Surprisingly, only a few species of clams exist in North America–despite all the names we often hear on the market (littleneck, cherrystone, manilla, softshell, steamer, ect.)
The common distinction is between hard and soft shell clams, ‘quahog’ being the overarching term hard shell clams. The common market names for the clams all describe the quahog, or hard-shelled Atlantic clam, with their individual names dividing this species by size. ‘Little Neck’ represents clams averaging 10-12 clams per pound, with ‘Cherrystone’ at 6-10 and ‘Top Neck’ or ‘Count Neck’ at 4 per pound. Surprise surprise, it gets even more confusing–giant chowder clams (at 2-3 per pound) are often referred to as ‘quahog’ (despite this being the general name for the whole species).
However, like many seafood industry terms, product specifics depend on the seller. A few google searches led me to this average clam sizing, but in no way is it accurate across all seafood platforms. Moral of the story–use pictures and weight counts to determine which clams best suit your needs.
As hard shell clams get older, they grow larger and tend to become more tough–which makes them perfect for stuffing or chowders. Smaller clams are best enjoyed on the half shell in their purest form.
Now to soft shell clams – best known by New Englanders as ‘steamers.’ These more delicate-shelled clams are more elongated than quahogs and remain open while alive. Sticking out of the shell a leg, or siphon filters water for the clam, allowing it to eat and move. (a google search of a moving steamer can give a good chuckle).
Because soft shell clams are open during their lifetime, they take on large volumes of sand and grit that must be filtered out prior to cooking. Soaking clams in a cold bath of saltwater for 2 hours or more can eliminate more of the sand. After cleaning, steam as normal and enjoy! These guys do take a bit more work than hard shells, because you must peel off a skin layer on the siphon before eating. Delicious, but a little messy for the fancy dinner party.
Pacific Littleneck Clams are tender and mildly sweet with a slight brininess. Available frozen year-round and fresh typically year-round.
Cherrystone Clams are tender and mild in sweetness. They have a stronger brine accent than other varieties. Special order only.
Razor Clams are more firm and are often cut into “steaks” or into small pieces to use for soups and chowders. They are mild in both flavor and brininess. Call for frozen availability.
Steamer Clams Special order only.
Manila Clams are tender and have a mild, sweet flavor. They are the hard-shelled clam of the Pacific Northwest! Special order only.
Bake, poach, saute or steam hardshell clams. To use in soups and chowders, add chopped clams at the simmer stage, steep for 5 minutes and serve. Overcooking can lead to an unpleasant chewy texture. Most clams can replace one another in recipes, with the main exception being razor clams.
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