How-To & Diy

Cleaning and Cooking Shellfish

June 13, 2013

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.


Shop the Story

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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Herschelian
  • Gary Brown
    Gary Brown
  • whatshername
  • Chris
  • linded
Brette Warshaw

Written by: Brette Warshaw

I'm a reader, eater, culinary thrill-seeker, and food nerd.


Herschelian May 4, 2015
I live in China, and my fave method with Mussels is, once cleaned etc (following all the excellent advice given by others here) I saute half a red onion which has been finely chopped, two fat cloves of garlic minced, add one stalk of lemongrass cut into 3 pieces - each piece 'bruised', then the mussels (approx 2lbs). Steam for five minutes, then add one can of coconut milk, one tomato which has been skinned and chopped, half a teaspoon of chilli and garlic sauce (or two seeded finely chopped fresh chillies), the juice of half a lime, half teaspoon salt, and 3 tablespoons of roughly chopped fresh coriander (cilantro). Cook for a further five mins. Serve in soup bowls with a big bowl to take the shells. Utterly delicious.
Gary B. July 6, 2014
Yes, do not soak in fresh water for over 20 minutes.
I have a question. What about the use of black pepper while soaking clams? Does this lend to them sneezing out dirt?
whatshername April 2, 2014
When I soak clams, I add corm meal to the salted water. The clams eat the corn meal and expel the waste.
Chris December 4, 2013
Great article. Just a quick note on unopened mussels. Nick Ruello, an Australian fisheries biologist studied why mussels don't open when cooked, and found that mussels that don't open were safe to eat. Larousse Gastronomique also makes no mention of discarding unopened mussels. In my experience, mussels that are open when cooked are more likely to have been missed when cleaning and be dead, rather than closed mussels, which smell normal and are delicious. Let's stop perpetuating the myth!
Greenstuff December 5, 2013
Old habits die hard, but in fact, Chris is right. I continue to toss the (few) unopened mussels, but that's for the practical reason--they aren't open--as well as being a victim of myth.
linded July 8, 2013
I have to agree with Greenstuff about soaking. Saltwater shellfish will die in fresh water. You will have better shellfish if you scrub them with a brush under cold running water, then refrigerate uncovered until you cook them. If you have fresh cold seawater, that is the best medium for holding your shellfish. Once out of seawater, the shellfish are stressed and need to be cooked as soon as possible. They will not eat cornmeal or anything else while stressed.

rdj120 June 16, 2013
To help clean mussels and clams, pour some corn meal in the bucket. They will ingest it and expel the sand in their guts.
nowarmsoda June 14, 2013
Totally agree with Greenstuff, salt water is much better for soaking and making them spiting out grit.
Greenstuff June 13, 2013
Good topic! Clams and mussels are delicious and often affordable. A couple more tips--don't store them in a plastic bag, they'll suffocate. The best fish markets don't even send mussels home in plastic bags. If mine are bagged, I get them out immediately, keep them in a bowl in the refrigerator, and cook them the same night. Most clams are a little hardier. If you have to keep them overnight, put them on top of, not in, ice.

As for soaking, most mussels don't need a soak at all. They don't tend to live in really sandy or muddy spots, and mussel aquaculture is meticulous. Clams, which mostly live in right in the sand, can be grittier. Those steamers in the middle of her top picture are especially likely to be sandy or muddy. But if you're soaking, especially if you're going to run more than brette's 20 minutes, do it in saltwater, not fresh. Fresh, clean seawater if you're at the beach or a third of a cup to a gallon of water will work. Most of the clams and mussels we eat are marine and drown if they're left in freshwater.

And brette is absolutely right about tossing any with broken shells, the gapers, and the ones that don't open during cooking. Simple rules that work.

Like k.woody, this is making me hungry.
Hannah N. June 13, 2013
"Bivalves" = my something-new-I-learned-today. Now I'll just have to try steaming some!
k.woody June 13, 2013
YUM. Would really like some mussels right about now. This was super helpful - never knew to soak them before cleaning. Thanks again for such great tidbits of knowledge Food52!
Brette W. June 14, 2013
So glad it was helpful! Thank you!