New England Steamers

How to make steamed soft shell clams, otherwise known as steamers, a specialty of New England.

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 15 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4 to 6


  • 3 to 4 pounds of soft shell steamer clams
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted


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1 Ideally, if you have the time, place the steamers in a bucket and cover with several inches of sea water or salty water (a tablespoon of salt dissolved in every quart of water), and let sit several hours in a cool place, preferably overnight.

After a while, you'll notice that each clam has a foot that will start to extend out of the shell. This is normal. The clams are usually buried in the sand with only the foot extending up to the surface of the water.

The steamer clams will discharge any sand or dirt while they are sitting in the water, so the water may become rather murky. You can change the water if you want.

If you don't have time to let the clams soak for hours, just put several of them at a time in a large bowl, cover with water, and gently swirl the water around with your fingers for half a minute.

If the clams release sand or grit, dump out the water and rinse the clams out in the same manner again, until no more sand is released. (They may still release some sand and grit while cooking, but you will dip them in the clam broth before dipping them in butter when you eat them, helping to rinse away any remaining grit.)

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2 When ready to cook, put about an inch of water (you can also use beer or a stout) in the bottom of a tall, large pot. Place a steamer rack at the bottom of the pot. Carefully place the clams on the steamer rack (if you don't have a steamer rack, don't worry about it, just put the clams in the pot with the water).

The clam shells are on the thin side and can easily break, so be gentle as you put the steamers in the pot.

You may notice some of the clams "spitting" water at you as you handle them. This is normal, don't worry about it. If any of the clams seem dead, are stinky, or whose siphons don't retract a bit when you touch them, toss them out.

Cover the pot. Bring the water to a boil. Let the clams cook in the steam from the boiling water for about 5-10 minutes, until the steamer clam shells are wide open, then remove the pot from the heat. Any steamers that didn't open should be discarded. (The pot might foam up and boil over while cooking, so keep an eye on it while cooking.) Let the clams cool for a couple minutes.

3 Carefully remove the cooked clams from the pot, placing them in a serving bowl. Do not discard the clam broth left in the pot. Instead pour a bit of the hot broth into bowls for serving. Put the melted butter into small bowls for dipping.

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4 Serve the steamers with a bowl for the clams, an empty bowl for the shells, a small bowl with broth for dipping, and a smaller bowl with butter for dipping.

To eat, open the shell and remove the cooked clam. Use your fingers to pull off the skin covering the siphon of the clam. Discard with the shells into the shell bowl. Grip the siphon with your fingers, swirl the clam around in the hot broth (it will help to warm up the clams and to dislodge any remaining grit or sand). Dip the clam into melted butter and eat!

Note, the siphon end of the clam may be a bit tough and rubbery. You can eat it or not. In any case, it makes a great handle for dipping.

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  • Sheila

    Oh my I love a good bowl of clams, but they are hard to look at. Like your ‘happy as a clam” connection…hahaha

  • Kath

    So different from our Pacific Northwest manilla clams! Thanks for this informative post!

  • doodles

    Gosh I miss New England seafood it’s just the very best………..should we be waiting for a lobster meal sometime SOON!! But as I know New England does not have abalone ;)

  • Maria

    My mom always adds some cornmeal to the soaking water – and changes the water too, as you suggest – apparently the steamers take in the cornmeal & spit out the sand…

    • Charlie

      To all: I have delt and dug soft clams or steamer clams for over 60 years. First, these clams DO NOT injest sand. I cannot believe that chefs and some of the best cooks do not know this. The sand is from around the OUTSIDE of their long feeding tube and some from around where the two shells meet. The way to get the sand away from these areas is to put the clams in salt water and leave them there for at lest 24 hours. After a time their feeding tube will come out as they will look to feed or eat. That way the sand will drop off of that tube or neck as some call it. At the same time their body will swell and the sand that is caught between the shells will also drop off. Putting all this crap into the water will in time kill the clam as the will tend to feed as soon as they detect water. Most all clams tend to feed as long they are under water. That is why they grow so fast. There are ways to harvest steamers so that they lose most of their sand, %95 is to dig them while they have a few inches of water above them.

      • mdinmn

        I grew up in New Hampshire and worked summers at a Clam Shack near Hampton Beach (Little Jacks!) Charlie is 100% RIGHT ON THE MONEY. Putting pepper and other stuff in the water is just going to give you dead clams, and I guarantee you, NOBODY wants to eat a dead(bad) clam. Cheers!

  • Bee

    I love this so much Elise. Every summer, I would go to this restaurant in Huntington Beach to have this dish. It’s very hard to find these steamer clams where I am unless I drive all the way up to Redondo Beach. I will have to get my fix soon!

  • Drifter

    When you soak them try sprinkling some pepper in the water. The clams ingest the pepper and ‘spit’ it out along with any remaining sand. Also, if you add corn meal to the water when soaking the clams the clams will eat the meal and sweeten the taste. from Cape Cod

    • E

      what.. no way!! I am going to try that.. does it work with mussels too

      • ClamAmazing

        Clams do NOT ingest sand (if they did, they’d die). The sand comes from around their necks and between/on their shells. If you wish to eat shriveled, dead clams, by all means, put pepper or cornmeal or flour into their water.

        If you prefer live, plump, sweet clams, soak those you just dug up in salt water/salted water for a day, refrigerated. Swirl them around a few times. Rinse. Then use them in your favorite recipe.

        However, my suggestion is to buy them straight from your favorite fishmonger and cook/eat them immediately. A reliable fishmonger knows how to treat clams, and you couldn’t possibly do any better.

        As for steamers, I HATE wine in the broth. It adds a level of sourness not needed nor wanted. I’m rather a purist when it comes to seafood. I was raised in a household where the person who caught it set the standard, and ours was my uncle, a man who loved to catch/dig the seafood he gave us.

        Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add some sliced onions and celery. Add the steamers (after you’ve picked through them and discarded the ones who didn’t retract their necks upon touching them). Cover and boil for 5 minutes. Uncover and check. Remove the ones whose shells had opened. Keep boiling and removing until all steamers are finished (if there are some stubborn ones, discard them as they were probably dead before you bought them or just shells filled with sand). Do NOT strain the broth. Serve each person with a cup of broth and a custard cup (in my day) of melted butter.

        Remove the steamer from its shell. Peel off the tough, black “hide” from the neck clear down the body. Rinse in the broth. Dip in the melted butter. Enjoy.

        • bcr8tive

          Actually they do ingest sand. Years ago in New England, I dug my own. I’ve gone through all of the steps listed here and then some. If you don’t clean them properly, the bellies can have too much sand in them and be gritty. We always used bread crumbs in the water when soaking them. Corn meal is too sandy.

  • Lynn

    I fell in love with these at The Clam Broth House in Hoboken, NJ back in the 1980’s. We used to add a couple dashes of hot sauce to the clam broth. When we were done eating we’d sip the broth carefully so we didn’t stir up the sand on the bottom.

  • john hartman

    …absolutely use the pepper and meal…also,throw some sliced or chopped onion and some dried herbs into the pot just before steaming..a little olive oil..and drink the broth after eating the clams..clam nectar..from another Cape Cod clam digger.

  • Cheri

    You think those clams look happy to see you? Check out our PNW geoducks!

  • Alena

    Wow… never knew steamers looked so HAPPY! :)

  • Sue

    Mmmmmmm … you just made my mouth water! Love Steamers more than lobster.

  • reen

    Oh wow. Landlocked in Texas now, but missing the Yarmouth Clam Festival back in Maine! Thanks for the memories!

  • avis

    You steam them alive?

    Yes, they must be alive. ~Elise

  • Doreen

    This Rhode Islander loves steamers and I go digging for them all the time. Instead of salt or cornmeal, I use sugar. The clams come out so sweet and tender. I like to throw a couple of cloves of garlic, one onion quartered and one link of hot chirozo into the boiling water. The broth is so delicious that you definitely must serve it with a nice crusty roll.

    Brilliant! I love the aromatics and the chorizo in the broth. ~Elise

  • Terry in Colchester, VT

    Hi Elise – we were just in Hyannis a couple weeks ago for our annual visit with my wife’s aunt. Steamers and lobster are an annual rite as well, and have been for at least the last 20 years, whether we are on the Cape or not. Great post as always!

  • Homechef Paul

    Ah, memories !! Lobsta, scallops, quahogs, multitudes of other different clams fresh caught on or off of West Island below Fairhaven in Buzzards Bay. We must have never been politically correct with the happy as a clam term – we just plain old called them pissers.

  • Jane

    Yum! We have these regularly in the summer here in MA. The smaller ones are preferred in our house; we think they are sweeter but it’s a matter of preference. I throw a bit of Old Bay in the steaming water which adds a nice–if old school–flavor.

    Big bowl of steamers and home made lobster rolls make us happy as clams for sure! hee hee!

  • Cathy

    Steamers! One of my favorites! However, the traditional way to serve in RI and MA is to have a bowl with the clam broth in it – separate from the clams. Remove clam from shell, pull off the “skin”, dip in the broth, then the butter and enjoy! Best served with a cold beer! :)

    And that’s exactly how I’m recommending them to be served here. So good! Other people have suggested adding things to the broth which also sounds good. But I’ve only had them with a plain water broth for dipping, mostly to get rid of any sand or grit. And then dipping them in butter. I love love love steamers. ~Elise

  • Paul M.

    For anyone in the Philly/South Jersey area who remembers Hackney’s in Atlantic City (which unfortunately burned down in 1971), this was where I remember my first steamed clam experience. While vacationing in Ocean City as a kid, we’d make at least one pilgrimage up to Atlantic City to satisfy mom’s craving which, upon introduction, immediately became my own. I remember a bucket of 100 steamers was $1.25 with a generous cup of broth and an equally generous cup of melted butter. But that was 50 years ago when a whole steamed lobster with fries and pepper hash was still $3. *Sigh*

  • bob

    ok i am from Rhode island.. the ocean state!…you have the recipe
    . you need pepper and an onion in the water some put a tiny bit of garlic also . you need to put enough water in the pot to cover the steamers or quahogs!. you then bring to a boil and wait till they all open. anything that does not toss out…..
    now,,,,you also have pure Rhode island gold… all the broth!! you filter it through a cheese cloth and save the broth!! that makes great sauce for paste and what ever!!

    like for instance this simple recipe:
    1 box of pasta.. your choice
    clam juice as it is called properly
    pepper to taste
    seafood of your choice.. clams,shrimp, fish

    cook the pasta aldente…very aldente..
    bring your clam juice up to a boil in a separate pot
    drain pasta..and get rid of the water. put back into the same pot…then pour your clam juice into the pot and bring up to a simmer. you should have enough juice to get mostly sucked up by the pasta. you want a little more juice than you need because you want to have enough juice to have a really loose pasta

    then add what ever seafood you want..simmer till seafood is cooked…..
    then enjoy..

    Sounds great, thanks Rob! ~Elise

  • Donna

    I’m form Upstate New York. I remember when my husband was stationed at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod back in 1972 – we went to the local fish market for clams and what they gave us were these soft shelled clams that you speak of. I said to the fella, our clams in New York don’t have those long necks or tails sticking out. He said “of course they do, that’s how they eat” but at the time I was grossed out. In New York we have the Cherry Stones or Little Neck clams. Would love to go back to the Cape to try these, especially after reading all the great reviews.

  • David B

    Oh man, I used to go clamming for fresh clams and now I’m in Arizona and I would kill for some after seeing this!

  • mj

    Steamas’ and fresh hot melted butta! Lol.

  • Joyce Diotalevi

    I have been cooking clams & clam pots for many years either at home or camping. Delicious… My way, put clams in colander, rinse several times. Put in pot or sink and fill with clean cold water then put a good amount of regular table pepper on the top of water and they will sneeze out the rest of sand. Drain water and rinse several times. Bring water to a boil, about 4/5 inches, add can of beer and add clams. I have a very large pot. Easy as that! Clam pot, prepare clams the same way, layer clams, sausage (not breakfast), sliced potatoes (about 1 inch thick) and put 10-12 clams on top. When they are opened, the pot is done cooking. Try a little of each, yummy. In season, I always serve fresh corn on the cob with them. Broth is delicious! ENJOY!!!!

  • Joyce Diotalevi

    I just sent a reciepe for steamers, I would like to add – for regular clamp pot cook about 15min. It all depends on source of heat — gas, electric or camp fire. Watch pot, cover slightly or it will boil over. Defiantly longer on camp fire. When opened they are done… Clam pot – soak in pepper 30/45 min. Watch pot, cover slightly off because it will boil over with beer in it. I have a very large clam pot, depending on source of heat, 45/1hr or more on camp fire. When clams are opened on top, done. Hope this will answer all questions. Please feel free to organize and post. Thanks!

  • Doug the Bug

    Thanks everyone, I’m cooking these for the first time in my life. I needed all the tips. As a kid I dug these with my dad several times when I was very young in the Northeast, but don’t remember anything about how they were cooked. I only remember that man hey were great. Also, I do remember one other thing about these beautiful little gems, we called them “Piss Clams” . No offense intended.

  • ricki3b

    My father showed me how to eat clams when I was little. Lobster, steamers, and crabs at a place called Zelby’s on the Jersey shore. I go years without wasting the clams, mainly b/c the restaurant went out of business years ago. So, yesterday I picked some up at the store and came across your post when I realized I didn’t know how long to cook them. I read the post and soon as I want back to the stove they were opened and ready. Perfect timing. Steamers are soooo delicious! Thanks for the post.

  • carol sawyer

    I have canned clams .what can I do with them?

    • Elise

      Clam dip, fried clams, even clam chowder.

    • bcr8tive

      #1 Seafood sauce – your choice – small scallops, shrimp, sliced up squid, the clams, garlic, white wine, a little cream, Old Bay seasoning, parsley, pepper – Heaven.
      #2 Clam cakes
      #3 stuffed clams

  • Innocent Jannap Jnr

    Wwoow! Just ate cherrystone clams for the first time in my life & if tasted delicious. Caught more than a dozen wash them clean & steamed for 15mins adding pepper+garlic+ginger+sliced onions…a serving for 2 with boiled yam & butter:D

  • Tina

    I loved how the page started, how you made a memory and then it made me think of my memories too. I am not a good cook. It is hard for me to follow recipes. I always end up not doing good and it can get frustrating sometimes. But this recipe was easy and what was even better the instructions were easy!! I cant believe everything came out for once. Not only that the steamers were out of this world. Thank you for making your recipe so easy to follow and thank you for giving me my first delicious meal!! I am saving this website as a favorite and I am coming back here for every recipe I will need from now on!! :)

  • welovethebabies

    I absolutely love steamers! My daughters enjoy them as well. Growing up in New England, mostly MA, I grew up eating steamers and lobster. However the steamers don’t look anything like they used to. Their bigger, their bellies are fatter and their necks are longer. Does anyone know why this is?

  • Leigh

    I’m from Mass. And haven’t had them yet this year. I’m dying looking at the pic! My family always threw them in the kitchen sink, covered with cold salted water & sprinkle in a cup of cornmeal. Soak for 1hr. From what I was taught. Supposedly the clam ingests the cornmeal and it cleans them of grit. Not sure if its true but that’s the way my family always did it. My great uncle ran a fish market. :)

  • bcr8tive

    Thanks for this post. The photos are amazing. They made me homesick.
    The newspaper on the table really took me back too, I’m ready for a trip now ;-)
    (I’m born and bred R.I., raised on the beach & dug my own clams & quahogs … )

    Just a few suggestions:
    #1 Prepare your broth ahead while the steamers are soaking. Saute celery, onion & garlic then add your water (and Old Bay, a little pepper & parsley) and simmer it ahead of time to prepare a broth. (some used to add braised sweet italian sausage, linguica or chourizo too but I prefer it without) –

    It really doesn’t matter if you steam or put them straight into the broth, just don’t have TOO much water because not only can you dunk your steamers (& we always loved to sip it in a big coffee cup…) BUT you can ALSO always use any left over clam liquor to make other recipes just as you do with chicken stock)

    They come out so delicious, you don’t even need the butter (but it doesn’t hurt) ha.