When it comes to seafood, clams often take a backseat to more popular crustaceans like shrimp or lobster. However, these humble mollusks offer a unique taste experience that’s worth exploring. From their distinct flavors to their diverse culinary applications, here’s why you should consider adding clams to your gastronomic repertoire.
What is a Clam?
Clams belong to the mollusk family, characterized by their two-part hinged shells. These bivalves live in both saltwater and freshwater habitats. They eat via filter-feeding, drawing in water, and extracting plankton, algae, and other smaller plant and animal life.
Unlike oysters and mussels, they don’t attach themselves to rocks, piers, or other submerged hard surfaces. Clams have a strong retractable ‘foot’, that helps them bury, move or anchor themselves at the bottom of a body of water. Scallops on the other hand don’t burrow but move freely through the water, by quickly opening and closing their shells to propel themselves.
Surf Clams, Cockles and Razor Clams: What Sets Them Apart?
Let’s talk about some of the commonly available bi-valve shellfish at the fishmonger.
Surf clams have large, thick but smooth white shells with concentric growth rings. Their shape can vary from oval to slightly elongated. They inhabit sandy or gravelly bottoms in shallow coastal waters, often under the surf zone.
Cockles have small, heart-shaped shells with prominent ribs radiating from the hinge. The shells are typically light brown or beige. They live buried in intertidal sandflats and mudflats, often in sheltered bays and estuaries.
Razor clams have long, slender shells that resemble a straight razor blade. The shells are usually white or cream-colored with a smooth, shiny surface. They like to be burrowed deep in sandy beaches below the low-tide mark.
|Oval/elongated with beak
|Heart-shaped with ribs
|Long and slender
|Shallow coastal waters
|Intertidal flats and mudflats
|Deep within sandy beaches
Flavours and Textures: What Do Surf Clam, Cockle and Razor Clam Taste Like?
Surf clams have a sweet, mild flavor and a slightly briny kick. The texture is satisfyingly chewy and meaty, perfect for holding their own in hearty dishes like grills, bakes, stuffings, or even a classic clam chowder.
Cockles pack a punch of briny “seafood” flavor with a hint of sweetness. They’re definitely bolder than surf clams. Texture-wise, they’re firmer with a slight crunch. But be warned, they tend to shrink a bit during cooking.
Razor clams offer a sweet, delicate flavor with a subtle hint of brininess. Think cleaner, almost oceanic compared to the bolder cockles. The texture is the real star here – melt-in-your-mouth tender, but cook them carefully as they can turn rubbery if overdone.
How Do You Prepare Clams?
Whether you’re tackling surf clams, cockles, or razor clams, prepping these bivalves for cooking boils down to two key steps: cleaning and purging. Here’s how to navigate each stage like a seasoned pro:
- Inspect and discard: Give your clams a good once-over. Toss any with cracked or broken shells, or those that don’t close tightly when tapped.
- Scrub it down: Using a stiff brush, scrub the outside of each clam shell to remove any dirt, sand, or debris. Pay particular attention to the hinge area.
- Rinse thoroughly: Rinse the scrubbed clams under clean, cold running water to remove any dislodged debris.
- Soak it right: Prepare a saltwater bath – dissolve 2 tablespoons of salt for every litre of cold water. Submerge your clams in the saltwater solution.
- Add some grit-busters: (Optional for surf clams and razor clams) To further encourage sand release, add ¼ to ½ cup of cornmeal to the saltwater bath.
- Let them breathe: Soak the clams for at least 2 hours, up to overnight for larger clams. Replace the saltwater solution halfway through if using cornmeal.
- Final rinse: Drain the saltwater and rinse the clams under clean, cold running water one last time before cooking.
- For cockles, you can soak them in plain cold water for 30 minutes instead of saltwater.
- Discard any clams that remain open after tapping or soaking, as they might be dead.
- Don’t put them in warm or hot water as this will kill them! Work quickly and keep the clams cool throughout the cleaning and purging process for optimal freshness.
- If you are pressed for time, try these frozen clams to skip the step of cleaning and purging and go straight to cooking. You can also opt for cooked shell-on clams for a tastier stew or dish.
How Do You Cook Clams?
Each clam variety in the UK offers unique culinary possibilities.
Surf Clams are best for grilling, baking, stuffing, or chowder. Their larger size makes them perfect for hearty dishes. Steaming is a classic approach, preserving the natural sweetness and texture, great for whole clams served with melted butter or a light sauce.
Grilling adds a smoky char, perfect for halved clams brushed with garlic butter or herb oil. Of course, you can also boil, as in the preparation of the classic clam chowder that brings together that distinct clam flavour with bacon and potatoes in a creamy soup.
Cockles tend to shrink more during cooking, so are cooked best with gentler methods. You can simply give them a quick steam, the go-to method to keep them plump and juicy. You can enjoy it with a squeeze of lemon, vinaigrette or melted butter.
Their intense flavor makes them ideal for soups, stews, pasta dishes, or anything that needs a good seafood boost. You can also boil them, simmering in seasoned broth or white wine adds depth of flavor. This is perfect for serving with crusty bread for dipping. Cockles are a versatile ingredient for paella, pasta dishes, stews, and soups. Check out this recipe of cockles with pancetta and white wine for a quick but richly flavourful preparation.
Razor Clams cook quickly and can become easily overcooked. So the best methods involve a light touch like stir-frying which can create a light and flavourful dish with minimal cooking time. You can pair the razor clams with vegetables, garlic, ginger, and a touch of soy sauce. You can also serve them raw with a squeeze of lemon, olive oil, and sea salt. You can also add them to cook quickly in light pasta dishes. Their delicate flavour shines when not overpowered.
Are Clams Good For Your Health?
Clams pack a nutritional punch, boasting high protein content while being low in fat, essential vitamins, and minerals. Clams contain iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and selenium. These nutrients contribute to various bodily functions like nerve signaling, immune system health, and red blood cell production. They are a good source of iodine, a mineral necessary for thyroid function and hormone production.
They offer a low-calorie, nutrient-dense option that supports muscle function, aids in cell repair, and contributes to overall well-being. Steaming, grilling, and baking are healthy cooking methods that help preserve the nutrients in clams. Enjoy clams in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
Sourcing Fresh Clams: Where to Find Them
Buying fresh clams is crucial for a delightful culinary experience. Local fish markets, seafood vendors, or specialized grocery stores often stock fresh clams. Look for lively, closed shells and avoid any that appear open or broken, ensuring freshness and quality.
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