This chef-favorite clam is the secret to quick and elegant dishes, from soup to aguachile.
Mussels are among the most popular types of seafood with chefs and home cooks for good reason. They are quick to prepare, versatile and easily available in both regular grocery stores and specialized fish markets. Here’s what you need to know about clams, including how to buy and prepare them.
Related: Our 24 Favorite Clam Recipes
What are clams?
Mussels are bivalve molluscs. The part we eat is the adductor muscle located between the two shells. There are two common varieties of clams – bay clams and sea clams, named for where they are harvested, whether farmed or wild. Both types of clams are available year-round, but are at their peak in late fall and winter. Their color ranges from pale pink to cream, but color is not an indicator of freshness or flavor. The most obvious difference between these two types of clams is their size; bay clams are significantly smaller than sea clams. The taste and texture of each also varies: bay clams are known for being a bit sweeter and more tender than sea clams, which tend to be firmer and brinier.
How to buy clams
You’ll find sea scallops and bay scallops available fresh or frozen at most grocery stores, most often sold by the pound.
Because sea scallops are significantly larger than bay scallops, you’ll get anywhere from 10 to 30 scallops per pound. They will be labeled according to the number of clams per pound, such as U10, U20 or U30. As for bay clams, one kilogram of this small variety of shellfish usually includes from 60 to 100 clams; the average number per pound hovers around 70.
When shopping for shellfish, you may see an additional label that indicates the quality of the fish. “Wet-pack” clams are treated with a sodium-based brine that increases water retention and extends their shelf life. “Dry” clams are unprocessed and considered a more premium product (and therefore more expensive). Why? Wet packaging of clams affects their flavor and makes them more difficult to cook properly. “Processed clams not only have a lingering chemical flavor, but as they cook, the swollen cell walls rupture to release the added liquid, making caramelization more difficult,” writes Barton Seaver in The joy of seafood. When in doubt, ask your fishmonger if the scallops at the counter are wet-packed or dry-packed.
The clams are also labeled with an indication of how they were collected. Seashells labeled as “dive clams” are individually harvested by divers to minimize impact on the ocean environment. These mussels are more expensive, but are among the most sustainable sources. Day clams are collected on smaller boats that stay close to shore.
How to cook mussels
If you’ve ever had chewy, rubbery clams, then you know the importance of not overcooking them. Clams should be cooked to medium; if you want to cook them longer until they are barely opaque inside. Because of their size, bay scallops cook even faster, so they’re best served mixed into dishes like this shrimp and bay scallop risotto or pasta, fish soups, stews or casseroles. You can use them in recipes that call for chopped sea scallops, like these Fried Scallops Made with Clam Broth and Beer, or this Herbed, Nutty Linguine with Scallops, Sun-Dried Tomatoes, and Pine Nuts. This bite-sized clam cooks quickly and is delicious as a sweet, salty accompaniment to other types of shellfish such as shrimp, lobster, or flaky whitefish.
Related: 12 Quick Scallop Recipes You Can Make in 45 Minutes or Less
Scallops also work well in pastas and soups, but they can also be grilled, baked, or pan-seared. You’ll find them baked with citrus, like these Baked Scallops with Pomegranate and Meyer Lemon. You can also wrap them in bacon and bake them in the oven or bake large clams with corn. They can be fried and served with Grenobloise sauce with capers, brown butter, lemon and parsley.
Be sure to dry the scallops before frying, baking, or grilling them to brown them better. Both varieties can be dried for ceviche or aguachile, but clams are usually thinly sliced before drying. However you prepare them, their sweet flavor and delicate texture are sure to shine.
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