Clamology 101: Know Your Local Clams

steam clams in a green bowl

Simple is good. Just steam and serve with beer.

Married to a full-time, year-round clammer, my life is all about clams. We live, breathe and eat clams, a lot. I was recently asked about the difference between hard and soft shell clams; it occurred to me clamology might not be a household topic in every Long Island home.

In the broadest of terms, a clam is a bivalve mollusk with two hard shells that protect the edible, sweet yet briny, exquisite yet simple, meat within. Found in most coastal areas, clams are a reliable dietary staple and a treasured delicacy. Served raw, baked, fried, poached, roasted, steamed or in chowders, sauces or stews, the clam’s versatility and relative plenitude render them an indispensable seafood pick for chefs from coast to coast. With two coastlines, Long Island has a rich shellfish heritage and our clams are prized not only locally, but throughout the metropolitan area. Long Island clams are wild clams harvested by clam diggers in Long Island Sound and our south shore bays. Our local shellfish industry is highly regulated and monitored by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to ensure the clams are 100 percent safe to eat. There is no season for clams; they are available year-round thanks to the intrepid and bodacious men who have made a career out of clamming.

If you really want to enjoy clams, commit to eating only wild, locally harvested clams. Not only will you be savoring the finest clams,  you will support clammers whose harvesting methods are still somewhat similar to those of native Long Islanders. Clam varieties native to our waters include Atlantic hard shells, soft shells and razor clams.

Atlantic Hard Shell Clams: Mercenaria mercenaria, also known as quahogs (pronounced coe-hog), are the quintessential east coast clam. These are shucking clams you will find at raw bars across the island. Quahogs are graded by size: littlenecks are the smallest (approximately 10-12 per pound), then top necks (6-10 per pound), cherrystones (3-4 per pound) and chowders (1-2 per pound). Quahogs are versatile and can be enjoyed in their simplest form, raw on the half shell with a dollop of cocktail sauce or prepared more elaborately in any number of dishes. My fave: place the clams on the grill until they open up and then scoop them out and dip them in melted butter and garlic. Summer sublimity.

Soft Shell Clams: Mya arenaria, are also popularly called steamers, piss clams, longnecks or Ipswich clams and are native to our northeast coast. The soft shell name is a bit of a misnomer; the shells are more brittle than soft. Soft shell clams are more oblong in shape than hard shell clams and are distinguished by a long protruding siphon, which the clam uses to feed and filter the water. Soft shell clams are not eaten raw, but served steamed or deep-fried. A bowl of steamers dipped in their own broth and melted butter is one of the purest joys of a Long Island summer.

Razor Clams shaped like old-fashioned straight razors, are found on the east and west coasts. East coast razors, Ensis directus, are known as Atlantic jackknife clams. Prized in Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean cuisines, razor clams are now finding their way onto non-Asian menus. Razor clams are harvested by East end baymen and are simply divine steamed or grilled. They’re a bit unfamiliar to our palates, but if you see them on a local menu, give them a go.