The Different Types Of Clams, Explained

Here's how to navigate the clam family

At this time of year, clams are kind of our jam. We track them down from shack to shack, dock to fishmonger, and eat them by the bushelful, steamed, stuffed, fried and chowdered until we've gotten our fill for the season.

The terminology used around these briny bivalves can put any seafood lover in a stew—and can vary from region to region—so we've culled together a guide of the most common kinds and how they're ideally enjoyed, so you can be as happy as a well . . . you know.

Steamers: These plump, soft-shelled beauties are native to the Northeast, and they pick up their nickname from the way they're most frequently prepared—rinsed lightly of their grit, then softly steamed in salty water. Many vacationers and locals make a hobby of digging for them along New England beaches (make sure you get a permit before trying this!), but they're also plentiful by the pound at fish markets during the season. 

Ipswich clams—steamers that are native to a particular stretch of clam flats in the Great Marsh—are especially well suited to frying (get the recipe), owing to their especially creamy belly meat and pleasantly chewy siphon, which the clam uses to eat while it's burrowed in the sand.

Littlenecks: These little guys are on the smaller side of the quahog family (a blanket term for a variety of hard-shell clams that vary in size) and are wee, sweet and pretty marvelous served raw on their hard half shells. Plenty of people love them steamed simply with beer or wine and a few herbs (tip: If any don't open up within 10 minutes of cooking, toss them overboard), but our food editor argues that their best and highest purpose is to be boiled alongside potatoes, spicy linguiça and corn in a traditional Portuguese-meets-New-England-style clam boil (get the recipe).

Cherrystones: So those aforementioned quahogs—cherrystones are a size up from littlenecks. They're a bit less tender but still a raw-bar staple and perhaps even more popularly served grilled on the half shell in preparations like the oh-so-retro, bacon- and bread-crumb-packed clams casino or slipped into pasta sauce. And did we mention chowder? Cherrystones are the ideal clams for the classic New England dish.

Topnecks: And those quahogs again—and a little bit of controversy. According to some charts, topnecks are a little bit bigger than cherrystones (the biggest—simply called "quahogs" come in at two to three per pound, making them a perfect vehicle for "stuffies"). On others, the count (which can also be by weight or by clams to the bushel) puts the cherrystone on the larger side. Some just use the terms interchangeably. Nevertheless, the two tend to get a lot of similar culinary treatment, and their size and heft makes them especially well suited for grilling and baking on the half shell.

Razor clams: Switch it up and call them "jackknives" if you care to—these long, smooth-shelled clams stand up straight in the sand and might need a little extra effort to remove the grit (here's how to do that properly), but it's entirely worth it. They're great for broiling, baking, and stuffing, but we love them best simply steamed and served with a little butter and lemon for the cleanest clam flavor.

Cockles: Less commonly found (but awfully fun to talk about), cockles are easy to identify by their characteristic fan-fluting from the hinge to the edges. Though they can be eaten raw, they're perhaps at their best when they're lightly steamed and served with butter and lemon to highlight their fantastically briny flavor. A good long soak is often necessary to fully abolish any sand.