I’ve tried a lot of nonsense for cleaning clams and purging the inner gunk, and this is what actually works for me time and time again. 

Nothing ruins the greatness of a freshly steamed, briny littleneck clam like chomping down into a bunch of sand and grit.

Freshly Steamed Littleneck Clams That Were Soaked

Even though a lot of people think the clams at the grocery are already cleaned – and I’m sure they are, to some degree – if I steam them right away with just a quick rinse, I find an off-putting amount of grit and junk inside.

They definitely need to be further soaked and cleaned at home. But how?

There are a million different recommendations, the most common I see involving cornmeal or simply soaking in freshwater for 20 minutes.

I find that soaking in plain water for 20 minutes doesn’t actually do much. And ditto to the cornmeal. Cornmeal does nothing.

Below is everything I do for an enjoyable grit-free clam experience, and while the amount of gunk that comes out varies batch to batch, I always get a good amount of filth in the water.

I always think…I’m glad I didn’t eat that 😂

Littleneck Clams Steamed Until Open on White Plate

All you need to do is make a salt water with some precise measurements I’ll share below, and the clams will purge the gunk inside with some time.

How to get the clams home from the store

When you buy your clams from the grocery, always take them packed with ice, to keep them fresh. 

At my store, what they do is pack the clams in a mesh bag so they can breathe, then they put the mesh back into the below bag of ice:

A purple sack full of fresh live littleneck clams

Do not seal the bag, otherwise the clams can suffocate and die.

Not making them right away?

I like to make the clams the same day I buy them. This is the best option for freshness, but if you must, you can save them for a day.

If you want to store the clams for later: Keep them over ice in the fridge in an open container, so they can breathe. And don’t keep them longer than one day.

Check for cracks

Generally the fishmonger will only pack tightly closed clams without big chips or cracks in the shell, but occasionally they miss some.

This is an example of a clam that is best thrown away:

A chipped shell showing that the clam should be thrown away

I know it stinks because you’ve paid for it, but it’s not worth the risk.

I will admit there have been a few times when I’ve cooked clams like these anyway if I saw them alive and out of the shell during my soak, and while they do open, they often don’t taste right.  Throw them out from the start.

As far as little chips, I usually don’t mind those right along the edge if they’re tiny.

Wash the outsides of the shell

If you have a dedicated brush, brush the outsides of all the shells under cold running water.

Honestly, I just use a paper towel most of the time.

I bunch it up and scrub along the outside, and it’s thick enough to get the filth out of the crevices on the outside.

Sidenote: this probably only applies to high quality paper towels, not the thin ones that start tearing when they get wet.

Rinsing a littleneck clam under running water and cleaning with a paper towel

Prepare the Salt Water for Purging/Soaking

In a bowl, combine 30 grams of salt with 1000 grams of cold tap water. Ideally you don’t want the water to get warmer than about 70F even as it sits, so start it out as cold as the tap will run.

Weigh both the salt and the water if you can, but if you don’t have a scale, it’s about 2 tablespoons of salt in a liter of water (4 cups-ish).

Whisking together salt and water in a bowl

Whisk for about 30 seconds, which should dissolve the salt in the water.

Now add the cleaned clams to the water, making sure they are submerged.

Littleneck clams soaking in homemade salt water

30 grams of salt in 1000 grams of water is the ratio I have found to be perfect for soaking, which I tweaked slightly from this fantastic article by Hank Shaw.

He recommends a little higher salt in the water, but I find if I go higher than this, the clams taste saltier than when I bring them home from the store, so I go slightly lower.

Let the clams sit – time is what they need

After 1 hour, the clams look like this:

Goo and gunk coming out of the shells after one hour of soaking

A few of them have opened, and you can see they’ve released a bit of gunk into the water.

Great, but they need longer.

After 2 hours, the water will be a little gunkier, but you may also notice that the clams begin to come out of the shell.

The interior animal coming out of the clam shell and expelling gunk

If you look here, you can see the tube like parts coming out of the shell, which is its siphon.

Be careful moving the bowl, because as the clam goes back into the shell, it can shoot water out at you! It has happened to me, from a foot away.

A closeup of the animal inside the shell

After 2-3 hours, I remove the clams from the water and give them another rinse.

Here you can see some of the leftover gunk in the water:

The gunky water and grossness that was purged out during soaking

Today’s batch is actually quite a bit less than average in terms of gunk that comes out, but I’m still glad I got all that out of my clams!

Cook the clams

The clams are now ready to cook, any way you like.

I place them in a steamer insert in my stockpot, in a single layer:

Cleaned and purged littleneck clams in a single layer in a steamer

I put the lid on and start checking every few minutes after I can hear the water boiling, because I like to pull the clams that have fully opened while the others steam, so they don’t get overcooked.

Partially opened steamed clams in a stainless steel pan with tongs

As always, if there are any clams that don’t open after they’ve been steaming at a rolling boil for 5 minutes or so, they are probably dead and should be thrown out.

Enjoy your grit-free clams! Look how clean and beautiful they are:

Purged and Opened Littleneck Clams in a Pile

You can use these clams with a dish like Linguine alle Vongole.

Coconut Green Curry Mussels is one of my favorite seafood recipes, and it can be made with clams as well.

See my entire Fish & Seafood recipe collection here. Happy cooking!

A closeup of a cleaned and purged littleneck clam that was steamed

How to Clean Clams

Every step I take to get littleneck clams clean inside and out.
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Ingredients

  • 1 dozen littleneck clams
  • 30 grams salt by weight. If measuring, use about 2 tbsp
  • 1000 grams cold water by weight. If measuring, use about 1 liter

Instructions 

  • Bring the clams back from the store sitting on ice, if possible. If you're not cooking them right away, store them in the refrigerator sitting on ice, in an open container, so they don't suffocate, for no more than one day.
  • Rinse the outsides of the clams to get rid of any excess sand.
  • Under cold running water, use a brush or stiff paper towel to lightly scrub the outsides of the shells.
  • In a bowl, whisk to dissolve the salt into the cold water.
  • Add the cleaned clams to the bowl, making sure they are submerged.
  • Let sit for 2-3 hours, until you can see that a significant amount of grit has been purged. I leave the clams in a cool place, at room temperature of about 70 to 72 degrees, but you can also store them in the fridge.
  • Give the clams a final rinse before cooking, then cook as desired. I steam them using a steamer basket for just a few minutes, until they open. When they are fully open, they are done. Enjoy!

Notes

The maximum time I've soaked the clams is 4 hours. It's possible you can soak longer than this, even overnight, but I know that eventually the clams can die if there's not enough oxygen in the water, so I like to be a bit more conservative. If you want to store the clams, it's best to do it on ice in the fridge before soaking.

Nutrition

Calories: 22kcal, Carbohydrates: 1g, Protein: 4g, Fat: 1g, Saturated Fat: 1g, Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g, Monounsaturated Fat: 1g, Cholesterol: 8mg, Sodium: 151mg, Potassium: 12mg, Vitamin A: 76IU, Calcium: 10mg, Iron: 1mg

Nutrition is estimated using a food database and is only intended to be used as a guideline for informational purposes.