The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Shellfish
Love shellfish but don’t know the first thing about cleaning, shucking and cooking clams, mussels, oysters, and other bivalves at home? Don’t worry; you’re not alone.
Making a meal with shellfish can seem like an elaborate production, with so many steps and things to consider. To help you get off on the right foot, we’ve put together this essential guide on preparing shellfish at home.
Where and How to Buy Shellfish
When buying fresh shellfish at the market, ask the fishmonger for the freshest catch of the day. A good rule of thumb is to give them a sniff — shellfish should smell like the sea and nothing else. If you detect a strong fishy odor, that usually means they’ve been sitting around for too long.
You can also buy frozen shellfish, which will usually be flash-frozen at sea (when wild-caught) or in farms. Look for vacuum-sealed products — this process locks in their full freshness. Another benefit of buying frozen shellfish is that you rarely get any unusable product like empty shells or shells that won’t open, so nothing goes to waste.
It’s also a good idea to look for shellfish products with sustainability labels from organizations and programs such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council, or Best Aquaculture Practices. This means they come from farms and fisheries that observe sustainable and socially responsible practices.
Fresh shellfish are technically alive, so be sure not to smother them in a sealed plastic bag. What you can do is place them in a bowl with crushed ice covered with a clean, wet towel. Cook fresh shellfish within a day after purchase for best results.
Frozen shellfish will keep in the freezer for several weeks, provided they stay frozen throughout (i.e., not thawed and frozen again).
If you caught your clams or bought them fresh, you’ll first need to purge any sand in their stomachs.
- Simply place your bivalves of choice in a bowl and fill it with enough cool saltwater to cover all shells — clean seawater is best, but you can substitute it with a brine of 3.5% sea seal for everyone four cups of water. Avoid using freshwater as this will kill the shellfish.
- Soak for at least 15 to 30 minutes.
- Using a stiff brush, scrub the shells under cold running water, making sure to remove any barnacles using another shell.
- With mussels, remove the “beard” by grabbing it with your thumb and forefinger and tugging it toward the shell’s hinge. You can also use a knife to gently scrape away the beard.
Clams, oysters, and mussels that remain open at this point are likely to be alive. You can give them a light tap and wait for the shell to close up. If this doesn’t happen, discard the shells.
While you can always buy cooked mussels and clam meat, part of the fun of cooking with shellfish at home is shucking them yourself, especially when making dishes that require only the meat — think chowder or pasta sauce.
Here’s how to get it done.
- Place the shells on a baking sheet and in the freezer for around 10 minutes — this helps loosen the meat from the shells.
- Grip the shell firmly with a dish towel or a shucker’s glove, leaving the hinged side of the shell exposed. With oysters, keep the flat side of the shell facing upwards and the cupped side facing down.
- Take a dull paring knife and wiggle it in the hinge between the two shells, applying firm but gentle pressure.
- Twist and wiggle until the blade is inside. Slide the blade around and cut through the hinge until the shell opens.
- Slide the knife between the meat and shell to pry them apart. With oysters, make sure to keep the meat swimming in its natural juices.
Cooking with Shellfish
From here, you can proceed with your recipe’s directions. Clams, mussels, scallops, and oysters are versatile ingredients that can be cooked in just about any way imaginable. Be sure to check out PanaPesca’s range of recipes using our popular shellfish products.