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Types of Clams and Oysters

Types of Clams and Oysters

Last updated on 10/21/2020

When choosing seafood for your restaurant, clams and oysters are widely recognized as marine life delicacies. With high praise from the most celebrated cooks, clams and oysters continue to leave their complex flavor profiles on the palates of the most adventurous eaters all around the world. We’ll introduce you to the different types of clams and oysters so you can choose the best bivalves for your menu’s recipes. Keep in mind to add a warning on your menu that consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.

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Clams vs Oysters

While they are both known as mollusks and bivalves, there are three major differences between clams and oysters.

  1. Distinct species: Oysters come from the Ostreidae family, while clams come from a variety of families, but we most commonly eat from the Mercenaria mercenaria family of clams.
  2. Overall look: While clams and oysters can both range around the same size depending on the type, the shells that make their home are visually different. Clams often have smooth, more rounded shells, while oysters have rocky, ridged shells and either smooth or pointy edges.
  3. Taste: While clams and oysters often have similar tasting notes, especially depending on where they’re harvested, oysters are known to have more complex profiles, often being described as creamy, fruity, and rarely enough, nutty. Clams are generally more true to the ocean, with notes of seaweed, brine, and pleasant minerality.
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Types of Clams

Clams come in various sizes, scaling from smallest to largest with Littleneck clams, Middleneck clams, Topneck clams, Cherrystone clams, and Quahog clams, otherwise known as Chowder clams. Different types of clams each have their own flavor profile and distinct texture, which makes them ideal for their own specific cooking applications.

Illustration of a Littleneck Clam

1. Littleneck Clams

Littleneck clams are named after the beautiful Little Neck Bay on Long Island and are the smallest and most tender type of clam.

  • Littleneck Clams Size: 1"
  • Littleneck Clams Taste: Mild ocean brininess and pleasantly sweet undertones
  • Littleneck Clams Texture: Plump and juicy; the most tender of the clams
  • Littleneck Clams Cooking Applications: Most commonly served raw on the half shell or steamed.

Illustration of a Middleneck Clam

2. Middleneck Clams

Middleneck clams are the minimum size New York State allows to be harvested and sold within its boundaries.

  • Middleneck Clam Size: 1 1/4”
  • Middleneck Clam Taste: Briny salinity yet small afternotes of subtle sweetness
  • Middleneck Clam Texture: Rich, creamy, and firm
  • Middleneck Clam Cooking Applications: Steamed over pasta for Spaghetti alle Vongole or in a Spanish seafood paella.

Illustration of a Topneck Clam

3. Topneck Clams

Topneck clams are the most versatile with their cooking applications: tender enough to serve raw on the half shell, and hearty enough to withstand longer cooking applications, such as stewing.

  • Topneck Clam Size: 1 1/2” – 2”
  • Topneck Clam Taste: Bold, piquant salt overtones interwoven with notes of tangy earthiness
  • Topneck Clam Texture: Springy, plump, and firm meat
  • Topneck Clam Cooking Applications: Steamed over seaweed amongst other crustaceans in a New England clambake.

Illustration of a Cherrystone Clam

4. Cherrystone Clams

Cherrystone clams are named after the picture-perfect Cherrystone Creek in Virginia, and they are sometimes recognized as a smaller version of Topneck clams.

  • Cherrystone Clams Size: 2” – 3”
  • Cherrystone Clams Taste: Lingering salty notes with a smooth, clean finish
  • Cherrystone Clams Texture: Pleasantly firm and chewy meat
  • Cherrystone Clams Cooking Applications: Stuffed and broiled for the classic Clams Casino or chopped and stewed into a clam chowder.

Illustration of a Quahog Clam

5. Quahogs

Otherwise known as Chowder Clams, Quahogs are the biggest clams and therefore have the toughest meat, making them perfect for stewing in clam chowders.

  • Quahog Size: 4”+
  • Quahog Taste: Perfectly briny and salty flavor
  • Quahog Texture: Tough and chewy meat that’s ideal for longer cooking applications
  • Quahog Cooking Applications: Creating stuffed quahogs with a mix of stuffing, green and red bell peppers, onions, red pepper flakes, and sometimes linguica (traditional Portuguese sausage). Not ideal for being served raw or steamed.

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When Are Clams in Season?

While clams are available all year round, it is recommended to only eat them during the “R” months (September-April) as shellfish can absorb toxins that are spread by “red tides”. Red tides come about in the summer months and are caused by algae, which produces toxins that make it dangerous to eat shellfish and kill fish entirely. When the algae blooms, it turns the water red, creates toxins in the water, and can even make the surrounding air harmful to breathe.

How to Clean and Store Clams

Many Clams on Ice

Serving seafood safely is of the utmost importance in any type of restaurant, and cleaning and storing clams plays a huge part in maintaining that safety.

How to Clean Clams

Clams live in the intertidal zone of the ocean and burrow themselves up to 11 inches down into the sand and mud. Because of this, following the below cleaning and storing steps is critically important to keep the clams debris-free for your menu's dishes.

  1. Clean right before serving.
  2. Let the clams soak in fresh water for 10-20 minutes. This will flush out any sand or water that is in their shell. After soaking the clams, you must cook or serve them immediately. Do not let them sit in the freshwater for an extended period of time or they will become spoiled.
  3. As per ServSafe guidelines, remember to keep the tag on file for 90 days. This is a mandate from the Federal and State program to reduce the risk of shellfish illnesses. Keeping these tags on file helps trace the source of shellfish in case of an outbreak or illness.

How to Store Clams

Because clams are used to the intertidal zone where the ocean meets the sand during high and low tides, mimicking a somewhat similar, but cleaner and safer, habitat for the clams is crucial to keep them alive before being served.

  1. In a refrigerator, line a damp towel along a rimmed baking sheet.
  2. Place the clams in a single layer along the towel, and place another damp towel on top of the clams.
  3. You can also place them on a bed of ice, but be cautious of this method as clams have a higher mortality rate when iced and re-iced.

Clams are easiest to open after they have been cooling in the refrigerator for a few hours. The cold relaxes the muscles that usually keep the shell tightly clamped down. If a clam is already open before you try to open it, tap the clam to see if it closes. If the clam does not close when you tap it, discard the clam.

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How to Eat Clams

Clams on the half shell with a spoon

Perfectly opening, cooking, and eating a clam for the first time can seem intimidating. We've broken down how to accomplish all of these like a professional, so you can be confident in the kitchen or the dinner table.

Opening Clams

Opening a clam is quite simple with the right knife and shucking gloves.

  1. Hold the clam in your left hand so the clam's valve is facing away from your hand.
  2. Place the knife's blade in between the top and the center along the valve, and use the fingers of your left hand to pull the blade down until you feel and hear the blade sever the clam's muscle.
  3. Pull the knife back out until just the tip of the knife remains in the clam and angle the blade upwards until it reaches the top of the shell.
  4. Run the knife's tip along the rest of the valve until you sever the second muscle of the clam.
  5. With the top shell pinched between your knife and thumb, lift and rotate the shell to tear away the hinge.
  6. In one sweeping motion, run your knife carefully underneath the clam's meat to loosen it, as well as where the meat is attached at the back hinge.
  7. The meat should be completely detached and still sitting in its shell and liquid.

Eating Clams

Being served clams can be a bit daunting if you don't know how to go about eating them. It's easy to look like an experienced clam eater, even if you've never eaten the bivalve before.

  1. Before eating it, place any sort of lemon juice, cocktail sauce, or pasta sauce on the meat.
  2. Because the meat is already detached from the shell, you can simply slide the meat right into your mouth, or you can use a small seafood fork to pierce it and bring it your mouth.
  3. Chew the clam once or twice so you can appreciate its flavor.

Serving Clams Based on Texture

Clams should be cooked according to their size. Smaller clams are more tender, requiring less cooking time, or none at all. Larger clams have tougher meat, requiring longer cooking time and slower cooking applications. Use smaller, tender clams for serving raw on the half shell, steaming, grilling, or broiling. Choose larger, tougher clams for roasting, stuffing, frying, or stewing.

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Types of Oysters

Oysters grow all around the globe on rocks and piers in the saltiest of waters. This creates different types of oysters, and the most common are Olympia Oysters, Kumamoto Oysters, European Flats (or Belon Oysters), Sydney Rock Oysters, Pacific Oysters, and Atlantic Oysters.

Oysters have a different taste and shape depending on where they’re harvested due to their merroir (the environmental factors that affect seafood). Think of it like a wine’s terroir: when grapes are grown in Northern California, they will taste differently than the grapes that are grown in Southern Italy. This same concept is exactly how oysters differ from each other.

Another factor to take note of is an oyster’s salinity. Oysters grow when there is increased salinity in the water, and their salinity is measured in grams per liter of water or parts per thousand (ppt.).

Illustration of an Olympia Oyster

1. Olympia Oysters

Originally native to the West Coast, Olympia oysters are named after Olympia, Washington and were hugely popular during the California Gold Rush. Because they are so small, Olympia oysters are a fragile variety of oyster and are therefore protected and cultivated for markets and restaurants. In fact, 95% of the oysters we eat today are cultivated.

  • Olympia Oyster Taste: Mildly sweet and coppery notes upfront with a crisp finish
  • Olympia Oyster Shell Design: Usually the size of a coin, can range from a purple hue to one that’s brown and yellow, and has definitive ridges creeping up towards the top
  • Olympia Oyster Growing Region: America’s Pacific Northwest

Illustration of a Kumamoto Oyster

2. Kumamoto Oysters

Kumamoto oysters usually take around three years to grow, but their small size packs a punch in taste. Their name alone can attract the eyes of your customers, but labeling on your menu specifically where they come from can seal the sale.

  • Kumamoto Oysters Taste: Sweet, slightly melon-y, and creamy meat
  • Kumamoto Oysters Shell Design: Green and black hue with a bowl-shaped cup and defined, pointy edges
  • Kumamoto Oysters Growing Region: Japan, Southern China, and America’s West Coast

Illustration of a European Flat Oyster

3. European Flats (or Belon Oysters)

Although European Flat oysters are sometimes known as "Belon Oysters", it is not always correct to do so. Belon oysters are a type of European Flat, growing exclusively in the Brittany region of France. European Flats grow on the coastal regions of Europe, stretching all the way down to the coasts of Morocco.

  • European Flat Oyster Taste: Bold, salty brininess with a complementing minerality and slight crunch
  • European Flat Oyster Shell Design: Seaweed and gray color with a flat, saucer-like cup
  • European Flat Oyster Growing Region: Coastal regions in Europe and Morocco; Authentic Belon oysters are grown exclusively on the coast of Brittany, France

Illustration of a Sydney Rock Oyster

4. Sydney Rock Oysters

Also known as “Auckland Oysters” and “New Zealand Oysters”, Sydney Rock oysters grow in the Oceania region and can have a life span of up to 10 years. Although its most recognized namesake comes from Sydney, these oysters do not actually grow in the Sydney Harbor.

  • Sydney Rock Oyster Taste: Mildly sweet with metallic undertones
  • Sydney Rock Oyster Shell Design: Thick and smooth with tight waves along the curve of its shell
  • Sydney Rock Oyster Growing Region: New Zealand and Australia

Illustration of a Pacific Oyster

5. Pacific Oysters

Pacific oysters are the most sought-after and cultivated oyster. Originally native to the coast of Asia, Pacific oysters were brought to the US after the Olympia oyster suffered from over-harvesting. Pacific oysters made up the loss quickly, only taking around two years to reach a favorable size for patrons.

  • Pacific Oyster Taste: Sweet taste with a delicate, rich creaminess and buttery softness
  • Pacific Oyster Shell Design: Beautiful blue-gray hue, fluted edges, and a round, deep cut shell
  • Pacific Oyster Growing Region: Pacific Coasts of Asia and America, as well as Australia and New Zealand

Illustration of an Atlantic Oyster

6. Atlantic Oysters

Otherwise known as "Eastern Oysters", 85% of Atlantic oysters are harvested in the US alone. Due to this high percentage, they're also commonly known as "The American Oyster", and some states even use the Atlantic oyster as their state's shellfish or state shell!

  • Eastern Oyster Taste: Salty and briny with a chewy meat
  • Eastern Oyster Shell Design: Distinguishable paisley / pear outline
  • Eastern Oyster Growing Region: America’s East Coast and Gulf of Mexico

Pacific Oysters vs. Atlantic Oysters

In the US, there is a lot of debate from coast to coast on who has the best oysters. In reality, the oysters are beautifully different, each bringing their own unique shape and taste that keeps our taste buds on their toes. Pacific oysters are sweeter and plumper, with a round, deep cut shell that has beautiful fluted edges. Atlantic oysters are more salty and briny with a chewier meat. Their shells are generally narrower with a distinguishable paisley shaped outline.

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When Are Oysters in Season?

Oysters can be found on a restaurant's menu all year round, as most oysters are now farmed in temperature-monitored and toxin-free waters, rather than harvested in wild waters where algae can bloom.

How to Clean and Store Oysters

Fresh oysters on ice

Handling oysters properly and carefully as soon as they arrive to your kitchen is imperative to keeping the oysters alive. Oysters should be alive until they're served to keep them as fresh as possible.

How to Clean Oysters

Because oysters are found in muddy underwater conditions, they will have quite a bit of debris ingrained in their shells. The below steps will make sure you're only serving clean oysters to your customers.

  1. Place oysters in a colander in a sink with running water. If you have crushed ice, place a mound of it on top of the oysters. This will keep them cold and the ice will brush away dirt.
  2. After cleaning, scrub off any leftover mud or debris with a brush. Serve or prepare the oysters immediately after cleaning and soaking. Do not soak them in freshwater for too long or they will go bad.

How to Store Oysters

Unsure what to do with the arrival of your oyster shipment? Follow these steps to make sure you're handling the oysters correctly in order to keep them alive, as well as maintaining ServSafe guidelines.

  1. In a refrigerator, line a damp towel along a rimmed baking sheet.
  2. Place the oysters in a single layer along the towel, cup side down, and place another damp towel on top. The refrigeration method maximizes the shelf life of the oysters.
  3. You can also put the oysters on ice in the cooler they were shipped in.
  4. As per ServSafe guidelines, remember to keep the tag on file for 90 days. This tag is required by Federal and State laws in order to keep track of shellfish in case an outbreak or illness occurs in the US.

Oysters are easiest to open after they have been cooling for a few hours because the cold relaxes the muscles that usually keep the oyster’s shell tightly clamped down. If an oyster is already open before you try to open it, discard the oyster.

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How to Eat Oysters

Opened oysters with garnish

As such a delicate and complex bivalve, opening and serving oysters can be confusing for first-timers. Below we have laid out exactly how to go about opening and serving your oysters, so you can offer your guests the perfect oyster experience.

Opening Oysters

Shucking an oyster can be a tricky feat, but with the proper shucking knife, glove, and a little bit of practice, you'll be able to expertly shuck dozens of oysters during service.

  1. With a shucking knife and glove, place your oyster on one half of a clean towel and fold the other half to almost completely cover the oyster, leaving the hinge exposed.
  2. Insert the tip of the oyster knife into the hinge of the oyster.
  3. With gentle pressure, wiggle the knife into the shell and bring the knife towards yourself, keeping the knife along the top of the shell, unhinging the oyster's shell and abductor muscles.
  4. Once the top shell is unhinged, scrape the meat that's attached to the inside of top shell back into the bottom shell where the rest of the oyster's meat sits.
  5. Discard the top shell to the side.
  6. In one swooping motion, run your knife along the bottom part of the shell under the oyster's meat to detach it, then flip the oyster so the smooth part of the meat comes up to the top.
  7. Place on a bed of ice with other shucked oysters and serve.

Serving Oysters

With such a complex flavor profile, oysters have so many different ways to enhance their taste, whether that's through food or beverage pairings, cooking preparations, or no heat applications at all.

  1. Oysters are typically served raw on the half shell over a bed of ice and accompanied with a form of acid because it reduces the brininess.
  2. Oysters are usually paired with lemon wedges, or with a simple but complex mixture of red wine vinegar, shallots, and black pepper, otherwise known as a mignonette.
  3. Raw oysters also pair well with pomegranates, passion fruit, cucumber, and watermelon because they contrast an oyster's brackish flavor.
  4. Oysters are almost limitless with their gastronomical capabilities. Baking, smoking, broiling, frying, or stewing are all acceptable cooking applications.
  5. Famous recipes that put oysters as the star of the show include New Orleans-style po'boys, oysters Rockefeller, and oysters DuPont.
  6. Food pairings for oysters include caviar, mushrooms, fruits, and most types of fats like oils or hard cheeses work well with oysters because they cut the oyster's salinity.
  7. Serve your oysters with a wine pairing of Chablis or Champagne so the wine's brightness complements the oyster's brininess, or pick a Sancerre or Muscadet to match the oyster's minerality, crispness, and slight fruitiness.
  8. For a more casual fair, oysters pair well with heavy stouts because the drink’s rich texture and chocolatey notes complement the oyster’s brininess.
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With the help of this article, you will be able to know the different type of clams and oysters, their seasonality, how to clean and store them, and the many different ways to cook with them, or even shuck and serve them raw. A word of advice on these bivalves: clams and oysters live and thrive best through sustainable fisheries. Buying from suppliers that treat their mollusks’ habitat as a delicate ecosystem have the most premium tasting and freshest clams and oysters available. With so many kinds of each bivalve, responsibly adding these sea life delicacies to your menu is just as important as using them to make your next signature menu item. And rest assured, using clams and oysters will help you set your restaurant apart from your competition.

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