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.
Rinse the clams under fresh water to remove any grit or algae from the shells. You don't need to soak them. Discard any dead clams. (Dead clams will be full of mud, or widely gaping open. Read more about how to store and handle clams here.) Put the clams in a pot or a pan with a lid. Add a bit of liquid to get things started, but just a splash. Melted butter, wine, or chicken stock will work. 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.
Generally plan on 1 pound per person... maybe more if you're eating them without pasta.
Below: nice clean clams.
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. 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 - The key difference between manilas and savory clams is that the purple savory clams are meatier and softer in texture, more like a mussel. But they also cook differently: savory clams flash open when exposed to heat, so when they open they aren'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.
Native Littlenecks: Littlenecks have a similar texture and flavor to a manila, and cook up similarly, but they're harder to get out of the shell. Even when cooked, their adductor muscles cling to the shells. We know this mainly because we used to have our mom make clam chowder to sell in the retail store. Occasionally we'd give her littleneck clams to use in the chowder, and then we'd hear about what a pain in the rear they are to shell. (Maybe that's why she quit us???) 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... which is why they aren't often offered for sale.
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... our favorites are below... 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 are super salty.
Here are a few of our favorite recipes:
Renee Erickson's clam recipe from A Boat, A Whale, A Walrus. Renee is a clam whisperer. She takes our clams to the next level, and every time we're fortunate enough to sit down at her table we get blown away. The recipe she included in her first cookbook is one of our favorites... if you've ever taken an oyster class with us at Booklarder, this is the recipe we use.
Clams steamed with nettle butter.
Clams steamed with chorizo & arugula
Clams steamed with cilantro & lemon