All About Clams

August 19, 2012 3 Comments

All About Clams

Clams – Hard Shell or Soft Shell

Most summers I vacation with my family in Avalon, on the Jersey shore. Not only are we able to enjoy almost endless Jersey tomatoes and some of the best sweet corn I’ve ever eaten, but we’ve also been eating our fair share of clams.

Just for my own knowledge, I started to do a little research about the various types of clams, and I came away confused. As with many culinary terms, those applied to clams can be ambiguous, at best. Depending on where you live, one type of clam may go by various names.

If any of you have been similarly confused by the conflicting clam information out there, I’ve put together what I hope is a fairly straightforward, easy to understand guide.

Types of Clams

There are about 2000 different kinds of clams, but there are two main groups of commercially available clams are soft-shelled and hard-shelled. This seems fairly straightforward, but soft-shelled doesn’t mean soft in the sense of yielding to the touch, like the shell of a soft-shelled crab would. Rather, it refers to clams with shells that are thinner, more brittle and easily broken.

Soft shelled clams can be found in muddy tidal flats and estuaries up and down the east coast of the United States and Canada as well as on the west coast in the UK. They are also found in the Pacific Northwest, but they are not native to the Pacific and are considered an invasive species. Other names for soft-shelled clams include:

Ipswich clam – steamers – longnecks

Hard-shelled clams can tolerate higher salinity than soft-shelled clams, and they are found in tidal areas along the east coast of North America, and even to depths of about sixty feet. There are several varieties of hard-shelled clams native to the Pacific Northwest, as well.

East-Coast US hard-shelled clams are also known by the names quahog (CO-hog), littleneck and cherrystone.

West-Coast hard-shelled clams include the Pacific Littleneck or rock clam, pismo clam and butter clam.

Some west coast hard-shelled clams are of distinctly different species. The non-native Manila clams are very sweet tasting—sweeter than East coast clams—and are available year-round. The huge geoduck (GOO-ee-duck) clams of the Pacific Northwest and razor clams are likewise available all year.

Cleaning & Cooking

All clams are filter feeders, which means that they basically stay in one place, sucking up water and small organisms while filtering out sand and debris. For this reason, clams, especially soft-shelled clams whose shells do not close all the way, should be rinsed several times in fresh or salted water. Some cooks advocate adding cornmeal to the water as a filtering agent.

To store clams before cooking or serving, make sure that they are thoroughly clean and free of grit and sand. Then, keep them in the coldest part of your refrigerator in a container with a perforated bottom to allow any fluids to drip out. Make sure that the clams are alive before cooking. Discard any that do not snap closed when tapped, and after cooking, discard those that do not open.

When it comes to hard-shelled clams, size matters

East coast hard-shelled clams are named according to size. The smallest are called button clams. The other names, in order of size are littlenecks, cherrystones and quahog or chowder clams. In general, the smaller the diameter of the clam, the younger, more tender and sweeter-tasting it will be.

What Can I do with a Soft-Shelled Clam?

Soft-shelled clams are wonderful steamed. Once steamed, they are known as “steamers.” Don’t get confused and think this is some other variety of clam. A steamer is simply a soft-shelled clam that has been steamed. Soft-shelled clams can also be fried—I recommend dredging them in seasoned cornmeal before frying—or used in fish chowder.

Suggested Clam Cooking Methods

Type of Clam
Size (diameter of shell
Cooking Method
US East Coast
Soft Shelled
> 1 1/2 inches
Steam, fry, in chowder
Hard Shelled Button
< 2 inches
Lightly simmered as for linguine in clam sauce
Hard Shelled Littleneck
2 inches
Raw, in chowders, steamed, Clams Casino
Hard Shelled Cherry stone
2 – 3 inches
Raw, steamed, fried, clam strips, Clams Casino
Hard Shelled Quahog
> 3 inches

Chopped for chowders, stuffing, fritters

US West Coast
Hard Shelled Geoduck
7 – 9 inches
Sashimi, stir-fry
Hard Shelled Manila
3 – 4 inches
Hard Shelled Razor
4 1/2 inches long
Deep fry
Hard Shelled Pismo
4 1/2 inches
In chowders, saute
Hard Shelled Butter
5 inches
Chowder, stir-fry
Hard Shelled Rock
2 1/2 inches
Chowder, fry

Last modified on Mon 19 January 2015 7:15 pm

Filed in: All About Seafood

Comments (3)

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  1. Norman Dale says:

    Lovely article but I so disagree with your saying the West Coast Manila clams are sweeter than the “the east coast clam.” Not sure which you are referring to and this is probably true if you mean quahaugs (the smaller of which are often called cherrystones). But the east coast soft shelled clam, Mya arenaria, kicks butt on the Manila in every aspect of clam quality, including sweetness.

  2. Dad was in he clam business in Ipswich, Ma. The soft shelled clams differ from the Maryland soft shell clams in that their necks are short, they are incredibly sweet and are delicious steamed, fried or cooked whole in a chowder. When you eat them you open the shell, scoop the flesh out and remove the skin. When you cook them as steamers,save the broth you cooked them in. Place a tablespoon of butter on top of the hot broth and dip the clam flesh in it before eating. ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS. And served with a Maine lobster and steamed corn they are an unbeatable treat in the summer with watermelon for dessert and served with a good beer. BON APPETITE!!

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