Sea snails, such as whelks and periwinkles, don't differ much from their landlocked cousins, escargot, other than which cooking method you should use when preparing them. When you're working with snails, land or ocean, you want those that offer substantial meat that's relatively easy to retrieve from the shell, such as whelks; and not those that offer little meat and require the steady, precise hand of a surgeon to extract the meat, such as conch and periwinkles. All sea snails, however, respond best to the gentle heat of the steamer, since they have a tendency to overcook within a few seconds.
Things You'll Need
- Large bowl
- Heavy-bottomed pot
- Liquid such as white wine, fish fumet or stock
- Herbs and spices such as fennel, dill and bay leaf
- Steamer insert
- Seafood picks or wood skewer
Place the sea snails in a large bowl and cover them with water. Agitate the shells and let them sit for a few minutes so dirt and debris sink to the bottom of the bowl. Drain the water, refill and repeat. Continue rinsing the snails until the water is clear in the bowl.
Fill a heavy-bottomed pot half full of a flavorful liquid that will be used for steaming and place the pot on the stove. The liquid gives the sea snails the backbone that supports the flavors you will add later with the aromatic herbs and spices. Fish fumet, a type of fish stock; white wine; and regular stock or broth all give sea snails the extra support they need to highlight their crisp flavor. You can use one of the aforementioned liquids or a combination of all as the steaming liquid, if desired.
Add whole herbs and spices to the liquid you will use for steaming. Heated, steaming liquid will aromatize the essential oils held in whole herbs and spices, and envelop the snails with their aroma throughout cooking. With sea snails, consider ingredients that won't overtake the fresh ocean taste. Star anise pods, a few black peppercorns, fennel fronds, dill sprigs, a bay leaf, thyme sprigs, parsley stems and sliced shallots all impart complex, yet subtle, flavors to the delicate flesh.
Set the heat on the stove to high and bring the liquid to a boil. Place the steamer insert inside the pot.
Arrange the sea snails on the steamer insert as soon as you see steam rising through it, spacing each about 1 inch apart from the next. Cover the pot.
Steam small sea snails for about five to eight minutes, and larger sea snails for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove the sea snails from the steamer and finish each with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice inside the shell, if desired. Use a wood skewer or seafood picks to retrieve snail flesh from the shells.
Tips & Warnings
- Cook sea snails as soon as possible after harvest or thawing.
- You can also boil sea snails in water, stock or fish fumet instead of steaming. Limit boiling time to eight to 10 minutes for small specimens, and 15 to 20 minutes for large specimens.
- Melted garlic butter, malt vinegar, vinaigrette and freshly squeezed lemon juice all make great accompaniments to sea snails.
- You can remove sea snails from their shells after cooking and mince them for a garnish in chowder or seafood stew, seafood salad or a seafood sauce, such as Nantua.
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