How to Clean Clams

The only trick to bringing restaurant-worthy clams to your own table is learning how to clean clams before cooking them. Here’s all you need to know!

Spaghetti with Clams
Photo: Karla Conrad

Why don’t more home cooks cook fresh clams? Certainly, with today’s far-reaching foodways, these bivalves have become easier to find than ever, even in landlocked locales. And certainly, there are plenty of great ways to cook them up, beyond clam chowder.  

But…let’s face it. When you spot a tumble of clams in the fresh seafood case at the market, they can look a little intimidating. With their dull, grayish/brownish tightly closed shells (sometimes with some sea-stuff clinging to them), they don’t even look much like food! You have to scrub, soak, and cook them before they’ll reveal the fresh, sweet, delectableness inside. 

Fortunately, learning how to clean clams is much easier than you’d think. And the results are worth every single (simple) step.

How to Choose Fresh, Live Clams

Clams are bivalve mollusks found in varying sizes and varieties in coastal regions. Like mussels and oysters, clams are sold live, with tightly closed shells to guarantee freshness. Avoid any clams that have broken or cracked shells. Refrigerate live clams, covered with a moist cloth, in an open container up to 2 days.

How to Clean Clams Before Cooking

The shells of clams need to be scrubbed before preparation. Clams also need to be soaked to remove grit and other bits that are in the clam’s system. Here’s how to clean the clams you need for your recipes. 

• Using a firm brush, scrub live clam shells under cold running water. The goal here is to remove any sand, barnacles, or other oceanic cling-ons.

• Check each clam while you’re scrubbing—the shell should be free from cracks and tightly closed. If the shell is gaping slightly, tap it gently on the counter. The clam should react by shutting its shell. If it doesn’t (which means it’s already died and is possibly spoiled), throw it away. 

• Soak the clams: In an 8-quart Dutch oven combine 4 quarts cold water and 1/3 cup salt; add clams. Soak for 15 minutes. As they soak, the clams will filter out sand and much of the salt from their systems. The sand will sink to the bottom of the pan.

• Use a slotted spoon to lift the clams out of the water and into a colander. (Avoid draining the clams by pouring the water and clams together in a colander—doing so will pour all that grit right back onto the clams!)

• Discard the soaking water. Repeat the soaking, draining, and rinsing steps twice.

Your clams are now ready to cook in recipes that call for fresh clams in the shell. Be sure to discard any clams that remain unopened after cooking, as they had likely died before cooking and are therefore not safe to eat. 

Test Kitchen Tip: Wondering how to clean little neck clams? It’s the easy same method as above! If you’re looking to learn how to clean razor clams, however, there’s a little more to it. Check out some tips from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Once you’ve learned how to clean a clam, you’ll be hard-pressed to buy canned clams again! And maybe you’ll be ready to tackle other great shellfish, too. Lobster anyone? Or how about other bivalves, such as oysters and mussels—both take a little expertise to pull off, but they’re just as easy (if not easier) to prep than clams. And now you know how easy those are!

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