From the pinhead-size specimens used in Vietnamese cooking to the giant guy that gave up its ghost to serve as decorations for Ivanka Trump’s Thanksgiving table, there are thousands of different species of clams that range in size, shape, and, of course, flavor. But, even as the food world rapidly globalizes, clams remain steadfastly regional. Here in the United States, on the West Coast, Manila clams reign supreme, while geoduck and razor clams hold court. On the East Coast, the quahog is queen, shucked and swimming in its own brine on ice at raw bars, stewed in chowders, baked in the shell, steamed in a wine-rich broth, or made into a sauce that gets tossed with linguine. Of course, in certain quarters of the Northeast (and some minds), it’s soft-shell clams that can’t be beat, whether served steamed with drawn butter on the side or fried, plump belly and all.
When plucked from their shells, clams might not win any beauty contests, but their briny bite and bouncy chew create a covetable combination that works in a wide variety of dishes in cuisines around the world. On top of that, not one single type of clam widely available in the US lands in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch’s red "avoid" category of sustainability, which means that you can enjoy your pasta alla vongole or clams casino with a clear conscience. As filter feeders, clams even help clean up their environment, clearing out any toxins from the water as they bubble about in tidal flats and dig deep into beaches with their powerful muscles.
Those muscles—and what they do—gave the mollusk its name. According to Jay Jacob’s exhaustive book on the origin of food words, The Eaten Word, the word "clam" comes from an old form of "clamp," which, when used in its full form—the name "clamshell" ("clampshell")—describes how tightly the mollusk shuts. That, unfortunately, is about as close as we can get to defining what a clam is or isn't. The Oxford Companion to Food points out that, while the name should refer only to bivalves that can close their shells completely, this definition actually eliminates a few accepted clam types (razors, for example) and includes oysters and mussels. But we’re here to talk more about consuming clams than their confusing nomenclature.
We know from the piles of ancient shell remains lining coasts around the world that clams have been eaten for centuries, if not millenia. And for good reason: they are abundant, tasty, and healthful (full of iron and vitamin B). This is true even of the types of clams that aren’t commonly eaten, whether because they are endangered, like the giant clam; not worth the work, as with the horse clam’s high ratio of tough skin to edible meat; or only circumstantially inedible, because of seasonal or geographic diseases, like butter clams, which hold toxins for many years.
Most of the time, though, clams in the US are edible, as the Europeans landing on New World shores learned quickly from indigenous peoples, who had long been eating a version of what is now known as clam chowder. And Europeans also discovered that the shells were valued by Native Americans in the Northeast: polished and shaped quahog clamshells denoted specific achievements, status, and wealth, and as they were used to barter with European colonists, they came to be interpreted as a form of currency, which in turn led to the eventual use of the term “clams” to mean US dollars.
The abundance of clams in this country means that most clams don’t cost too many clams, as it were, making them a quintessentially American food that is as affordable as it is accessible. But we here in the US do miss out on a few international species. The FDA bans importation of blood clams from Southeast Asia, as their low-oxygen environments can make them carriers of diseases like hepatitis and typhoid. (They can occasionally be found in New England, though, and can be imported from Mexico.) Shijimi, a brackishwater Japanese clam thought to be a hangover cure and often used in miso soup, is classified as an invasive species in the US and is rarely found other than in packaged miso soups or frozen.
But enough about the clams that you can’t eat: the coasts of the US are (literally!) lined with clams that you can: steamed, sautéed, in pasta, grilled, raw, pan- or deep-fried, or in chowder. If you live (or are vacationing) near the coast, check with your state’s fish and wildlife department to learn the location, season, and types of clams legal to gather there. Some will even offer instructions on how to forage for them and have recipes for the local species.
Whether you’re buying or foraging for your clams, you want to look for shells without cracks or chips, make sure that the clams are free of "off" smells, and check that each specimen still has a little bit of spring in it—if you touch the clam, it should either open or close. Contrary to popular belief, though, if a clam does not open during the cooking process, it doesn't indicate anything is wrong. As Daniel has pointed out: "A shut-tight clam is, if anything, the most vigorous and lively one in the pot.”
If you forage the clams yourself, you want to purge them by scrubbing them and then soaking them in clean, sand-free seawater for about half an hour. This will help keep your clam dishes grit-free. While most fishmongers will purge clams for sale, purging them again in salted water to make sure will save you the extraordinary terrible-ness of biting into a gritty clam. Once purged, or if you choose to take a chance and trust your fishmonger’s purging abilities, cover them in a wet towel in your fridge and try to eat them as soon as possible, as they deteriorate rapidly after harvest.
There are thousands of different types of clams around the world, nearly all of which somebody eats somewhere, but here’s what you’re most likely to find in the US.
The Narragansett tribe of Native Americans waded and dove for these clams, which dominate the clam-scape of the East Coast. They called the local mollusk poquauhock, which morphed into "quahog" as it entered the English language. The scientific name mercenaria comes from the Latin word for "pay," the same root as the word mercenary, for their use as wampum (see above). Common nomenclature around this clam varies up and down the coast, including the simple "hard" or "hardshell," and the preparation depends on the size. From smallest to largest, generally, countneck, littleneck, topneck, cherrystone, and chowder all describe different widths of the clam—and the word "quahog" itself is sometimes used specifically to describe chowder clams.
While countneck are the smallest legally harvestable kind of quahog, littlenecks are the smallest commonly seen on menus and in stores. Named after Little Neck Bay on Long Island, these guys are usually about one and half inches wide, and usually show up steamed open and served with a light sauce or in clams casino. Their small size makes for a sweet, tender treat when raw on the half-shell, but, of course, with less meat than larger clams. (On the West Coast you’ll sometimes find "Pacific littleneck" clams, and although they share a name with small quahogs and look rather similar, they're a whole different species. They live alongside Manila clams and share many of their characteristics, including cooking styles, though they take three times as long to cook.)
Some consider topneck clams to be a size between littleneck and cherrystone, but the coveted cherrystone is more popular. At about two and a half inches wide, these grill up nicely and work for pasta sauces, while still being palatable served raw on the half-shell (the bigger clams get, the more people tend to shy away from eating them raw), but they are also the perfect size for stuffing and broiling.
The largest of the quahog designations, the name says it all: They’re well suited for traditional chowders, as they’re too big and tough for serving raw and need a good chop followed by a gentle cook. Starting at over three-inches wide, one clam can weigh as much as a half-pound.
Steamers are also known as soft-shells, and as that name implies, these clams have a brittle exterior, leaving shell crumbs behind in the mud of the Northeast, where they grow. The mud's level of acidity changes the color of their shell: for more flavor, look for darker shells.
You’ll find them along the New England coast, including near Ipswich, Massachusetts, whose name is often used to describe the species in general, even when grown further up the coast in Maine. Ipswich gained fame for its preparation of the clams, shucked and fried whole, belly and all. The other common name for these comes from its other main preparation: steamers. When prepared this way, they’re often served with a bowl of the steaming liquid and clarified butter on the side; dipping the clams in the liquid serves to rinse off any remaining grit before they get dunked in the butter and devoured.
Also known by its Japanese name, asari, this is what many on the West Coast know as a steamer clam, and is one of the most widely cultivated clams in the world. Unlike East Coast steamers, though, these are hard-shell clams, perhaps the smallest and sweetest you’ll find on a table in the US. The story has it that the clam hitch-hiked over from Japan on oysters imported into British Columbia, then spread down the West Coast, where it now reigns supreme in steamed clam dishes, whether sauced with butter, white wine, or broth.
Named for its resemblance to a straight razor, this species, easily distinguishable from the Pacific razor clam, also goes by the name Atlantic jackknife. Thinner and more delicate, in both appearance and flavor, than its West Coast counterpart, these slim, mottled brown specimens grace fine-dining tables and tapas restaurants, often prepared extremely simply—steamed, grilled, or a la plancha (seared on a griddle), they’re typically adorned with a light sauce to avoid overwhelming their subtle sweetness. Earlier in the season, which begins in winter, the tenderness works well in ceviche, but later in the season they still fry up without getting rubbery.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall describes the difference between clams and cockles as negligible on the beach, but in the kitchen, “Clams are posh. Cockles are common.” Really, they’re nearly the same, with the main difference being the direction the ridges on the shell run (from side to side on clams, from hinge to edge on cockles). But commercial cockles tend to be rare in the US: Though they grow up and down the West Coast, in New England, and on the Gulf of Mexico, you’re more likely to see a canned, imported version from Spain or farmed New Zealand cockles in a grocery store than fresh ones from our shores. If you happen to find some, they can sub in for clams in nearly any cooked recipe (though in greater number, as they tend to be smaller). They don’t have a traditional American use, but they are a standard ingredient in laksa, the essential seafood soup of Southeast Asia.
The meaty Pacific razor clam grows all along the entire West Coast, even up to Alaska, providing ample supply for the booming export industry, enthusiastic recreational diggers, and a small domestic commercial harvest. Read more about them in this complete guide to catching, cleaning, and cooking the Pacific razor clam.
The funny-named (“gooey-duck”) giant clam with an even funnier appearance serves as a symbol of the Pacific Northwest, though it grows all the way up into Canada and Alaska and is considered a delicacy in Asia. Despite the geoduck’s regional reputation, the briny, crunchy/chewy meat is finally starting to show up in fine-dining restaurants around the country. You can read more about geoducks in this full guide.