What Are the Best Tips for Making Steamed Clams?

Cynde Gregory
Cynde Gregory
Clams are bivalve mollusks.
Clams are bivalve mollusks.

Steamed clams have long been a favorite from the coast of Maine to California. Steamed clams are very easy to prepare, but the home cook must be familiar with a few tips to keep diners safe and the clams delicious. Cleaning clams of sand, knowing which steamed clams are safe to eat, and simple tips regarding the most flavorful dipping sauces will ensure everybody who dips into the cook’s yummy offering has a good experience.

Soaking clams in cool tap water before cooking allows them to spit out any grit they are holding.
Soaking clams in cool tap water before cooking allows them to spit out any grit they are holding.

Clams are one of many kinds of shellfish. Their empty shells scatter beaches around the world, and many a child has gone digging for them in wet sand. The clam keeps itself safe inside its shell, but that shell usually contains a good amount of sand as well. Nothing is worse than trying to enjoy steamed clams that haven’t been properly cleaned and still contain unpleasantly gritty bits of sand.

Fortunately, getting clams to give up the sand isn’t difficult. Submerging them in brine before cooking induces them to spit out the grit. Some cooks claim that a little pepper in the soaking water gets them to give it up faster. An hour-long bath in cool tap water is optimum, but as little as 20 minutes might suffice.

The quickest way to the ER is to eat a bad clam. These are usually clams that have died prior to cooking and in which the decaying process has already begun. It’s important for the home cook to separate the quick from the dead.

Pulling clams that have slightly opened shells from the herd and lightly striking the shells against the edge of the counter is a foolproof way to figure out which are safe to eat. Any one that doesn’t get offended and folds up tight within a minute or two is most likely ready for the grave and should be tossed out. The wise cook will give all the clamshells a good visual check for deep cracks or chipped areas and toss those clams as well.

Once the live clams have been sequestered, it’s time to scrub them well under cold running water. Most cooks prefer a stiff wire brush for this task because dirt and debris can lodge in the clamshells’ deep grooves. It’s important to do this step carefully, remembering that anything left on the shell will go into the cooking water, and the water may not kill all bacteria, parasites, or other undesirables.

Cooks steam clams with a dedicated steamer or simply by settling them on a rack that fits inside a pot in which about an inch (2.5 cm) of water is boiling. Between five and ten minutes does the trick. At this point, most of the clams will have opened their shells. Those that haven’t are not safe to eat.

There’s no need to drench steamed clams in fancy sauces. It’s the natural salty-sweet flavor that clam lovers crave. Some diners insist that the only dipping sauce that is needed is their own cooking liquid. Others prefer adding a dab of butter to the hot liquid or discarding it all together in favor of melted butter and a squirt of lemon juice.

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Discussion Comments


The last paragraph brings up an interesting point, and I've even had my own experience with this. When ordering clams at a restaurant, one thing I have noticed is that some of the waiters seemed a bit insulted when I told them that I wanted dipping sauce for my steamed clams. After reading this article, it's more understandable why. First of all, not everything has to be dunked in dipping sauce, as more than often, it ruins the original flavor. However, most important of all, some cooks just want you to enjoy a meal for what it is, not how a dipping sauce is supposed to "define" it.


Even though I have been to several restaurants where I've eaten clams before, I have never prepared my own before. After reading this article, I am definitely taking it into consideration. For most part, people going to a nice seafood place and ordering clams would probably be a lot easier than going out on the beach and hunting for clams.

However, despite how much of a process preparing clams is, not only will it give you a good feeling of accomplishment, but even more so, you will get to understand the kind of process that is required to prepare many of the dishes that we take for granted.

Sometimes, I think we forget that when we go to a restaurant or grocery store, the dishes and meat are already prepared for us, so little to no work is required on our end. However, if we were to stop and think for a second about the kinds of preparation the occurs, we would be in for quite a surprise.


Does anyone else feel that shellfish can be a bit tricky to eat? This is especially evident in the fourth paragraph, where it's said that eating a bad clam can send you to the ER. The thing about shellfish (and clams in general) is that even if you happen to prepare them properly, such as cooking them all the way through, there's still a chance that someone can get sick.

The thing about meat (especially seafood) is the fact that sometimes it's not so much the uncooked meat which can make someone sick. Other times, the enzymes don't agree with someone. Using another example, this is especially the case with pork, which has also been known to cause sickness and the like.

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    • Clams are bivalve mollusks.
      Clams are bivalve mollusks.
    • Soaking clams in cool tap water before cooking allows them to spit out any grit they are holding.
      Soaking clams in cool tap water before cooking allows them to spit out any grit they are holding.