How to Tell If Clams Are Fresh

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Some prefer their clams with butter and salt.
Image Credit: Francesco Carta fotografo/Moment/GettyImages

Clams, members of the Bivalvia class of ocean and freshwater bivalve mollusks, may be hard- or soft-shelled. There are several ways to tell if live or shucked clams are fresh or past their prime. When purchasing clams, if you find a dead clam among the live ones, it should be discarded because it is not safe to eat.

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Ensuring That Clams Are Fresh

How to tell if clams are dead or alive is simple. Inspect the live clams, which may be tightly closed or slightly open. Both shells should be moist and intact, not broken or cracked.

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Tap the shell or agitate the clam; if the shell closes, it is a live clam. In addition, soft-shelled clams should show movement of the neck or snout. If the shell doesn't close, the clam doesn't move or it has a strong sour, fishy or ammonia odor, discard it.

Shucked clams should be cream-colored and plump with a clear or slightly milky or gray liquid. They should not be shriveled or a dark color. The meat should be clean and without shell remnants, grit or sand. A fresh and mild ocean scent is acceptable, but if the meat has a strong smell, it is not fresh.

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Storing Clams Properly

Transport your clams in a cooler with the lid cracked open to allow for air circulation. Use cold packs or ice to keep them cold, but put a sheet of waxed cardboard or Styrofoam between the clams and the ice. As soon as you're at home, move the clams to a clean storage container with ventilation holes and put them in the refrigerator at 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The clams will stay alive and usable for three days.

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If longer storage is needed, put the whole clams into heavy-duty freezer bags and freeze for up to three months. Whole clams may be taken directly from the freezer and steamed. Alternatively, clean and shuck the clams and freeze the meat. Thaw frozen clam meat in the refrigerator before adding to your favorite recipe.

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Preparing Clams for Cooking

Before you steam your clams, take time to clean them. First, fill a large bowl with a solution of 1/3 cup salt and 1 gallon cold water. Some cooks add cornmeal or black pepper to the water to encourage the clams to purge the sand inside their shells. Put the clams in the water and allow them to soak for at least 20 minutes and up to one hour; if a clam floats, remove immediately and throw it away because it is dead.

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Don't just pour the clams and water into a colander. Take the clams out of the water individually to keep the sand off the shells. Scrub the clams' shells with a stiff-bristled brush under running water to remove dirt and debris. Rinse with cool water.

Cooking Clams for Dinner

Steam whole clams on a rack in a large, covered pot for four to nine minutes after the water reaches a full boil. Alternatively, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet and add minced garlic. Add about 1 cup white wine and 1 tablespoon lemon juice and bring to a boil. Add the clams and more lemon juice before covering the pan and steaming for 7 to 8 minutes, until the clams open.

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To grill clams, put the closed whole clams on a hot grill. Leave them on the grill for 6 to 8 minutes. Carefully remove the clams, which have opened up, with tongs or barbecue gloves. If one of the clams fails to open, discard it, as you've found a dead clam and it is not safe to eat.

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