Shell Game: Sorting Through Clam Varieties

What’s the difference between the different types of clams you see at the market?

Published Jan. 25, 2023.

Shopping for clams can be confusing. Littlenecks? Since when do clams have necks?

Clams, along with oysters, mussels, and scallops, are mollusks, soft-bodied animals that forge a hinged, hard shell to protect themselves (a few rare species are shell-less). With the exception of scallops, mollusks are usually sold in their shells, which brings a fun, hands-on element to cooking and eating them. 

There are two main categories of clams: hard shell and soft shell. 

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What Is a Hard-Shell Clam?

Hard-shell clams have thick, hard shells, and they are like your trusted confidant—they never open their mouths (OK, their shells). Since their shells stay mostly shut in the water, there’s less sand inside them. On the East Coast, the common variety of hard-shell clam is the quahog; on the West Coast, it’s the manila clam.

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For the East Coast quahogs, different names denote how big the clams are, starting with countnecks, which are the smallest Atlantic clams that can be legally harvested. Next up are littlenecks (small, sweet, and tender; great raw), topnecks, cherrystones (great for grilling or broiling, although still tender enough to eat raw), and chowder (also sometimes confusingly called quahogs).  

Regarding West Coast manila clams, some markets label them steamer clams. They are small (about the size of East Coast littlenecks) and very sweet. They are easily identified by the pretty color patterns on their shells. 

What Is a Soft-Shell Clam?

Soft-shell clams have thinner shells and are a bit more gabby; that is, their shells open when they are alive, so they contain a good bit of sand and grit. This makes cleaning and purging an important part of working with them. The most common types of soft-shell clams are steamers and razor clams. 

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Steamers are an Atlantic clam so named because they are commonly steamed (and served with drawn butter and some of the cooking liquid). They are also the top choice for fried clams, which were invented in Ipswich, Massachusetts, not far from America’s Test Kitchen. 

As for razor clams, Atlantic razor clams are long and thin and are so named for their resemblance to a barber’s straight razor. They are tender and delicate in flavor. Pacific razor clams have an oval shape with a “neck” protruding out of the shell; much of the U.S. harvest is exported to Europe. 

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