The hard clam, also known as quahog, is one of Maryland's hidden treasures. This delicious clam is served raw on the half shell, steamed, or as the main ingredient in clam chowder, clam fritters, and other dishes.
Where to Buy Clams in Maryland
Small farm raised hard clams known as "littlenecks" are the most common type of clam found in Maryland. Littlenecks are available in supermarkets, seafood markets, and farmer's markets. Most farm raised clams sold in Maryland originate from the waters of nearby Virginia.
Although harder to find, some Maryland vendors offer wild caught hard clams. Wild caught clams are usually available in larger sizes which are suitable for making chowder, fritters, or other clam dishes.
The best places to find wild caught hard clams are small coastal fish and seafood markets. These establishments usually buy fish and shellfish direct from independent fishermen. Because of the nature of clamming, wild caught clams may be available only during certain periods. In Maryland, fresh local hard clams are usually sold by the dozen or in large bags that contain approximately 100 chowder clams.
How to Catch Clams
Another option for lovers of Maryland seafood is to catch their own clams. Public access for clamming can be found in several areas along the coast. Clams are most abundant in the shallow coastal bays that lie behind Ocean City and Assateague Island.
Although catching clams can be easy once located, considerable experience is often needed to predict tides, weather, and locate an areas that is suitable for clamming.
In recent years, a number of local fishing guides have begun offering clamming trips. Clamming can be great fun and offers a wholesome family activity at a reasonable cost.
How to Open Hard Clams
Unlike the smaller sizes, which are usually steamed in the shell, the larger "chowder" clams are usually removed from the shell before cooking. Learning to open clams can be intimidating for the beginner but, after a little practice, the process becomes very easy.
Prior to opening clams (called "shucking"), they should be washed thoroughly in cold water to remove any sand, mud, or other debris. Any clams that do not close tightly or have broken shells should be culled.
Once hard clams are cleaned and inspected, it is advisable to chill them in a freezer for 20-40 minutes. This will cause the clams to relax just enough to shuck. A little experimentation will guide the preparer in terms of exactly how long to chill a given amount of clams. When chilled for the correct time, clams should contain little or no ice.
To open hard clams, lay them on a firm surface with the hinge down and the shell gap facing up. Using a clam knife, align the blade with the shells and push down. If the clam resists, a hammer can be used to gently tap on the backside of the knife.
Once the clam knife penetrates between the shells, it should be worked back and forth in such a way as to cut the two adductor muscles that hold the shell together.
After the adductor muscles are cut, the shells can be opened up. Finally, the clam knife is used to cut the clam away from the shell. It is a good idea to open hard clams over a suitable bowl so as to recover as much clam juice as possible.
After the clams have been removed from the shells, they can be washed in their own juice and transferred to a second container. After a few moments, the clam juice can be poured off, being careful to discard the last few ounces which are likely to contain grit.
How To Prepare and Cook Clams
Shucked clams are used in a variety of recipes. One of the most popular dishes is clam chowder. Chowder recipes are usually classified as red or white (tomato or cream based). Most clam chowder recipes contain one or more of the following vegetables; potatoes, onion, corn, lima beans, tomatoes.
Another popular method for preparing hard clams is to make clam fritters. Fritters are easy to prepare, require few ingredients, and are delicious. Most clam fritter recipes include chopped clams, egg, mustard, flour, and a touch of baking powder. In general, the amounts of each component are not set in stone.
Once the batter is mixed, a skillet is heated and stocked with vegetable oil. Cast iron pans work best and most cooks allow the oil to become very hot before adding the clam fritter mixture. Traditional Maryland clam fritters are cooked until brown and flipped once. They are usually served hot on bread or rolls with a dab of mustard.
How to Steam Hard Clams
Small hard clams, called "littlenecks" and "topnecks" are typically steamed in the shell. Before steaming, they should be washed thoroughly in cold water to remove any sand, mud, or other debris. Any clams that do not close tightly or have broken shells should be culled.
Hard clams cook quickly in a steamer and open when done. Steaming times vary among cooks. Overcooking can result in lower palatability as clams tend to become tougher as steaming times increase.