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Techniques for Preparing Steamed Clams and Mussels

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Clams and mussels are both bivavles, and they can be prepared in the same fashion.  The main challenge when preparing clams and mussels is getting rid of the grit.  These two-shelled creatures are easy to cook:  when they open, they are done.  However, perfectly cooked clams and mussels can be made inedible by lingering sand.  Straining their juices through cheesecloth after cooking will remove the grit, but it’s a pain.  Besides being messy, solids such as shallots and garlic are removed.  Worse still, careful straining may not remove every trace of grit, especially bits that are still clinging to the clam or mussel meat.

After much trial and error in the kitchen, I concluded that it is also impossible to remove all the sand from dirty clams or mussels before cooking.  I tried various soaking regimens – such as soaking in cold water for two hours, soaking in water with flour, soaking in water with cornmeal, and scrubbing and rinsing in five changes of water.  None of these techniques worked.  Dirty clams and mussels must be rinsed and scrubbed before cooking, and nay cooking liquid must be strained after cooking.  Rinsing the cooked clams and mussels is a final guarantee that the grit will be removed, but flavor is washed away as well.

While I was testing the best way to clean clams and mussels, I noticed that some varieties of clams and mussels were extremely clean  and free of grit.  A quick scrub of the shell exterior and these bivavles were ready for the pot.  Best of all, the cooking liquid could be served without straining.  After talking to a few seafood expert friends of mine, I cam to this conclusion”  Of you want to minimize your kitchen work and ensure that your claims and mussels are free of grit, you have to shop carefully.

Clams can be divided into two categories – hard-shell varieties (such as littlenecks and cherrystones) and soft-shell varieties (such as steamers and razor clams).  Hard -shells grow along sandy beaches and bays, soft-shells in muddy tidal flats.  A modest shift in location makes all the difference in the kitchen.

When harvested, hard-shells remain tightly closed.  I found that the meat inside was always free of sand.  The exterior should be scrubbed under cold running water to remove and caked-on mud, but otherwise, these clams can be cooked without further worry about gritty broths.

Soft-shell clams gape in their natural habitat.  I found that they almost always contain a lot of sand.  While it’s worthwhile to soak them in several batches of cold water to remove some of the sand, you can never get rid of it all.  In the end, you must strain the cooking liquid.   And sometimes you must rinse the cooked claims after shucking as well.

Hard-shell clams (that is, littlenecks or cherrystones) are worth the extra money at the market.  Gritty clams. no matter how cheap, are inedible.  Buying either littlenecks or cherrystones ensures that the clams will be clean.

A similar distinction can be made with mussels based on how and where they are grown.  Most mussels are now farmed wither on ropes or along seabeds.  You may also see wild mussels at the market.  These mussels are caught the old-fashion way – by dredging along the sea floor.   I find them extremely muddy and basically inedible.  Rope-cultured mussels can be as much as twice the cost of wild or bottom-cultured mussels, but I find them to be free of grit.  Since mussels are generally inexpensive (no more than a few dollars a pound), I think clean mussels are worth the extra money.  Look for tags, usually attached to bags of mussels, that indicate how and where the mussels have been grown.

When shopping, look for tightly closed clams and mussels (avoid any that are gaping, which may be dying or dead).  clams need only be scrubbed.  Mussels may need scrubbing as well as debearding.  Simply grab onto the weedy protrusion, pull it out from between the shells, and discard.  Don`t debeard mussels until you are ready to cook them, as debearding can cause the mussels to die.  Mussels or clams kept in sealed plastic bags or underwater will also die.  Keep them in a bowl in the refrigerator and use them within a day or two for best results.

I have tried the four most common cooking methods for clams and mussels:  steaming in an aromatic broth (usually with some wine in it), steaming over an aromatic broth, roasting in the oven, and sautéeing in some oil on the stove.  I found that clams or mussels that were sautéed, roasted, or steamed over a broth tasted of pure shellfish, but they also tasted flat and one-dimensional.  They cooked in their juices.  In contrast, clams and mussels that were steamed in a flavorful broth picked up flavors from the liquid and tasted better.

With steaming in broth is my preferred all-purpose cooking method, I started to test various amounts and types of liquids, including fish stock, water, wine, and beer.   I found white-wine to be the best choice, although beer worked nicely with the mussels.  The bright acidity of white wine balances the briny flavor of clams and mussels.  Fish stock and water (even when seasoned with garlic, herbs, and spices) were dull by comparison.  While it is possible to steam four pounds of bivavles in just half a cup of liquid (naturally, the pot must be tightly sealed), I like to have extra broth for dunking bread or for saucing rice.  I settled on using two cups of white wine to cook four pounds of clams or mussels.

I also made some refinements to the cooking broth.  Garlic, shallots, and a bay leaf enrich the flavor of the shellfish.  Simmering the broth for three minutes before adding the shellfish is sufficient time for these seasonings to flavor the wine broth.  And the all-purpose broth can be flavored in numerous ways.

Looking for a great steamed clams or mussels recipe?  Then click HERE for my favorite traditional recipe, and a few variation ideas

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