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Cleaning and Cooking Shellfish

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: How to clean and cook the bivalves -- clams and mussels -- you'll want to eat all summer long.



With perfectly-cleaned, perfectly-cooked shellfish comes glorious, beautiful things: sticky fingers, smiles, butter-and-wine-soaked bread, sunshine.

With shellfish that's not cleaned or cooked right -- or worse, shellfish that should have simply been left in the ocean -- comes sandy, sweaty, horrible things: things that could ruin you from ever trying it again.

Knowing how to prep and cook clams and mussels properly is a skill that's easy to come by: a skill that will have you whipping up dinner in a matter of minutes, will have you aching to throw parties, will transport you to a sunny beach even while you're sweating over your stove. Here's how to master them.

Cleaning Them

Soaking shellfish

When you buy clams and mussels, make sure that they're super-fresh; once out of the water, their health starts deteriorating. If possible, store them on ice before using -- or at least in your refrigerator.

When you're ready to start cooking, place your shellfish in a bowl of cold water and let them soak for at least twenty minutes. This will allow them to "breathe" -- and force them to give up any sand that may be hiding between their shells.

Scrubbing shellfish

After their soak, take each clam and/or mussel and scrub it under a stream of water. If your mussels have beards -- those fibrous threads that emerge from their shells -- this is the time to discard them: give the beard a good yank towards the hinge end of the mussel. If you pull the beard towards the opening, you could tear the mussel and kill it. 

At this point, the clams and mussels are ready to be cooked -- that is, if they're still alive.

Checking Them


To keep your pot dead-shellfish-free -- and to keep yourself out of a shellfish horror film -- discard any bivalves with broken shells. The ones that are alive should, at this point, be closed; if a shell is open, tap it on the counter. If it closes up, the clam or mussel is still alive -- and you can cook with it. If it stays open, throw it out.

Cooking Them 

Broth Clams in broth

The easiest way to prepare bivalves is to steam them. Get some aromatics -- onions, garlic, leeks, all three -- going on the stove. Add any vegetables or meats, and cook them almost-through. Add herbs. Pour in a liquid of choice -- we're fans of white wine -- let it burble a bit, then slide in your shellfish.

Once the shellfish is in, cover up your pot to let them steam open. 

Open clams

After approximately five minutes, take a peek -- the bivalves are done when they are open. If they're still mostly-closed, cover again and continue steaming.

When the majority of the bivalves are open, pluck out the still-closed ones -- those were dead before they were cooked. Garnish, slice up some bread, and dig in!

Drunken Clams with Sausage

What are your tips for cleaning and cooking shellfish? Let us know in the comments!

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: shellfish, cooking with shellfish, cooking shellfish, clams, mussels, how-to & diy

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