There is nothing quite like a plate full of fresh clams in beautiful dishes like Linguine Alle Vongole with olive oil and white wine sauce, Our mouths are watering at the thought of a clambake with the neighbors over a summer holiday…
However, no matter where you purchase them—whether from a fishmonger at your local grocery store or from a shellfish farm (like us!)—your live clams will need a bit more work before they’re ready to be tossed into your pot.
Why do I need to clean clams?
It’s easy to think that the clams you buy from the grocery store are ready to cook, but it’s very important to clean clams and other types of mollusks or mussels before you eat them.
All types of clams—from little neck clams to soft shell clams—live in a natural environment on the sandy shores of high-salinity oceans, and they bury themselves deeply into sand or mud. As filter feeders, they open their shells slightly to allow tiny, microscopic foods like plankton, algae, and other types of organic matter. However, this type of filter-feeding isn’t fool-proof.
As running water and tiny bits of food are filtered through the clam’s gills, bits of sand and detritus also make their way in. These can form beautiful pearls over a long period of time, but if you don’t clean them and properly flush clams of sand, you will be in for a very crunchy dish.
Take it from us: you don’t want to eat sandy clams.
How do I clean clams?
There are a few different methods of cleaning clams, but this is our tried-and-true method for preparing our clams before we cook them.
First, closely examine your clams. Remove any clams that have chipped or cracked hard shells or are dead. Don’t be afraid to give each one of them a sniff; dead clams have a very distinct smell and you will know that they are not safe to eat. Toss any dead or compromised clams in the trash.
Second, take a small brush and scrub away any dirt, sand, or barnacles—things that aren’t dislodged by a single rinse.
Then, put your clams in a colander and gently rinse with cool tap water. The running water will help dislodge any sand detritus on the outside, preventing the clams from sucking up more sand during the next step.
Next, fill a large bowl with cool to cold water. If you have saltwater clams, add sea salt to the water (roughly ⅓ cup salt to 1 gallon of water), as this more closely resembles their natural habitat and will not send them into shock. For freshwater clams, tap water is fine. Gently set each clam into the water and leave them to soak in the water.
As the clams soak, you will notice that there will be sand accumulating at the bottom of the bowl. This happens when clams filter the fresh water from the bowl, and open clams are “spitting” the sand back out.
Some people recommended adding cornmeal to the salted water mixture, thinking that it will speed up the process to clean the live mussels. However, we don’t notice much of a difference in terms of the amount of sand left over, but it does leave clams with an oddly sweet taste So if you like a little sweeter and a little less salinity, go for it!
Soak the clams in your saltwater mixture for up to an hour. Some people soak even longer, but we recommend soaking until you don’t see any more sand accumulating at the bottom of the bowl.
Then, bring out your strainer again and carefully place the clams into it one at a time. Do not dump the whole bowl of clams and dirty water into the strainer, because you will have effectively poured sand all over your clean mussels!
Give the clams one final rinse, remove, pat dry with a paper towel, and voila! Your clean clams are ready to be cooked clams!
Whether you’re trying out new clam recipes or an old favorite, one thing is for sure: you won’t have sand in your meal after following these steps.