How to Prepare Live Clams or Mussels

Spaghetti With Clams
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  • 01 of 06

    Getting Started With Live Clams and Mussels

    Fresh Clams
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    Preparing live shellfish can be intimidating, but with a little preparation, you can enjoy fresh clams or mussels at home. Note that live shellfish are best eaten fresh, though you will need to plan ahead in order to get your clams or mussels clean before cooking.

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  • 02 of 06

    Buying Live Clams or Mussels

    Bag of clams
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    You can typically buy live clams or mussels by the bag at fresh seafood markets. The bags are made of netting or similar material to allow the animals to breathe. Chances are the shells will be partially open as they sit on the shelf or bed of crushed ice. If you shake the bag gently, they should shut tight; shellfish that fail to react when they're jostled are either dead or dying. Bend over and sniff the bag. Shellfish do smell slightly fishy, but off or sharp odors are a bad sign, and you should select something else.

    Where you procure your shellfish is also important: Clams and mussels are filter feeders, so if their water contains pollution or harmful bacteria, they will, too. Buy your shellfish from legitimate sources, and, if you decide to gather your own, check with the authorities to make sure the area where you plan to gather is safe.

    Once you get home with your shellfish, you will have to keep them alive until you're ready to cook them. Begin preparing your clams or mussels right away for the best results.

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  • 03 of 06

    Storing and Preparing Live Clams or Mussels

    Fresh out of water clams
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    If you have access to clean seawater, use it. Otherwise, fill a plastic bucket with tap water, adding one part non-iodized salt for every 10 parts water (by weight, this works out to 1 pound salt for every 10 pints water, or 500 g per every 5 liters). Let the water sit for several hours to give the chlorine and other water-purification gasses it may contain time to bubble out. Scrub the clams well, or, if you're preparing mussels, scrape away their beards with a knife and scrub them. Discard any shellfish with broken shells.

    Soak your shellfish in the salted water or clean seawater for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator. The clams or mussels will purge any sand and grit, leaving it behind in the bottom of the bucket. When draining, scoop your shellfish out of the bucket, very careful not to disturb the grit in the bottom of the bucket. Rinse and drain.

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  • 04 of 06

    Cooking Clams or Mussels

    Clams cooking in a pot
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    Use an untreated pot (as the hard shells will scratch a non-stick surface) and add a cup of water or broth. Once boiling, add the clams and secure the lid. Very shortly you'll begin to hear popping sounds as the clams snap open. The clams will be cooked in about 5 minutes, or when the shells are open. Don't overcook or the clams or mussels will become tough.

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  • 05 of 06

    Preparing Cooked Clams or Mussels

    Cooked clams with broth
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    Pick over the cooked clams or mussels and discard any that have remained tightly shut. Live, cooked clams will have an open shell, while dead clams will remain shut. These should be discarded and are not safe to eat.

    If you're making something along the lines of stewed clams or mussels, serve them as they are and enjoy fishing the shells from your bowl and sucking out the shellfish. If you are making pasta sauce, shuck most of them, leaving a few in their shells for aesthetic appeal. In either case, strain and reserve the pot liquor.

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  • 06 of 06

    Spaghetti With Clams (Spaghetti alle Vongole)

    Spaghetti with mussels and clams
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    One quick and easy way to serve fresh clams is with pasta. Garlic, fresh herbs, and olive oil are all you need for a light sauce.

    To serve 4, you'll need:

    • 2 1/4 pounds live clams (cooked and picked over )
    • Sea salt
    • Fresh parsley (chopped)
    • 1 garlic clove (minced)
    • 1 pound spaghetti (1 box)
    • 1/2 cup olive oil (or 1/4 cup each oil and unsalted butter)
    • Pepper (to taste)
    • Optional: red pepper flakes

    Boil a large pot of water for the pasta. Once boiling, add salt followed by the spaghetti. Cook until slightly firmer than al dente and drain.

    Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil followed by the parsley and garlic, cooking just until fragrant. Add the pasta and the clams along with all or most of the clam liquor, turning the heat to high.

    This technique of cooking pasta in a skillet with the sauce is called strascicato, and the pasta absorbs the flavor of the sauce as it cooks. Don't cook it for more than a few minutes or the sauce will dry out. Stir constantly as you cook to keep the spaghetti strands from sticking to each other or the pot. Check for seasoning and add pepper and red pepper flakes to taste.

    Serve with white wine and a salad.