Live Clams & Mussels: Storage, Brining and Steaming

Preparing Fresh Mussels for storage

Preparing Fresh Mussels for storage

by Cat, August 2012 (photo, right, by Cat)

See also: 1. Steamed Mussels with Pasta and Vegetables

Includes: 1. Storage of live clams & mussels; 2. Brining live clams & mussels; 3. Debeard Mussels; 4. Shucking Clams & mussels; 5. Steaming clams & mussels;

Storage of Live Clams & Mussels:

The following is from Clam Storage and Selection (1)

Live clams & mussels still in the shell should be stored in the refrigerator in a dampened cotton bag or in a bowl covered with a wet cloth. Never store on ice or in sealed plastic container, nor submerged in water, as they will die from lack of oxygen and their own waste.

While they are best used within 24 hours, they will last a few days in the refrigerator if stored properly. Discard any that are dead or have broken shells.

To test for life: Tap the shell of any one that has opened; if it does not immediately close,  or if you can easily open/close the shell yourself, it is dead.

Similarly, when steaming them, their shells will open as they die; tap the shell to see if it closes — if it does, it is not yet dead and needs to be steamed a bit longer.

Shucked clams should be plump and have a fresh smell, and seem heavy for their size. Their juice should be clear with no shell fragments. Discard any with the odor of ammonia.

Brining Clams, Mussels

Brining Mussels

Brining Mussels

This takes such a short amount of time, and helps to clean sand and grit from inside the shell before cooking.

  1. Use enough water to cover mussels in bowl. Add salt at concentration of 4 tsp Kosher salt per quart of cool filtered water (or ⅓ cup Kosher salt per gallon water)
  2. Inspect and clean mussels or clams, tossing any that are dead or damaged. See “Test for Life” above in the storage section.
  3. Place good ones in a bowl; pour salted water over and brine 15 minutes in the refrigerator.
  4. Transfer to a strainer over the sink, and rinse well with cold water.

Debeard Mussels

The ‘beard’ is the mussel’s thin, sticky membranes they use to attach themselves to surfaces (like boats, docks, etc.). Farmed mussels should already be debarred, but if you find one that still has a beard, or if you are using fresh-caught wild mussels, you can debarred them as follows (from Serious Eats (5)):

Grasp the ‘beard’ between your thumb and forefinger and pull it downwards towards the hinged-end of the mussel shell. Pull firmly until it comes out and discard. If you have trouble gripping the beard with just your fingers, a dry paper towel can help.

Shucking Clams or Mussels:

One method is to steam the clams/mussels until they are dead (see below). They can then easily be removed from the shell.

Another method, from Man and Mollusc (4):

  1. First put them in freezer for 5 minutes, to loosen their hold on the shell.
  2. Then work over and empty bowl to collect any juices. Hold shell in your hand with the things toward your palm. Insert a thin, dull knife (never a sharp kitchen knife) between the top and bottom shells. Work the knife around, so you can cut through the things.
  3. Open the shell slide the knife between the clam and the top shell.
  4. Detach the clam by sliding the knife between it and the bottom shell.

Steamed Clams or Mussels:

These instructions are from Timeless Gourmet (2), which has excellent photos, and WikiHow (3).

Ingredients & Equipment:

– Steamer clams or mussels, in the shell
– Water or other liquid sauce. For example, you can add the following to the water (for 3 lb of clams):

    • 2 slices onion
    • ¼ tsp thyme or other herb
    • 2 sprigs parsley
    • 2 Tbsp lemon juice or wine
    • tomato pulp
    • unsalted butter
    • Unrefined sea salt


1. Inspect clams/mussels and remove those that are dead or have broken shells (see above). At this point you can rinse well in cold water; or you can brine them first and then rinse (to encourage them to give up any sand and grit). See above for brining instructions.

2. You need about 1/4″ (or more) of simmering liquid in the bottom of the cooking pan. If steaming in water, bring the water to a boil, then simmer. If steaming in a sauce, it should have been at a boil during the making, then reduced to simmer.

3. Add rinsed clams/mussels to simmering pot; cover and cook 5 – 10 minutes, until the shells have opened up. Discard any whose shells have not opened.

4. If you steamed them in water, save this clam broth for dipping the cooked clams (to remove sand and grit, which sinks to the bottom of the broth bowl). If you steamed them in a sauce, the sauce will pick up the flavor of the clam broth, but the sand has no where to go but into the sauce. The watery the sauce, the better, as the sand will sink to the bottom where you can avoid it.


  1. Homecooking: Clam Storage and Selection:
  2. Timeless Gourmet on how to cook, clean and eat a New-England steamer clam:
  3. WikiHow on steaming clams:
  4. Man and Mollusc on clam preparation (
  5. Serious Eats on cleaning and debarring mussels:

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