The Best Soft-Shell Clams Make The Best Steamers

We have an old expression you still hear sometimes in Gloucester. When you know someone who is a cut above the rest, doesn’t brag or complain, they are the “finest kind.” My friend Shep Means is one such individual. I’ve never seen the guy without a smile, even after a day digging 200 pounds of soft-shell clams. He’s one hell of a guy and knows his seafood beyond clams, fished commercially on both coasts and can be seen on local and the occasional national TV show.

For the last two years he’s set up a cool little exhibit for us at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum called “Clammer’s Corner” which gives a nice overview to visitors about what the clamming industry, especially the soft-shell clam, means to Essex and the surrounding area. I happened to be in the Museum yesterday when Shep, fresh from the clam flats on the Gloucester side of the line pulls up and gives my family a nice load of clams for steamers tonight. What a guy! He puts time in to make the exhibit for us, he buys my cookbook, and now my wife and I get to pig out on steamers. Shep, you are the finest kind.

So, what am I going to do with these soft-shelled clams? Steam them in beer of course…and I’ll throw an onion in there too, but I like my steamers simple. Most of my life, eating steamers with my family or my buddies looked like when a pack of wolves taking down a buffalo. But with just the two of us eating them I probably won’t have to throw any elbows.

Purging Soft-Shell Clams

There are some who swear by adding corn meal or salt to the water to help them get rid of their sand, but I’m not really convinced. Feel free to try it, at worst it won’t do anything. I’ve read online how some keep them overnight in fresh water, which sounds to me like a good way to kill them.

Essex soft-shell Clams

Usually, we ate them sand and all or if time allowed hang them off a pier in a mesh bag, which is the best way to purge soft-shell clams. A friend of mine hangs his steamers for at least 2 days and they are the cleanest I’ve ever had. I don’t have that luxury so I’m just soaking mine in cold tap water for an hour or two.

Steaming Liquid for Your Steamers

You can steam the soft-shell clams in a variety of liquids from tap water to sea water, wine or in this case, beer. I do like hard shell clams and mussels in wine, but steamers need beer. Especially a cheap beer, like you would bring to the beach, it screams that summertime is here.

Gansett Tallboy

Depending upon how big your pot is and how many clams, anywhere from a can or two should be enough. I’ll be using a tallboy of Narragansett Lager to steam the clams. The reason to use a cheap beer is that they are usually lighter in flavor and complement the brininess of the clam liquor and not overpower it. What you end up with is a flavorful broth that lets the clams natural flavor shine.

Steamed Soft-Shell Clams in Beer

Recipe by Buying SeafoodCuisine: Seafood, AppetizerDifficulty: Easy
Prep time




Cooking time



This really isn’t a recipe, merely a set of guidelines to make steamers. Adjust as you see fit based on how many clams you have.


  • 1-2lbs Soft-shell clams – aka “Steamer Clams”

  • 1 can of “cheap” Beer (something you would drink at the beach)

  • 1 medium sized Onion

  • 1 stick of Butter

  • chopped fresh Parsley (optional)


  • Rinse the clams and check for dead ones. Place clams in a bowl and cover with cold water to purge sand for at least an hour.
  • Put the clams, onion and beer in a large stock pot and turn up the heat.
    Steamers in the pot
  • Once its boiling let the clams steam around 10 minutes. Keep an eye on them because once they are open, they are done.
  • Put some steamers in a bowl or bring out the whole pot and go “family style.” put out a bowl or two for the empty shells and the skins from the clam necks.
  • Melt the butter in a microwave safe container.
  • Pour off some of the broth to wash remaining grit off your clam before a dunk in melted butter.


  • Steamer clams don’t close tightly, and you will hear them squeaking as you handle them. You can eat clams with broken shells if they are still alive, but if they are not moving or are really broken up, discard them.
  • Don’t be ashamed to dunk a piece of crusty bread in that broth once the clams are gone. Or if you want to go “old-school” take a shot of that warm broth, it supposed to be a good hangover cure as well.

The Verdict

Do you really have to ask? They were ambrosia, fit for the gods. The steamers were perfect, and we had just enough, there were only 2 strays left by the end. And to think this delicious surprise traveled only a couple of miles from the flats to my stove. Thanks to Shep, there is no going back now, summer has officially arrived! Do you love soft-shell clams? Let us know in the comments.