A long-time favorite food of coastal dwellers, clam meat is a popular shellfish choice in cuisines from around the world. But did you know that this humble coastal staple can come from one of dozens of different species of marine bivalves, each with their own unique flavor and texture?
If you’re ready to get to know clam meat from a culinary perspective, you’ve come to the right place! In this guide, we’ll be introducing you to the range of flavors that you can expect from different styles of clams, as well as giving you a recipe for clam meat’s most iconic dish: New England style clam chowder. And to wrap things up, we’ll include links to our favorite places to buy high-quality clams online.
Let’s get started!
What Does Clam Meat Taste Like?
If you’ve ever tried mussels, oysters, or scallops, then you already have something of an idea of what clams taste like: Oceanic and savory, with a meaty texture that’s great both cooked and raw.
Unlike oysters or mussels, however, clams don’t live attached to an ocean substrate — giving them a much cleaner, less “muddy” flavor. They also do not live near the bottom of their environment (like scallops), preferring the soft sand of riverbeds where they can filter water freely and avoid developing an overly salty or fishy taste.
To get a clearer idea of what clam meat tastes like, though, we’ll need to look at some of the many varieties found on North American coastlines. A special thanks goes to Naomi Tomky of Serious Eats, whose guide to clam types does a wonderful job of expanding on the brief notes given here.
Quahog clams hail from the Northeast, where they’re often synonymous with chowder clams. They’re a small and hard-shelled variety with a clean and exceptionally savory flavor, perfect for chopping and cooking into soup.
Littleneck clams come from Long Island, where they are highly regarded for their sweet taste when served raw. They are some of the most tender clams, and do best when served raw or lightly cooked, sometimes with a simple sauce or mignonette.
Cherrystone clams are nearly double the size of Quahog or Littleneck clams, but maintain much of their sweet flavor and tender texture. They’re the most versatile type of clam, capable of being served raw on the half shell or shucked and grilled to serve alongside salads or in pastas.
Chowder clams are the largest of the Northeast varieties, and therefore unsuitable for serving raw. As their name implies, this variety is perfect for chopping and cooking into creamy New England style chowder.
Soft-shell clams are also known as steamers, in reference to the most common method of preparing them. Because they grow in muddy riverbeds, their flavor is much less clean and oceanic than the varieties listed above; that’s why they’re perfect to serve fully cooked via steaming, and drizzled copiously with butter and herbs.
Manila clams are the most commonly steamed clams on the West Coast, where their different habitat lends them a clean and sweet flavor that’s uncommon for clams of this size. Though they can be served raw, Manila clams truly shine when steamed and served in a white wine and herb sauce.
Razor clams are a massively meaty denizen of the West Coast, where they grow all the way from Southern California through Alaska. They’re best when grilled or cooked into a soup, as their unwieldy size and slippery texture make them unsuitable for serving raw and their hard shells are no good for steaming.
Geoduck, pronounced “gooey duck”, clams are found only in the pacific Northwest. They’re the least common of all varieties listed here, but considered a local delicacy when roasted over an open fire and slathered in butter.
How to Cook Clam Meat
While many of the smaller varieties of clams are delicious served raw on the half shell, each of the larger species of clams requires special preparation to show off its best qualities.
Perhaps no recipe is more emblematic of how to cook clam meat than a traditional New England style clam chowder — which is why we’ve developed a simplified recipe for it to share with you below. It’s designed with the first-time clam eater in mind, and requires little more than a large pot and moderate knife skills to create.
Simple New England Clam Chowder
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
- 1 large potato, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 1 pound chopped clams
- 2 cups vegetable stock
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Add butter to a large pot, and melt over medium heat.
- Add onion and celery stalks, salt liberally, and saute until translucent.
- Add flour and stir to combine.
- Add stock, cream, bay leaves, and potatoes, and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly.
- When the mixture has thickened, simmer on low for 20 minutes to cook the potatoes.
- Add the clams and let simmer for 3-5 minutes before adding salt and pepper to taste — be careful not to overcook the clams!
- Serve with toasted bread or croutons, and garnish with fresh parsley.
Where to Buy Clam Meat
For many people in the United States, buying clam meat can be as simple as taking a trip to your local supermarket. Here you’ll find canned clams in their juice, usually caught and prepared on either coast before being preserved. These canned clams can be an excellent alternative to fresh or freshly frozen clams, and work well for making the clam chowder recipe provided above.
If you’re interested in cooking with the best quality clam meat, however, Pure Food Fish Market ships fresh frozen razor clam meat from their location in Seattle’s famous Pike’s Place market.
Anyone not fortunate enough to live nearby a source for fresh clams will be thankful for the selection available from Fulton Fish Market. They usually offer half a dozen varieties of clams to choose from, each of which can be shipped fresh over ice to locations within the continental United States.