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What did I do wrong with my clams?

Thought it would be nice to make pasta with clams tonight for dinner - it's all in the garbage now. Had fresh clams that I soaked in ice water before using so that they spit out any sand trapped in them. Sauteed a bit of garlic and a diced shallot in olive oil, added the clams, coated them and threw in some white wine before covering to steam just until opened. Threw in some parsley + hot pepper flakes at the end with a bit of butter.

They were awful. The sauce was ridiculously salty (as were the clams) and had an unpalatable bitter edge to it. There was nothing wrong with the wine (I'm drinking it now).

I've made clams using roughly the same recipe before a long time ago and they were good.

Any idea what I did wrong?

I have no idea what to change...


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  1. I don't think this explains what happened, but I thought you are supposed to soak them in salted water (they are salt water animals, and die in fresh water). When I have time I follow Joy of Cooking instructions which includes putting some cornmeal on top (for them to eat and "purge")

    1. When you say you "coated them," what do you mean by that?

      1. The only thing I can think of to account for the bitter taste is if you used an unanodized aluminum pan, or one wherein the anoiodization had given up the ghost. If so I think it would react to the wine.

        As far as purging you should salt the water and add cornmeal before purging. I have read, and it is my experience that most clams purchased from a fish market don't need purging.

        Sorry about your dinner. Hope the wwine makes up for it.

        2 Replies
        1. re: ebethsdad

          sounds like you got a bunch of bad clams...i've had some that were terrible salty and had to be discarded...try changing fishmonger...a local place that harvests them daily would be best...how long did you keep them refrigerated. they may have been old

          1. re: janebono

            I only had them refrigerated overnight. They were in a bowl packed with ice but who knows how old they were before I got them. I think you're right though - I'm going to chalk it up to bad clams and move on. Really good seafood is so hard to come by in Toronto. :(

        2. I find that some clams are more salty than others, I suspect based on the salinity of the water they grew up in. I also soak in cold water for a few changes until I don't see any sand on the bottom of the pot I'm soaking them in. I tend to not use cornmeal, as it seems to make the clams turn a funny yellow color.
          IMO, the solution is simply to add more of the pasta water to the dish to decrease the saltiness.
          BTW, what type of clams did you use?

          1. First off, if you are using hard shell clams, like little necks or cherry stones, you do not need to soak them. Hard shell clams are not filled with sand like soft shell "steamer" type clams. Any sand that is found inside generally comes from the outside shell and finds its way in during the cooking process. All you need to do is rinse off the outside well before cooking. As far as cornmeal goes, that technique is also used for soft shell clams to purge the sand. I have first hand experience using this technique and it does work, however it does nothing for hard shell clams, so don't bother. Clams like most seafood does not keep well in fresh water to include packing them in ice (made from fresh water). They should be kept cold in the refridgerator or cooler with ice as long as they are not directly in the ice for long periods of time. This can be done by keeping the ice in plastic bags or by covering the ice with a towel or newspaper. It is possible that by soaking them and by packing then in ice for a long period of time that they expired. It is also possible that they were bad from the get go or had one foot out the door so to speak and then by soaking them and packing them in fresh water, they ultimately expired. I don't think this is the cause for the saltiness however, but might explain the bitter taste. Overcooked garlic can also have a bitter aftertaste. I suppose it is also possible that the wine reacted to the pan. Either way, I wouldnt give up on the clams...seafood can be very delicate and sensitive and unfortunatly occasionally you get a bad batch. Good Luck

            1. It's hard to pinpoint what went wrong in this case, but 99% of the time I hear about clams going wrong it involves someone not using the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

              Basically, making a meal with fresh clams should involve precisely two steps that take place within hours of each other:

              1) Buy fresh, live clams.
              2) Cook the fresh, live clams.

              If you want a foolproof clam dish, do not store them over night and do not soak them in fresh water, salt water, corn meal, witches' brew or anything else. I understand that things come up and you cannot always find time to make clams the same day that you buy them; however, I would never advise buying clams with the intention of using them tomorrow (or beyond).

              1. Many clams, especially manilla type clams, can be very salty. I find that I can't any salt at all to the dish and that I really need to undersalt the pasta water as well.

                What kind of pan were you using? White white and/or shellfish can react with many types.

                1. Clams are stored dry, in onions sacks, and with fans circulating air around them. This is the way it is done commercially and inspected by health departments to insure this process. Clams need to be cool but not ice cold. Never submerge clams in water or ice for storage.
                  A dry clam will stay closed and conserve its liquid. An open clam will dry out and is a sign of a dead clam. Discard any open or damaged clams. A slight tap on the shell will cause a live clam to close, otherwise it is dead.