Few summer seafood traditions in New England are as anticipated as the first batch of steamed clams (aka “steamers”). Sitting down to the two bowls — one heaped with steamers, the other to collect the discarded shells — plus a few carefully arranged cups of broth and hot butter for swishing and dunking, is a time-honored tradition surpassed only by the lobster that sometimes follows them.
Steamers are one of two kinds of clams commonly eaten in New England, and if you’re sometimes confused about the different clam varieties and their various sub-groups, not to mention how you’re supposed to eat them, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Let’s see if we can break it down, shall we?
Kind of Clams
Also called “steamer clams” or “long-neck clams,” soft-shell clams are oval in shape with an often protruding dark neck, or siphon. Small and tender, soft-shell clams are what we use for frying, but they’re also (as the name implies) fantastic steamed or in chowder. These guys like to burrow 6-12 inches deep, and you can spot their location by looking for a tiny hole in the wet sand at low tide. This is made by the siphon as it waits to feed.
Better known as quahogs, hard-shell clams are rounder than soft-shell clams, keep their neck safely on the inside, and don’t burrow as deep in the sand. When small, quahogs are referred to as “littlenecks” (the smallest) or “cherrystones” (medium), and both small varieties are a favorite raw or in chowder. The largest, simply referred to as quahogs, can be as big as a fist, and their tougher texture makes them a good choice for chowder or stuffies (which are baked stuffed clams, of course).
Basically, any clam can be used to make chowder. Just choose your variety based on how tender or toothsome you want the chowder to be.
How to Make Steamed Clams (aka “Steamers”)
To make steamers, live soft-shell clams are rinsed and soaked carefully to remove sand and grit and then cooked in a large kettle of water with salt added. They’re served with the hot broth left over from steaming and melted butter for dipping. If you want to add some color and flavor to your steamers, you can add lemon juice, beer, herbs, garlic, or white wine to the broth.
To eat steamers, select a lucky clam and remove it from the shell by the siphon (or neck). Pull off the turtleneck-like covering of black skin, then dunk a few times in the reserved broth to swish away any lingering sand before the final dip in melted butter. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
Do you look forward to steamed clams every summer? Or are you more the fried clams type?
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.
Steamed Clams Recipe
10 Best Fried Clams in New England
10 Best Clam Shacks in New England
How to Cook Lobster