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Grit in my clams - and what didn't work to clean it out

I made a cioppino yesterday, using some little clams that I'd bought it the store. I can't recall the name, but it was something I hadn't heard of before. Not littlenecks, not cherrystone. Anyhow, having read about cleaning grit/sand out of clams in advance, I put them all in a bowl of cold water with a tablespoon or so of cornmeal. Into the fridge for about 2 hrs before cooking. Then rinsed off and threw in for the last 3-4 minutes of cooking.

At least 1/2 had lots of grit/sand in them. Like enough that if we collected it all we could've built a miniature sand castle. It was terribly unpleasant and sort of ruined the dish.

The grit, interestingly, wasn't in the shells, but in the bodies of the clams themselves.

So - what should I do next time?

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  1. Not buy those clams....

    1. Add a big handful of salt next time. These are not fresh water critters, after all.

      1. I used to use cornmeal to purge clams--until I read Rick Moonen on the subject. He says that cornmeal works just fine; the clams exchange whatever impurities they may have inside for the cornmeal. But then, when you go to cook the clams, you've got polenta. Ha! So now I just purge clams and mussels in heavily-salted water--about 1/4 cup of coarse salt per quart of water. Soak about half an hour. Works fine. No polenta.

        1. Huh. I had never heard of this cornmeal thing. The last time we made mussels at home we had a similar problem--but instead of sand it was more like chunks of gravel! It was disgusting and has put me off of shellfish for a while.

          1. Thanks for the salt suggestion folks. I'll try that next. And sympathy to Sonia. It sucks to have a mouthful of gravel after pouring $30 into a home meal for 4. That's pretty pricey grit. I'm glad it wasn't for company!

            1. Clearly salted water is necessary for ocean-dwelling shellfish. I recall Julia Child using oatmeal in the purging water. Whether or not it gives you oatmealy clams the way cornmeal produces polenta clams, I don't know.

              1 Reply
              1. re: greygarious

                I would've gladly eaten polenta clams. But the cornmeal thing failed miserably for me.

              2. Hmmm.... was the grit from the cornmeal or sand? I don't imagine the clams being cooked long enough to cook the cornmeal in the clam's stomach.

                Was their sand in the purging water?

                The thing to try is to change the water more often and use plenty of water to submerge the clams.

                I've had luck with using plain water.

                1 Reply
                1. I usually leave them all day, rather than an hour or two. I think it takes some time.....and never ended up with "polenta".

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: coll

                    It sounds like you had mahogany clams...round and dark brown? They've always been gritty when I tried them. probably the best thing to do is steam them separately, rinse them off, and then put them into the dish.

                    1. re: EricMM

                      I pretty much always get littleneck or cherrystones, unless they have those tiny Italian clams around the holidays. Occasionally gritty, which I discover when I see sand in the bowl after soaking.

                  2. My Grandfather taught me to use ground black pepper to purge the sand from the clams. It worked on those we plucked from the Barnegat in the 70s and works on those I buy from the merchants today (the Barnegat Bay's clam population diminished greatly and attention has only recently been paid to ressuscitation). Fundamentally, it's the same approach as the cornmeal.

                    One thing to keep in mind, regardless of the type of clam, some bivalves are dirtier them others (just like us). Therefore, how long they must sit in the water will vary. Typically, I change the water now and again and look to see if there's sand in the bottom of the tub. If not, it's time to eat.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: MGZ

                      So are they then infused with lots of peppery flavor?

                      1. re: sonia darrow

                        I can honestly say that in the probably tens of thousands of clams we've eaten and served over the years, no one has ever claimed to have found or tasted the pepper. In fact, I've never seen any in the bellies while shucking either. Now, I've gotta go pay July prices for clams just to see if the clams will ingest pepper the way they do cornmeal (I had always understood the pepper to be an irritant that caused the clams to expell the sand, dirt, etc.).

                      2. re: MGZ

                        Have you tried that seafood stand up Rt. 72? When I visited my folks in one of the trailer parks on the south side of the highway, I passed it coming in from PA. 100 clams for 30 clams? Is that a good price? Think it's called Skipper's Seafood Exchange.

                        1. re: njmarshall55

                          I have not tried the place, but I can let you know that $15 for 50 clams seems to be about standard pricing in Lower Monmouth - Upper Ocean Counties.

                      3. FWIW, Cook's Illustrated recently tested the cornmeal method and found that it basically does not work.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: joonjoon

                          Did they mention which method works best?

                          1. re: BigSal

                            Their conclusion was that the 'cleansing' methods simply cannot get a dirty clam clean, so the best solution is to buy clams that have as little grit in them as possible to begin with, mainly hardshells such as quahogs, cherrystones, and littlenecks.

                            1. re: joonjoon

                              Agreed, I was troubled by this until I read this CI article on clams, and it forever blessed my clam dishes. There are hard shell and soft shell clams.

                              Hard shell ones are almost always closed shut, hence they don't have a lot of grits to start with. When I buy them from the store, 30mins to an hour of soaking in fresh water followed by a light scrub of the shells are all I need.

                              Soft shell clams are monsters. I tried soaking them for a day (alternating between salt and cornmeal every 2 hours), boiled them, removed the black membrane from the meat, filtered the broth with 2 layers of cheesecloth, and there's still sediment settled at the bottom the next day.

                              Funny thing is, there's almost no price difference between the steamers and the littlenecks here.

                              1. re: cutipie721

                                Sand, it's the downside of eating steamers; this is why, when you get an order of steamers at a resto, a cup of clam broth is served, along side the butter, for dipping the clams into, as a bath to remove any sand. It's really impossible to get soft shells without grit or to get the grit out of them; hey, it's not pleasant, I just think of it as additional fiber! Crunch, crunch, at least the sediment settles to the bottom.

                                I honestly can't be bothered to do the soaking, sand purging step for soft or hard shells. For soft shells, I rinse well, and for hard shells, I just scrub the shells and be done with it. You're eating a product from the sea and nature and you're bound to have some adulteration. If you live near the shore and have local hard shell clams, it's better not to get them after a heavy storm which has churned up the surf; really gritty.

                                1. re: bushwickgirl

                                  I'm with you, bushwickgirl. I can't imagine the soaking to do any good, anyway. I bet no one has ever looked into the purge water, whether salted or floured or cornmealed, and seen the clams open and eating, which is the only way that the process could work. They sure don't exchange starch for sand with their mouths closed! I'm pretty sure all those folks who've "had luck" with all that soaking simply started with clean clams. I eat littlenecks raw all the time, and don't remember ever getting a mouthful of sand, and they sure weren't rinsed after shucking!

                                  1. re: yummyummeatemup

                                    Your comments remind me of the anecdotal way that the importance of circumstantial evidence is sometimes taught. The premise is that some transgression occurred in a building overnight. In order to determine whether anyone had gone to the building, the watchman is questioned and his statement is that he was present all night and saw no one come or go. On the other hand, there is a fresh set of footprints leading to and from the building in the snow that had fallen that evening. Clearly, the truth of the matter is more likely to be ascertained from the latter.

                                    If one places clams in a clean basin, leaves them to soak, and upon return finds clams and sand in the basin, it is more likely than not that the sand was expelled by the clams. I see no need for observation. In fact given how little a clam will open to purge itself of foreign matter and how readily it will close, it would be very difficult to observe at all (it’s not like it’s a Scooby Doo episode with giant clams opening to 75 degree angles).

                                    As for not noticing sand in the clams you have eaten, it is important to keep in mind that most clams are cleaned, rinsed, soaked, etc. by their purveyors at both the wholesale and retail level; particularly those sold in grocery chains. Likewise, restaurants, having a significant interest in serving patrons clams that are as clean as possible, typically employ methods to minimize any sand or mud in the products they serve.

                        2. I've never had this problem, but then again I've only used mussels. I just let them sit in normal old tap water for an hour and that's never done me wrong.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: JasonMichaelFord

                            If you get farm raised mussels, like PEI, then you'll never have to soak them at all. It's rare to find wild mussels anymore.

                          2. I think what you got were countnecks- which are a slightly different size than littlenecks (I think smaller). When I get these or littlenecks I scrub the shells under running water, soak for a short time, repeat and then cook. never had any sand in them and I use them alot.

                            1. I got the cornmeal thing from Joy of Cooking and I never had a problem with it. Then, a few years ago, the State of Florida passed a net fishing ban that pretty much put commercial fisherpeople out of business. I mean the independents that had been fishing families for decades. The state of Florida gave those people deeded clam beds so they could continue making a living. I have to say that those farm raised clams are the best clams I have ever eaten, and they have barely any dirt, just sweet and succulent. I grew up on Long Island before rampant pollution and we went clamming alot and I live in Florida now so we're lucky down here but I just soak in water with no problems.

                              1. I don't have a problem with sand, but I was chopping littlenecks and noticed what looked like black stomach contents. I cut away what I could but is there a way to purge that before cooking?

                                7 Replies
                                1. re: chuck98

                                  You can steam your clams or mussels separately, pour put the liquid from the shells, reduce the cooking liquid, strain it, then add it everything to your dish

                                  1. re: carbonaraboy

                                    It's not in the liquid, it's in the clam's stomach. I only noticed it when I cut one open. Cleaning by hand is sort of a chore, which is why I was hoping there's a good way to get that expelled. Sort of like a fast-acting clam laxative.

                                      1. re: JoanN

                                        That helps, thanks. I guess I'll do some testing with the corn meal/flakes/whatever. Let me know if anyone's got a confirmed way to eject the black stuff.

                                        1. re: chuck98

                                          So I did the testing: 12 littlenecks in salt water, 6 with cornmeal and 6 with corn flakes. In both batches there was black stuff in the water after 2 hours, although I think 3 hours would be better. I cut 4 open, I didn't see any black stuff in those 4. I didn't see any cornmeal either.

                                          The flavor of the broth was normal, meaning delicious. No noticeable loss of flavor or clamminess due to the salt water soak.

                                          The upshot: soaking with either corn product removed at least some of the black stomach contents, leaving the clams as good as before and without the one thing that bothered me.

                                          I'm going to do this every time, assuming I have 2-3 hours between store and dinner.

                                          Does anyone use red pepper flakes while steaming? I saw a recipe with that and wondered if it was good. I go with olive oil, garlic, wine, parsley, butter.

                                          1. re: chuck98

                                            Did you do a batch with just salt water? I've seen the corn method debunked so many times by people and magazines that do side by side tests with water and cornmeal.

                                            I'm struggling with freshly dug Manila clams right now--clamming is easy here in WA state, but good god, getting the grit from freshly dug clams is enough to put you off them forever. I never seem to be able to scrub and soak enough.

                                            1. re: christy319

                                              No, didn't try that. I've seen the cornmeal method discounted as a way to remove grit and sand from soft-shell clams. What I tested was removing the stomach contents from hard-shells, which aren't at all sandy or gritty. I wouldn't have noticed the black stuff at all if I didn't start chopping them.

                                              It's kind of like the shrimp "vein" - if you don't see it you'll never notice it while eating, but knowing it's there bothers me.

                                              For what I wanted it definitely worked. Maybe leaving out the corn would have also worked. I'll test that next time I grab a dozen.

                                2. Back in New Zealand we used to put a handful of Corn Flakes in with our tua tuas or pipis (bit like clams) - they help them spit out the sand and of course are too big for them to ingest.

                                  1. I think "a tablespoon or so" is not enough nor two hours, especially in fridge which will slow metabolism.

                                    1. Nothing. Grit in clams is always going to be grit in clams. Apart from scrubbing the outside of the clams well before steaming or cooking with them, absolutely NOTHING you do - soaking in water, soaking in salt water, soaking in water with corn meal, soaking in water with pepper, soaking in water with ANYTHING AT ALL - is going to remove grit from clams. All of these old wives' tales are nothing but.

                                      Take it from someone who was digging & cooking her own clams long before many of you were born.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: Bacardi1

                                        I never have a problem with sand when I use littlenecks, but I do the following with soft shell, or steamer clams which tend to be loaded with grit:
                                        Just pour a couple of handfuls of kosher salt into very warm to hot water. Add the clams. They'll open up in no time flat and spit out the sand. Rinse and do this a time or two more if needed. Make sure to use plenty of salt. Make a final soaking of salt and very cold water. They'll close up again and will be ready to steam.
                                        I usually add a cup of water as a starter, let it boil and then add the clams.

                                        1. re: Heuchera

                                          Never had a problem with grit in soft-shell steamers. I just scrub the outside of the shells gently but well, & serve with a cup of the broth (as is traditional) for a dunk before the 2nd dunk in melted lemon butter.

                                          While I'm sure your method must work for you (or else you wouldn't go to all that trouble), that's way too much trouble for me, especially since I've never had gritty steamers - even ones I've dug myself out of the low-tide mud flats.

                                      2. You didn't use Salt Water. They will not syphon and recycle water through themselves (thus eliminating the sand) if its not salt water. Only exception would be if they were freshwater clams.

                                        1. That's not long enough - 2 hours. And you have to make them some seawater to live in. Just add sea salt from your kitchen cabinet until the water tastes about like you remember from swimming in the ocean and they will feel right at home. Happy as a clam, so to speak.

                                          A few teaspoons of black pepper in their pot of seawater overnight in the refrigerator will have the grit out. But if you also add cornmeal - so they have something to eat - AND pour their water back and forth between two pots every day to get air into it - your clams will cheerfully live for at least a couple weeks in a refrigerator at 40º. They will likely live longer but I only buy them 200 at a time and they can never avoid me eating their tasty selves for more than two weeks. <g>

                                          1. I'm Asian, and I've always soaked them in salt water. You have to use SEA SALT to salt the water, not table salt. The idea is to replicate their natural habitat to make them breath all that junk out of their body. Clams like cold, dark places, putting them in the fridge always worked for me. Throw in few coins or nails in the water - metal in the water is irritating to their bowels so they tend to spit things out faster. This will take minimum of an hour, 2-4 hrs of soaking is pretty standard. Stuff they spit out is pretty disgusting, feel free to change out the water. Just remember to re-salt the water! This was so far fail proof, I highly highly recommend this method.

                                            1. We use baking soda. I have no idea why, it's what my father always used, so I use it too.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: Jerseygirl111

                                                So what's the baking soda use formula Jersey Girl ?

                                              2. This is the method I use for the New England steamers (which we also call soft shell clams). I've been doing this for years. As long as you plan to cook them right away, I just put them in a bowl of very, very warm water with lots and lots of kosher salt. They sure do spit out all that grit in a hurry! Then I rinse and do it again if needed. When they appear to rinse clean I then add more salt to very cold water and add the clams. They close their shells and I then drain them before steaming or, in your case, adding them to your sauce. If only steaming them, I usually add about a cup of water or white wine as a starter, turn the heat up, cover them and let them steam till the shells open. Now and then just toss them around to cook evenly.

                                                However, for cioppino I would be inclined to purchase littlenecks, as all you have to do is simply rinse or scrub the outsides, as they generally do not seem to have any sand inside.

                                                1. Use white pepper. You can but it at the grocery store. I live on Cape Cod and the locals and the local restaurants like The Chart Room in Cataumet, MA have been using this technique for years. My son is a waiter at The Chart Room and they never have any complaints about sand in the clams. Place the clams in a bowl with cold water and cover the clams. Add about .5 to 1 tablespoon of white pepper for every 2 lbs of clams. Let sit for 30 minutes then dump the water and repeat. You'll see lots of sand at the bottom of the bowl. Repeat until you don't see any sand in the bowl and you're ready to eat!