Prepping & Cooking Clams/Mussels Like A Pro: Step-By-Step

If you’re looking for easy meal ideas or impressive appetizers and starters, clams and mussels fit the bill perfectly. Home chefs can prepare these with confidence and they make an impressive, tasty dish with little effort.

Here are three different ways to prepare them (steaming, oven cooked and grilling), including instructions for how to clean them. I’ve also listed a few tips at the bottom for buying, storing and portion guidelines.

Since the directions below apply to both clams and mussels, I’ll keep things simple and refer to them both as shellfish or mollusks instead of individually.

Quick Notes:

  • These little guys aren’t a treat when overdone, but it’s impossible to give a specific time for cooking (since it depends on mollusk size, quantity and even the pans used). Heat just until shells pop open wide (that’s how to tell when they’re done).
  • When steaming, keep liquid at a minimum so the mollusks aren’t boiled. This is another instance where specific amounts are difficult to give since it depends on the pan or cookware size being used and the amount being prepared. But don’t worry, you won’t mess this up!

How To Clean

  • If you buy them pre-cleaned: Place the mollusks in a colander and rinse well with cold water.
  • If not pre-cleaned: Scrub with a stiff brush or scrubber under cool running water. Place them in a large bowl or pot then cover with cold water (you’ll want the liquid level a few inches above the top of the clams). Add approximately 2/3 cup of sea salt per 2 quarts (8 cups) water, then mix the batch with your hands to distribute salt. Allow to sit for about an hour then drain, rinse well to get rid of any loose grit and fill with a fresh batch of water, soak for another 20 minutes. Rinse and repeat again. This should be enough to get rid of any sand and grit.
  • Tip: Some add cornmeal to the salt water (about 1/2 cup per large pot) believing it helps encourage them to purge any sand they’re holding inside the shell.
  • Examine each shell and remove any strings of beard you see, simply pull off with your fingers or a knife. Pull back towards the hinge end.
  • Check for any cracked or damaged shells, toss them in the garbage.
  • Scrape off any barnacles with a knife.
  • There will likely be some in the batch with open shells, snap them smartly with your fingers or tap them against a hard surface. If they don’t close, throw them out (they’re likely dead).

To Steam:

  • The secret to steaming is to use just a bit of liquid, use too much and you’ll boil the meat instead of steaming it.
  • Add enough liquid to cover the bottom of a deep pan or stockpot completely and then some (about 1/4″ deep), heat on medium to high heat. You can use water, white wine, beer, with even some fresh lemon juice and butter added. Tip: You can make a flavorful stock by first sauteing some chopped onions, minced garlic, chopped celery, herbs, etc., for a few minutes before adding liquid.
  • When liquid starts to boil, add shellfish. Cover with a tight fitting lid and leave until done.
  • How to tell when they’re cooked? The shells will open wide. Time depends on the size of the shellfish and can be anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes.
  • After cooking: shells should be open, toss those that aren’t in the garbage.
  • What to do with the broth/liquid: it’s been flavored nicely with the clam liquor so why not use it! Add a large spoonful of butter or heavy cream, bring to a boil and cook for a few minutes to reduce. Pour over shellfish and serve.

To Oven Bake:

This is technically steaming since they’re done in sealed parchment paper pouches with a bit of liquid.

  • Preheat oven to 400°F with a baking sheet on the bottom rack so it gets nice and hot.
  • Take a sheet of parchment paper and add a handful of mussels or clams just off the center of the sheet.
  • Top with a bit of garlic butter, freshly squeezed lemon juice or a splash of white wine.
  • Fold over paper then seal all the sides by twisting and folding edges together to make a pouch, you’ll want the pouch to be roomy so there’s lots of space around the shellfish to hold the steam that will develop as well as hold the opened shells. Make sure seal is nice and tight to keep in the steam.
  • Place packets on hot baking sheet then cook until they are done and the shells are open (you’ll be able to tell through the paper).
  • To serve, simply cut open the packets and enjoy!

To Grill:

  • Preheat grill medium to high heat.
  • Place cleaned mollusks directly on hot grill in a single layer, close cover and leave on heat until shells are open (anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes depending on size). If any don’t open, simply move those to the grill’s hot spot in the center and leave a couple more minutes. If they still don’t open, toss them.
  • Another method: Heat a cast iron pan or a foil pan directly on grill. Add a good chunk of butter, water (or wine, beer), garlic, chopped scallions or whatever you like and close grill cover until liquid is heated. Spread mollusks in a single layer around the pan, close lid then cook until done (can be up to 10 minutes).
  • Foil packet method: Same idea as the parchment paper packets as mentioned above in the Oven Baked instructions, use heavy duty aluminum foil instead and add about a tablespoon of butter, drizzle with water and add a bit of minced garlic and chopped onion. Seal packet edges tightly making sure to leave room for the steam and open shells. Place on grill and heat a few minutes until shells have popped open (can be up to 10 minutes).


  • When purchasing clams or mussels, take a good whiff of them and pass on any that have a fishy smell (a sign that they’re not that fresh).
  • Storage: Keep in mind these are live creatures so you don’t want to seal them up in containers or bags and suffocate them. Best if they’re not left sitting in water, simply pour the mollusks in a large bowl, cover with a damp dishtowel and refrigerate for a day or two until ready to cook.
  • How many clams to serve? About 1/2 pound per person (appetizer) or approximately 1 pound per person (main).
  • Don’t add salt when cooking, the mollusks will naturally add salt to the pan juices as they are heated.

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    • Judy

    I love your site, and all the useful information I have gotten from it. I get lost in your site for hours. LOL!! One thing I did not know was that you could keep clams in the fridge for up to two days. Nice to know that I do not have to do all the clams that I buy in bulk at Costco when they have their seafood sales. When steaming mine, I use white wine vinegar, or a rice wine vinegar, after I have sauteed the garlic and onion in butter, also add parsley, fresh or dried work well, oh, I also add some water, almost equal vinegar to water. Then after I put clams on platter, I cover with the leftover juice that I steamed them with. Will try adding celery next time. Time to expand my horizons and add a little bit here and there. Still trying to get my ‘recipe’ perfected. Thank you so much for the informative website. Just LOVE IT!!

    • Ronny Bennett

    The easy way to open clams for chowder or any recipe out of shell is to freeze the clams first. Then pull out of freezer and as they begin to thaw, they open up and you can clean the clam and all the frozen juices in a pan/pot.. Easy Peasy…

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