How to Cook and Eat Steamer Clams

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

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

Steamers! Add these clams to the list of foods fun to eat. I was first introduced to steamers, or steamed soft shell clams, when I lived in Boston years ago.

Unlike hard shell clams (known here as quahogs, cherry stones, or little necks, depending on their size), steamers have rather thin, brittle shells, so you have to be gentle with them. The two sides of the shell don’t close all the way.

Instead, protruding from the shell is a long foot, or siphon. It’s what the clam uses to filter the sea water and eat. While hard shell clams stay close to the surface of the sea floor, steamer clams bury themselves more deeply, and extend their long siphons to the sea floor surface.

New England Steamers

When you buy steamer clams, their siphons are mostly tucked away. But as soon as you soak them in (salted) water, the siphons start to come out, and out, and out.

When we made these the other day I think we measured one that was a good 4 inches long! (Could it be where the phrase, “happy as a clam” comes from?)

New England Steamers

Anyway, soaking the steamers is a great way to freak out kids, though hopefully not so much as to dissuade them from eating them. Fortunately, my gang loves seafood. I just had to tell them they were like mussels, but with convenient handles for dipping into melted butter.

How to Cook and Eat Steamer Clams

  • 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


1 Soak the steamers in sea water or salty water: 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 sea salt completely dissolved in every quart of water), and let sit several hours in a cool place (not in direct sunlight), 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 salt 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.)

2 Steam the clams: 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 Place steamer water in bowls for serving: 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.

4 Serve with melted butter: 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.

5 Here's how to eat the steamers: 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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Clam chowder made with steamer clams from Leite's Culinaria

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Sake Steamed Clams from Appetite for China

New England Steamers

Showing 4 of 45 Comments / Reviews

  • Ccdc

    I don’t use cornmeal to soak my steamers. It tends to bloat the bellies and make them mushy. I throw some minced fresh garlic, some parsley flakes and some finely chopped carrots into the water while steaming. Makes a yummy flavorful broth.

  • Kathie Hughes

    I followed your advice to put the steamers in water for a couple of hours, come to find out that what happens is you drown the steamers. You should only let them sit for 10-15 minutes. They have to breath to stay alive. Found out from the seafood place where I bought them.

  • Recoil Rob

    How does one prepare soft shelled clams for frying? I’ve tried shcuking them raw, just doesn’t work. I love fried clams form my days at HoJo’s back in the 1960’s, tough to replicate at home though

  • 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.

  • 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. :)

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New England SteamersHow to Cook and Eat Steamer Clams