How to Cook and Eat Steamer Clams

How to make soft shell steamed clams, otherwise known as steamers, a specialty of New England. These steamed clams are fun to eat and taste delicious.

  • 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.

how to cook clams - soaking steamers

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.

how to cook clams - steamed clams

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.

steamed clams or steamers served with butter

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.

how to eat steamed clams or steamers

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!

How to eat steamers - dipping steamed clams in hot broth how to eat steamed clams - dipping in butter

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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  • LauraM

    Here’s a question: I soaked overnight in fridge in salted water because we couldn’t eat them last night. There are many with the feet all the way out. Some where the foot is out a little and a couple where it really isn’t out at all. Should I toss those? What about the ones were the foot is out a bit?

  • Kelly Mastin

    Thanks☺ for going into such great details for new bee clam eaters! Awesome!!! info!!#clams galore!


  • Lee

    I dig clams and soak them in saltwater right from the beach! You can soak clams for 12 hours and they will be fine. Don’t forget that the holes are exposed only at low tide and there is 6 hours til high tide and 6 hours to low tide, so the clams holes are exposed for only 3 or 4 hours a day. Enjoy

  • 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.

    • Elise Bauer

      Hi Kathie, did you follow the directions for how much salt to add to the water? Steamers need to soak in strongly SALTED water, like sea water. They will die if you put them in unsalted water. These steamers you see in the photos on this recipe soaked for several hours in salty sea water.

    • Bk

      Umm. Clams live IN the ocean. They can spend some time buried under wet sand at low tide, but for most part clams live under water. Find a new fishmonger.

  • 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.

    • Murph

      Thanks for the tips. Just dug out the Old Spice from the cupboard.

  • 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. :)

    • Steve

      I grew up preparing steamers by soaking them in a pot of salted water and a pound of cornmeal and in the fridge overnight, only discarded a couple and of course the cornmeal works very well

  • 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?

    • Robert Grant

      Steamers (soft shell clams) come in all sizes. We just bought five pounds up here on the Maine coast and they are small, about two inches in length, which I think is perfect for steaming and eating whole. The larger ones are better suited for chowders and other dishes in which you can use chopped clams.

      • jb

        This sounds like you’re referring to hard shelled clams

        • Robert

          No, I am referring to steamers, soft shelled clams. I grew up on the Maine coast and live here full time now, right in the middle of great clam flats. Any good processing facility grades their clams by size and would not sell anything larger than about two or three inches for steaming.

  • 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!! :)

  • 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

  • carol sawyer

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

    • Elise Bauer

      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

  • 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.

  • 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!!!!

  • mj

    Steamas’ and fresh hot melted butta! Lol.

  • 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..

    • Elise Bauer

      Sounds like a great use of the clam broth Rob, thank you!

  • 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.

    • bcr8tive

      Hi Donna,

      In Rhode Island we called what you’re referring to (the Cherry Stones & Little Necks) a version of Quahog. An actual Quahog is larger & typically chopped up for chowder, clam cakes, stuffies etc. They’re still physically similar but the necks don’t stick out and you don’t have the ‘turtleneck sock’ to remove from the neck ;-)

      My favorite way to eat cherrystones is raw with cocktail sauce, lemon and horseradish. Mmmm

    • Skip

      Donna, what was your dads name because my dad was stationed there during the same time . He may remember him .

    • Skip

      Donna, sorry husbands name .

  • 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*

  • 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

  • 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!

  • 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

  • avis

    You steam them alive?

    Yes, they must be alive. ~Elise

  • Cheri

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Elise Bauer

      Here’s a great post by Hank Shaw about purging clams of sand: For the record, clams do not eat sand (so they don’t ingest it), but since they spend a lot of time in sand, with partially open shells, sand gets inside of their shells, hence the need to purge them of it. Cornmeal apparently does nothing to help with this process.

      • bcr8tive

        Seems funny to me, for the few people who keep insisting clams don’t ingest sand it makes me wonder how often they’ve eaten them.

        The REASON people ever started to soak them in anything, was biting into a clam with a belly full of sand. SAND, IN the belly.

        There are other websites aside from that one that ALSO discuss the fact that wild clams are not PRE Filtered and that different beaches and clam beds have different sand conditions….

        Personally, I never used cornmeal.

      • bcr8tive

        PS: Everyone that’s insisting sand can’t get inside a clam – should Google “Pearls” since they ALSO get inside clams – and that happens HOW? The fact that they siphon their food through sand and sand gets INSIDE them.

  • 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 dealt and dug soft clams or steamer clams for over 60 years. First, these clams DO NOT ingest 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!

      • Robert Grant

        I also agree with you Charlie. We buy our clams from a wholesaler up here on the Maine Coast and they have been processed (cleaned) using pure sea water, but we still rinse them a few times in salt water, changing the water every half hour or so. I don’t like any sand or grit in my clams. All of this stuff about pepper and cornmeal is a bunch of hogwash.

      • bcr8tive