Steamers – dig in!

Winter 2023

By Jean Kerr
For Points East

Every Sunday, my husband and I watch a parade of clammers (the lucky few) walk by our house on their way to the clam flats at Brave Boat Harbor in Kittery, Maine. The licenses issued by the town are for clamming on Sundays and legal holidays from the first Sunday in December through the last Sunday in April. Most of us don’t think of steamers as a wintertime delicacy – they tend to be associated with summer. In fact, dating back to the 1800s, clam digging and public clambakes were a huge source of summer entertainment in New England.

But the Kittery winter clamming season makes sense, according to Kittery Shellfish Warden Chuck Moran. “Young clams are in their early growth stage during the summer. The small clams are above the mature clams, and there is a greater risk of killing or damaging the small clams. Also, he notes, “Red tide and other natural contaminants are more prevalent in warmer weather, and we would encounter more temporary closures due to rain in the summer.”

Why clamming has been considered an enjoyable pastime for so long is a bit of a mystery when you consider the physical labor of digging with a short, handled clam rake (very tough on one’s back) while standing in mud and sand in the middle of winter. But according to Moran, “People will dig for half an hour and spend an hour socializing. It’s quite a social scene.” Of course, the timing of the social hour is dependent on the rising tide.

In most of New England, digging for clams is tightly regulated in order to prevent overfishing – or, I should say, over-digging. The opening of flats is controlled by the Maine Department of Marine Resources with input from local communities and is based on the cleanliness of the water and a sustainable supply of the species.

Only certain areas are open at certain times. There is a maximum weight of clams harvested, and the clams must be at least two inches long. In my hometown, only 50 clams “licenses” are issued each year. These are divided between regular resident licenses (30) and otherwise divided into licenses for kids, (under 14) seniors, (over 70) and a small number of non-residents. While the licenses issued allow for the taking of oysters, quahogs and mussels, according to Moran, people gather soft-shell clams and not much else.

Now, for the delicious part. When digging into a bowl of steamers, remove clams from the shell, peel off the grey covering over the neck and discard. Then use the neck to swish each in the hot clam broth. This rinses and adds flavor. Then swirl in melted butter and devour.

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including, “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of Northeast Flavor Magazine and a regular contributor to Cruising World.

Steamed clams

Freshly dug clams will require several rinses to remove sand and sediment and several hours in cold salt water. I often do this with store-bought steamers as well – as no one likes sand in their melted butter.


  • 4 pounds of soft-shell clams
  • 1 cup bottled clam broth (optional)
  • 1 12-oz bottle or can of lager or other mild light beer
  • 2 teaspoons of sea salt
  • 3-4 cloves of minced garlic
  • Melted butter

Rinse and sort through the clams discarding any with broken shells and any that remain open after tapping them. Set aside.

In a large pot, combine bottled broth, beer, salt and garlic. Bring to a boil. Add drained clams and add water, so there are about two inches of liquid in the bottom of your pot. (You do want to steam them, not boil them. Cook briefly–just until the clams open wide and the flesh is opaque. Depending on the size of the clams, this can take from 5-10 minutes. (Try not to overcook as they can become rubbery.)

Remove clams when open and serve in a large bowl. Ladle out broth from the top of the pot, leaving any sediment behind. Serve each person a cup of clam broth along with melted butter.