When you hear a Pacific Northwesterner casually drop the term “clamming,” they’re probably not talking about the bivalves most of us enjoy tossed into spaghetti or served on the half-shell. They’re boasting about razor clams—the big, oblong ones you unearth from sandy shores with a shovel or gun, then quickly clean and (if you’re like most clammers) coat with bread crumbs and pan-fry, then serve with lemon and tartar sauce.
I moved from New Jersey to Seattle over 20 years ago to go to culinary school, and when I first heard my Seattle friends were taking their guns to the beach to hunt clams, no one could blame me for thinking that I’d relocated to the Wild West. These same friends, after all, had already taken me on a death march up the side of Mount Baker in a snowstorm, with steel-toothed crampons on my boots for traction. I had good reason to be afraid.
But I quickly discovered that the “gun” refers to a length of PVC pipe with a handle, which you wiggle into the wet sand, pulling up a core sample that, if properly extracted, will contain Siliqua patula, a.k.a. the Pacific razor clam. Gone was the image of me holding a Remington shotgun and pointing it hesitatingly at a bivalve on a sandy beach at night.
Still, that doesn’t mean my first time razor clamming, years ago in early December, wasn’t memorable—equal parts The Walking Dead meets Survivor, it’s the kind of experience one tells their grandkids about with bravado. A fine mist was falling, and the wind blew sand and water into psychedelic rivulets at my feet. A friend and I fell in line with other bundled-up, intrepid hunters as we trekked out toward the surf line in the pitch black, the collective light of our headlamps casting eerie shadows on the beach. Occasionally, a jeep would zoom down the beach; heads would lift up to watch, then drop back down, scanning left and right for the telltale quarter-sized, doughnut-shaped dimples in the sand that indicate a razor clam is hidden beneath the surface.
Since that night, I’ve learned a lot about the rugged approach Northwesterners take to their food—particularly their striking degree of savvy about stalking it in the wild, capturing it, and then, importantly, knowing how to clean and prepare it. The Pacific razor clam is a prime example. Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about this unique regional delicacy, guns and all.
What Is a Pacific Razor Clam?
The Pacific razor clam is not to be confused with the Atlantic razor clam (Ensis directus), which is narrow, rectangular, and more aptly named, given its resemblance to a straight razor. The Pacific razor clam, on the other hand, is beefy and ovoid, with far more protein. It’s the meaty equivalent of a Dungeness crab compared with the smaller blue crab, to put it in East Coast seafood terms.
The clams can grow as long as six inches, in contrast with the common Manila clam, which tops out at three to four inches. (Of course, razor clams are dwarfed in size next to the Pacific Northwest’s most famous clam, the geoduck. If you include its siphon, the geoduck can be over three feet long, making it a clam so immense—and phallic—that nearly two million people, presumably mostly 12-year-old boys, have viewed my educational video on the subject just to gawk and send it to their friends.) The greatest concentration of razor clams is found on the 53-mile stretch of shore on Washington State’s southern coast, where the flat, sandy beaches make an ideal habitat.
How to Gather Them
Razor clams are collected in the hours just before low tide, when the receding water leaves behind soft sand and the above-mentioned little dimples, or “shows,” appear where the clams have been digging downward. Physically incapable of moving sideways, razor clams occupy the shellfish equivalent of an elevator, spending their days going up a few floors for food, down a few for safety. (Sometime last year, you may have caught a viral video of a burrowing Pacific razor clam spurting a jet of wet sand, much to the delight and revulsion of many internet commenters.)
To harvest them, you’ll need boots, a clam gun or shovel, a shellfish license, a headlamp—many low tides occur after dark—and a net bag or bucket to store them in. You’ll also need to check any lingering self-consciousness at the door: When you spot one of those shows, you’ll have to spring into action, and let me tell you, the first few times I did this, it wasn’t pretty to watch. It takes a lot of leverage, wrist strength, butt-wiggling, and speed to plunge the gun into the sand, meaning you’ll look funny from the back, sides, and front. If you give in to any feelings of self-doubt, the clam will sense your vanity and get a head start on its escape. Never turn your back to the ocean, as rogue waves are a real risk. You want to angle the gun ever so slightly toward the ocean, and twist or plunge the tube like mad until the pipe is at least two feet down into the sand. If you hear a crunch, as I have numerous times, you definitely got one, but you also mangled it. You are required to keep it and count it toward your daily limit of 15. (Luckily, mangled clams are still edible.)
The thrill is in unearthing the big ones undamaged, and it’s especially exciting when you pull the core sample of sand up and out, kick it over to find nothing, and then see the clam in the hole, digging down like mad. Now’s the time to plunge your arm into the hole—be fearless!—and pull the clam up and out and into your net. And start planning your dinner, because you’re about to eat the best clams in the world.
If you need more advice (and encouragement), the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has a great video on tools and digging technique. And, if you’re not up for a wet-and-wild beach adventure, check out your local high-quality fish market to purchase razor clams cleaned and ready to go, or order them online.
How They Taste
I’m likely biased, but I think razors are among the tastiest of all the clams, with both tender and chewy parts that make for a more interesting texture. (They would have to be this good, or why else would I stand out in the rain with a bunch of other shellfish-crazy yahoos holding clam guns?) The flavor of the siphon and digger, the choice bits most harvesters are after, are exceptionally clean-tasting, a little saline, with just a passing hint of sweetness, as if you were kissing a mermaid. Some folks also eat the brown bits, which include the stomach; I remove them, as I’m not keen on the slightly muddy, metallic finish.
How to Clean Them
If you’ve bought your razor clams from the store, already cleaned and frozen or on ice, congratulations—you’ll have literally no cleaning work to do. Processors flash-freeze the clams after cleaning them thoroughly. Thaw them and use them within a day or two, or keep them in your freezer for months. Side-by-side tests I’ve done comparing flash-frozen razor clams with fresh ones I’ve caught myself convinced me that these frozen clams—at least, the brand I bought (I purchased them from Alaska-based Custom Seafoods)—are equal to fresh clams in flavor and quality.
If you’ve harvested them from the beach, though, you have some work ahead of you.
Step 1: Rinse
Before you get started, rinse off all the sand from the clams, then place them in a bucket with a damp cloth over the top while you work. Do not keep them in a bucket of seawater, as they will run out of oxygen and die.
Step 2: Remove the Shell
Right away, we have our first debate: Though some people blanch and shock the razor clams for five to 10 seconds, in order to pop open the shell and release the clam, I prefer to use a knife to cut open the shell. Blanching may be the easier method, but I don’t like precooking the meat this way; it overcooks so easily that I’d rather not heat it any more than necessary.
You’ll want a paring knife for this job—a clam knife, designed exclusively for opening hard-shell clams, is of no use to you here. You need a longer, sharper, and, most importantly, thinner blade. Slide the blade carefully along the inside of the shell, cutting just underneath the small, bay scallop–looking pieces (known as adductor muscles) that attach the clam to its shell. There are two of these on each side of the shell. If you accidentally leave them attached to the shell (whoops), cut them off and add them to the cleaned meat to cook—they’re tasty!
Once the shell is released, you can compost it, or boil it for a minute to sterilize it, then use the shell to serve the cooked meat in for fancy-presentation points.
Step 3: Cut Lengthwise
Using kitchen shears, cut off the tough and dirty tip of the siphon. Next, use the scissors to follow the zipper line of the meat up to the top, butterflying the first chamber of the siphon. Then butterfly the second side of the siphon. Rinse thoroughly, as sand and dirt tend to get caught in the siphon.
Step 4: Remove the Brown Bits (a.k.a. Internal Organs)
Cut or pull out the brown bits and the digger foot, or leave the digger foot attached if you want to cook the razor clam in its entirety. You’ll be left with the splayed-open siphons and an oblong-doughnut shape of razor clam meat. Press on the digger foot to push the stomach forward, then snip off the stomach and compost it.
You might see a translucent rod, known as the crystalline style, jutting out from the digger. This is used to break down the silica-like shell of the plankton the clams consume, and it’s both shocking and fascinating the first time you see it emerge. Resist the temptation to scream, even though it could be an extra in an Alien movie (but do look for it so you can pull it out because, ugh).
Step 5: Butterfly the Digger Foot
Next, butterfly the digger foot, rinse, and pull or cut out any brown bits. You might see a brown line, which is the clam’s intestinal tract. Get rid of that, too, by scraping it out with your knife.
Step 6: Pound the Meat (or Don’t)
To pound or not to pound? The siphon part of the clam is the tougher portion, and some prefer to pound it a bit between two pieces of parchment paper, using a meat mallet, to tenderize it. I’ve found that you can save time by skipping this step, and focus instead on not overcooking the clam. Plus, I enjoy the slightly chewier texture, especially in contrast with the more tender digger portion. If you do go the pounding route, make sure not to hit it too hard, so it remains intact.
Cleaned meat can be vacuum-sealed and frozen for about six months, or stored in a container in the fridge for a day. However, the meat is quite perishable. The best plan is always to grab some friends and clean and cook them the same day they’re caught—failing that, clean and freeze them immediately, if at all possible.
If you prefer to see the cleaning process in slower motion than our quick video above, this is the best video I’ve found online to help guide you.
How to Cook Them (i.e., How Not to Overcook Them)
As with littleneck or Manila clams, a prolonged cooking time will lead to rubbery and tough razor clams. If you’re pan-frying or deep-frying, cook them at very high heat, and make sure they’re in and out of the pan in under a minute. As the siphon portion is especially prone to overcooking, I sometimes separate it from the rest to give it a little less time on the heat. Alternatively, try poaching the clams in hot liquid or, even better, butter.
The tougher siphon meat is great in ceviche, while the tender digger makes for incredible fried clams, though both parts can be used in both dishes for a mix of textures. You can keep it simple and go classic Northwest style, dipping the cleaned clam meat in flour, then egg, and finally bread crumbs or panko, then shallow-frying them and serving with tartar sauce, lemon wedges, and hot sauce.
Or, take them in a more unusual direction: Shota Nakajima, chef and owner of Adana Restaurant in Seattle (and a recent contestant on Iron Chef Gauntlet), sears both parts quickly with minced ginger, mushrooms, and burdock root, then poaches them lightly in dashi, white soy sauce, and a pinch of butter. He garnishes the razor clams with the Japanese herb mitsuba—think celery meets chervil, though it looks like flat-leaf parsley. Chef and cooking teacher Michelle Nguyen steams them and serves them with crushed peanuts, basil, chilies, garlic, and fish sauce.
Ashlyn Forshner, chef and owner of Whidbey Island Bed and Breakfast (and the friend who first took me razor clamming), riffs on an excellent ceviche with razor clams she learned how to make at Elemental Restaurant in Seattle. “I chop the meat into medium dice and then add the juice of a lime, lemon, and orange, as well as the zest,” she told me the other day, as we were heading to the Olympic Peninsula to hunt for mushrooms. “Drizzle good, fruity olive oil on top, thinly slice some jalapeños into rings, and add those for heat.” She then lets it all mingle in the fridge for a few hours before serving. I whipped up a batch the other day, added bits of orange flesh and Maldon salt, and served it with crispy tortilla chips, and it was one of the best ceviche dishes I’ve ever had. I imagine it would be equally great with a bit of diced avocado as well.
And, if you want to put your razor clams to work in a wholeheartedly American preparation, I’ve attached my recipe here for razor clam chowder, adapted from a recipe published in the latest edition of my book Good Fish: 100 Sustainable Seafood Recipes From the Pacific Coast. Here, the key to avoid overcooking the delicate clam meat is to turn off the burner after cooking the rest of the chowder, then poach the clams gently, off the heat, for just one minute. This will ensure that you don’t miss out on the unique flavor and texture of this chowder’s most precious feature.