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Clams vs mussels: The differences explained

These two delicious ingredients are more different than you think

Seafood pasta

For whatever reason, shellfish has a rather high-maintenance reputation. Perhaps it’s simply the lack of familiarity in many American households. Clams and mussels are indeed a delicious indulgence when dining out, but they are not necessarily a staple of weeknight dinners at home—at least, not necessarily in non-coastal states. Salmon or shrimp may be the fish that grace our tables on seafood night, but seldom mussels or clams. This may be because shellfish can be tricky and unfamiliar.

The truth is that both clams and mussels are impressive, delicious ingredients that are truly easy to prepare in a variety of ways. Whether steamed, broiled, baked, sauteed, or grilled, these beautifully briney little mollusks make for meals that feel elegant and sophisticated but with very little effort and usually a relatively small price tag. But what’s the difference between these two shellfish, and how are they best used in your dishes at home?

Clams vs mussels: Similarities and differences

Seafood pasta
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There are certainly many similarities between these two seafood favorites, enough so that they’re commonly confused. Along with oysters and scallops, both clams and mussels are bivalve mollusks that have a soft body resting inside a two-part hinged shell. Both cook quickly, popping open to signal that they are cooked and ready to eat. (It’s important to note that clams or mussels that fail to open in the cooking process should be discarded as this is an indicator that they have died prior to cooking and may lead to food poisoning.) Both clams and mussels are popular choices in seafood pasta, soups, baked preparations, as well as steamed and sauteed dishes.

While both clams and mussels are deliciously briney shellfish that make for beautiful seafood dishes, there are many differences between the two that distinguish each in appearance and flavor. Clams tend to be shorter and more oval-shaped—think of a typical “seashell” shape, and it’s more than likely a clamshell that comes to mind. Depending on the type, clams range in color from white to brown to grey.

Mussels are more whimsical in appearance, with a more oblong shape and often a deep purple to blackish hue to their shells. They also have one unique characteristic that clams lack—beards. The “beards” on mussels are clumps of thin fibers that mussels use to adhere themselves to rocks or other surfaces. It is important to remove these beards with a simple tug before cooking.

While comparable in taste, each of these shellfish brings its own unique culinary characteristics to the table. Clams tend to have a more potent, briny seafood flavor with a bit more texture to their chew. Mussels, on the other hand, are milder, slightly sweeter, and creamier in texture.

Types of clams

Clams
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While there are thousands of different varieties of clam worldwide, these are a few of the most common you’ll likely find in your local grocery store or fish market.

Steamer clams

“Steamers” are also known as soft-shell clams, as their shells are more fragile than those of other varieties. They are easy to find and absolutely delicious, simply steamed in white wine.

Manila clams

Popular in both Asian and Western cooking, manila clams are small and sweet, perfect for pasta and soups.

Quahog clams

So much more than just a Family Guy punchline, Quahog clams are actually a series of clams that include varieties such as countneck, littleneck, cherrystone, and chowder clams, designated according to their size. These versatile clams have a sweet, mild flavor with a perfect balance of brine.

Razor clams

These (almost comically phallic) clams are long, narrow, and beefier than many other clam varieties. Because of their meatier consistency, they’re often used in fried preparations.

Types of mussels

Mussels
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As with clams, the variety of mussels is immense. However, these are the most commonly eaten and easy-to-find varieties in the United States.

Blue mussels

Blue mussels are the most commonly consumed mussels in the United States, found in New England and off the West Coast. This deliciously sweet variety is extremely diverse and can be enjoyed in many ways. Our favorite preparation is steamed and served atop a bed of spaghetti squash.

Mediterranean mussels

Slightly larger than blue mussels, this particular variety comes from the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe. Because of their larger size, this variety is often served smoked or broiled but is also excellent when simply steamed.

New Zealand Green-Lipped mussels

Also known as simply the New Zealand mussel, this variety is larger than others and has a gorgeously green rim along the outside of its shell. These mussels are known for being plump and sweet and are absolutely delectable in just about any preparation.

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Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
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