How to Clean and Cook With Clams, Mussels, and Cockles

Follow four easy steps to ensure your mollusks are sand-free.

Clams, mussels, and cockles
Photo: The Ellaphant in the Room

When rushing to pick up seafood for dinner, there’s a whole world of choices beyond fish and shrimp. While clams, mussels, and cockles may not be top of mind, perhaps they should be: They're nutritious, sustainable, versatile, and cook up quickly. Need we mention they're delicious? Learn more about what they are, how to cook with them, and—more importantly—how to clean them so they taste great.

What Are They?

Clams, mussels, and cockles are marine bivalve mollusks—an exclusive club that also boasts scallops and oysters as members—that are found in freshwater and saltwater. Each has a shell structure of two valves (or halves) attached by a hinge they can open and close.

The lessor-known cockle, which is actually a type of clam, is the smallest of our mollusk trio (about the size of a quarter). Less briny-tasting than most other shellfish, its pea-sized nugget adds a delicate flavor to pasta or rice dishes. It is more often served as a garnish than a main event.

Clam and Mussel Benefits

Clams, mussels, and cockles are high in saturated fat and low in cholesterol, making them mainstays of the "Unlimited" column on many diet plans' allowable-food lists. In the nutrition world, these low-calorie protein powerhouses are prized for their high zinc levels and contributions to overall immune health.

Aside from their dietary value, each of these mollusks are farmed sustainably in the U.S. They grow quickly and easily, take up very little room, don’t require waste-producing fertilizer or feed, and filter nutrients from the water, leaving their environment cleaner than they found it.

How to Clean Them

Nothing ruins a bowl of clams, mussels, or cockles like a broth full of grit. Follow four easy steps to properly clean and purge sand from these shellfish and keep it where it belongs: between your toes, on vacation.

Step 1: Rinse

Rinse shellfish under running water to remove loose sediment, discarding any with broken or open shells. (Healthy shellfish close their shells when firmly tapped.)

Step 2: Transfer

Transfer shellfish to a large pot of cold salted water (like their natural environment) and then refrigerate, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.

Step 3: Lift

Just before cooking, carefully lift the shellfish out of the water by hand without disturbing any sediment remaining at the bottom of the pot. Mussels sometimes have small, fibrous "beards," which you should pinch off.

Step 4: Spoon

After cooking, spoon (don't pour) out the delicious juices when serving. Any grit released during cooking will fall to the bottom of the cooking liquid, where it should stay.

How to Cook With Them

It only takes a short blast of boiling water or hot steam for the slimy insides of clams, mussels, and cockles to turn solid, making them an obvious go-to for a quick-yet-elegant weeknight dinner. Add them to a classic chowder, seafood stew, or paella, or highlight them in a simple butter, garlic, or white wine sauce.

To showcase cooked mollusks at their best, it's as simple as this: Toss them in pasta along with a glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a pinch of fresh herbs. To change things up, try one of our mollusk-forward recipes, swapping clams, mussels, and cockles interchangeably (for cockles, use two to three times the amount):

How to Shop for Them

The only way to ensure your seafood purchase comes from a reputable supplier is to shop at a store that displays sustainable seafood certifications, which incentivize seafood producers to adopt environmental-friendly practices. If you don’t see certification logos on seafood at your store, it certainly doesn't hurt to ask for certified sustainable options. 

At the store, look for clams, mussels, and cockles that are live at the point of purchase, smelling fresh with shells closed. If any shells are open, a good tap against a hard surface should encourage them to close. Discard any that remain open.

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