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How To Cook Steamers | New England Steamed Clams

How To Cook Steamers | New England Steamed Clams
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A heaping tray of steamers with bowls of broth and butter dipping is a sure sign of summer in New England. Here are some tips on how to cook steamers.

Few summer seafood traditions in New England are as anticipated as the first batch of steamers. Sitting down to the two bowls — one heaped with steamers, the other to collect the discarded shells — plus a few carefully arranged cups of broth and hot butter for swishing and dunking, is a time-honored tradition surpassed only by the lobster that sometimes follows them.

How To Cook Steamers | New England Steamed Clams
Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
How To Cook Steamers | New England Steamed Clams

Steamers are one of two kinds of clams commonly eaten in New England, and if you’re sometimes confused about the different clam varieties and their various sub-groups, not to mention how you’re supposed to eat them, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Let’s see if we can break it down, shall we?

Soft-shell clams, also called “steamer clams” or “long-neck clams,” are oval in shape with an often protruding dark neck, or siphon. Small and tender, soft-shell clams are what we use for frying, but they’re also (as the name implies) fantastic steamed or in chowder. These guys like to burrow 6-12 inches deep, and you can spot their location by looking for a tiny hole in the wet sand at low tide. This is made by the siphon as it waits to feed.

Hard-shell clams, better known as quahogs, are rounder than soft-shell clams, keep their neck safely on the inside, and don’t burrow as deep in the sand. When small, quahogs are referred to as “littlenecks” (the smallest) or “cherrystones” (medium), and both small varieties are a favorite raw or in chowder. The largest, simply referred to as quahogs, can be as big as a fist, and their tougher texture makes them a good choice for chowder or stuffies (which are baked stuffed clams, of course).

Basically, any clam can be used to make chowder. Just choose your variety based on how tender or toothsome you want the chowder to be.

How to cook steamers:

To make steamers, live soft-shell clams are rinsed and soaked carefully to remove sand and grit and then cooked in a large kettle of water with salt added. They’re served with the hot broth left over from steaming and melted butter for dipping. If you want to add some color and flavor to your steamers, you can add lemon juice, beer, herbs, garlic, or white wine to the broth.

How To Cook Steamers | New England Steamed Clams
Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
Steamers with broth and hot butter.

To eat steamers, select a lucky clam and remove it from the shell by the siphon (or neck). Pull off the turtleneck-like covering of black skin, then dunk a few times in the reserved broth to swish away any lingering sand before the final dip in melted butter. Repeat, repeat, repeat!

Do you look forward to steamers every summer?

Steamers Recipe Links for more tips on how to cook steamers:

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Aimee Seavey


Aimee Seavey


As Yankee's Digital Editor, Aimee manages, produces, and promotes content for Yankee's digital and social media initiatives. A lifelong New Englander, she loves history and a good Massachusetts South Shore bar pizza.
Updated Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

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4 Responses to How To Cook Steamers | New England Steamed Clams

  1. rick parker August 22, 2014 at 4:40 pm #

    i grew up on the cape , and my uncle was a fisherman . and every summer we would hit the certain sandbars with our rakes and buckets / baskets . if we brought home more than what he wanted , he traded for other fish . most of the trading was for lobsters ( lubstas ) ,flounder , cod , striper ,squid , crabs or mussels . its kind of funny he use to catch all of the above also . we never went hungry in the summer . gramps was the chowda master , making clam , cod and seafood chowda

  2. Bob Dansereau July 11, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

    Here’s a tip: After rinsing the clams, spread them out on a cookie sheet. Cover them in a generous amount of corn meal. Place in the fridge for several hours before steaming. The clams will ingest the corn meal replacing any sand within them. After steaming you’ll have delicious, non-gritty bites of goodness. :-)

  3. dorothy greene July 11, 2016 at 4:58 pm #

    When my son was small we lived in Indiana. One fall (he was about 19 months old) we were visiting my parents and had a steamed clam dinner. After I gave my son 2 clams to eat he insisted on opening and eating them by himself. He neglected taking off the black part of the neck but sure enjoyed eating them. That is the last time that he ate clams.

    This didn’t bother me since it left more for me to eat when we visited New England.

  4. Wayne July 11, 2016 at 5:27 pm #

    As a life long New Englander and a “steamer eater” for over 70 years you don’t need to add any salt as any variety of fresh clams make a salty enough broth when steamed. Cover the bottom of a kettle with only a 1/2 to one inch or so of fresh water to steam and the broth will be salty. Most of us use too much salt as it is.

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