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.
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.