Fried clam is a very popular American food, and is most often the meat of a clam which has been battered or breaded and deep-fried. Another variation, often called a fried clam strip, is a portion of the foot of a sea clam, usually a strip of about 1/8 inch (3.175 mm) wide by up to 9 inches (22.86 cm) long. The strip is also battered or breaded and deep-fried before being served.
New England restaurant diners have enjoyed fried clams since at least the middle of the 19th century. Fried clam strips, on the other hand, were first developed in the early part of the 20th century, and popular legend credits Thomas Soffron with their invention. Soffron partnered with the Howard Johnson hotel and restaurant chain, which introduced this regional favorite to the entire nation. The strips are more popular than the fried clams — often called “clams with belly” — because the strips omit the clam’s gastrointestinal parts. These parts, though, are said to impart more flavor to the dish than the strip on its own.
The process of preparing clams for frying varies little from kitchen to kitchen, yet diners point to “favorite” recipes throughout New England. The differences among the various recipes are found in the batter recipes and the cooking medium. Nearly all fried clams and fried clam strips are first dipped or soaked in evaporated milk. After the milk bath, some cooks dip them into a batter thicker than pancake batter, while others roll the moistened clam in corn, regular wheat or pastry flour. In any case, they’re deep-fried either in lard or one of the many varieties of cooking oil.
Fried clam strips are served in restaurants and in the thousands of roadside clam shacks that dot the New England landscape. They’re also available frozen in grocery stores for home preparation; store-bought fried clam strips can be oven-baked as an alternative to deep-frying. When served in a restaurant, they’re accompanied most often by a generous helping of dipping sauce, as well as pasta and a vegetable. When served at home or in a clam shack, they’ll frequently be loaded into a hot dog bun, slathered with tartar sauce.
Clams with belly, as opposed to clam strips, aren’t as easily frozen for home preparation. Householders who want to serve fried clams whole, then, must purchase fresh, live clams and remove the meat in a process called “shucking.” If the clams are dug fresh from the beach, they should be purged; otherwise, the fried clams will be very sandy. Live clams are purged by immersing them in salt water to which vinegar or cornmeal has been added. The clams will literally spit out any sand in their shells.
Once shucked, clams should be prepared immediately. Some merchandisers market fried clam kits that include the shucked clams, the batter mix and tartar sauce. These kits are shipped with the clam meat packed with dry ice to keep it fresh, and cost about five to ten times the cost of fried clams in a restaurant.
There are two critical points that should be followed when deep-frying clams at home, regardless of the specific recipe being used. The first is to bring the frying medium — whether lard or oil — to its full frying temperature before adding the clams, and then add the battered or breaded clams slowly and sparingly. This is done to keep the clams from reducing the temperature of the oil, because the clams will absorb more of the oil if the temperature is lower. The second point is to make certain there’s a good supply of dipping sauce in the home, such as tartar, remoulade, marinara or cocktail sauce; few meals are as disappointing as fried clams served with insufficient dipping sauce.