinda wing it. Mushroom, celery, and peppers work well. Ginger is great. Red pepper flakes are nice. Tomatoes offer a nice alternative to butter or cream. And chorizo or salami offer a satisfying counterpoint.
Be wary of anything salty: We've gone wrong adding too many olives, because the clams themselves, especially if you don't soak them first, are super salty.Check out our clam recipes here.