Why This Recipe Works
- Using the clam cooking liquid in the stuffing moistens the filling and intensifies the clam flavor.
- Using your hands to thoroughly combine and mash the bread and clam mixture avoids an over-processed texture.
Coastal New England holds a special place in my heart. Much of its rustic coastline is pristine, with green pastures and farmland bounded by old stone walls straight out of a Jane Austin novel. It’s where I fell in love with my husband many years ago (pre-kids) on our many weekend escapes from Boston to the quaint coastal farming town of Westport in Massachusetts’ South Coast. And (slightly) less significant, it’s where I also fell in love with baked stuffed clams.
There’s a lot to love about New England–style stuffed clams. They have the comfort and heartiness of a bread-based stuffing, permeated with a briny clam essence, savory aromatics, and the final pep of lemon, all mixed together, baked, and charmingly presented in a large clam shell. You’ll find versions of stuffed clams in seafood shacks, restaurants, and home kitchens along the New England coastline, close to the towns where the clams are dug up.
Since my love-at-first-bite experience, I’ve sought out and have enjoyed many stuffed clams in seafood shacks from northern Maine all the way down through southern coastal towns in Rhode Island (just a stone’s throw from my beloved Westport). While most consist of the common elements described above, the flavor profile, ratio of ingredients, and texture of the stuffing can vary with each version.
The version I seek out the most, and that inspired this recipe, is the Rhode Island–style of stuffed clams, lovingly known in Li’l Rhody as “stuffies.” What makes this version unique to Rhode Island is the Portuguese influence with the addition of chouriço, which is smoked and cured and loaded with garlic and paprika. Along with the added sausage, garlic, paprika, and bell pepper are commonly found in chouriço stuffies. The briny clams combined with the smoky and rich sausage is, in my opinion, a perfect pairing.
It’s little surprise that Rhode Island–style stuffies would have a strong Portuguese influence. Rhode Island has the densest Portuguese population in the country. When waves of Portuguese immigrants came to Rhode Island in the late 19th century, they sought jobs working in factories, fishing, and later in clamming.
While the large hard shell clams known as quahogs (pronounced coe-hog) can be found up and down the east coast, they are especially abundant in Rhode Island, with Narragansett Bay the epicenter of the clamming industry in Rhode Island, and a major part of the state’s local economy. With Portuguese immigrants at the helm of the clam-digging boats, it’s logical that many recipes using the clams would have a strong Portuguese influence.
It’s important to note that even within the borders of this tiny state, it seems that there are as many variations of stuffies as there are clam shacks and restaurants where they are served. In casual conversations with friends from Rhode Island I’ve been told that some “old timers” believe a stuffie should taste of nothing more than clams with breadcrumbs. While on the other end of the spectrum I’ve experienced cheffy restaurant versions that rely on a medley of added vegetables and spices.
In my recipe here for chouriço stuffies, I’ve aimed for a stuffie that remains clam-forward, but its flavor is well supported by a medley of Portuguese-inspired flavors. The clams are steamed until just opened, then chopped and mixed with oven-dried bread, aromatic vegetables, and chouriço that’s cooked in a copious amount of butter, fresh herbs, and bound together with clam broth and a final hit of lemon juice.
Selecting and Preparing Your Clams
Clearly, the most important ingredient in this recipe are the clams themselves. Hard-shell clams are divided and named by size. From smallest to largest: Count neck (popularly known as the littleneck clam) is the smallest, followed by top neck, cherrystone, and, finally, the big boys called quahogs. The name quahog is most common in New England; elsewhere they’re often just called “chowder clams.” They’re roughly the size of my palm (averaging around three to five inches in diameter), and weigh in at ten to sixteen ounces each.
When selecting quahogs for this recipe, choose ones that are roughly the same size. Since the stuffing is served in the shells, having similar sized shells makes for an ideal presentation and ensures a consistent serving size for each person. Plus, the clams will steam open in roughly the same amount of time, ensuring the clams will be evenly cooked.
Another important rule when purchasing clams (any seafood, really) is to go by smell. Clams are purchased while still alive, and should smell like the ocean. If it smells fishy or funky, no good. Also look for clams with their shells tightly closed. Gently tap the shells of any open clams and wait a few seconds; discard any that remain unresponsive and gapping open, because they are dead (or near enough), and you don’t want that. Lastly, avoid cracked shells.
Once selected, clams should be stored in an open mesh bag or with damp paper towels or newspapers over top, set in a bowl, on top of another bowl that’s filled with ice. The idea here is that you want to keep the clams alive as long as possible by letting them breathe and keeping them as cold as possible, without the risk of them submerging for too long in fresh water and prematurely dying. They should hold this way for about three days. Technically they may last longer, but I wouldn’t push it.
I can’t stress this next point enough: Although time consuming, purging clams is absolutely necessary. Purging is a simple process that removes any interior sand from the clams, ensuring you won’t encounter any gritty bites. If you think a hard scrub of the clams’ exterior shells is enough to properly clean them before cooking, then I guarantee you are running a high risk of getting a mouthful of sand. You’ve got to take the time to purge your clams.
To purge clams, I submerge them in salted water for 30 to 60 minutes. I once had a chef I worked for years ago in a restaurant on Washington state’s coastline tell me that you should try to match the water temperature with the environment the clams were living in. So if you are using clams caught in warm summer New England water, you should recreate that temperature environment when purging. I’ll be honest, I never followed these guidelines exactly, and am not even sure what the logic is (they’ve likely been refrigerated or on ice for a while already!). I’ve always stuck with cool room temperature (60 to 70 degrees), and I have had consistent results.
I use a ratio of two tablespoons of kosher salt for every quart of water (about three-percent salinity) for purging. If the bottom of the container is clear of sand after that time, go ahead and cook them. If there’s sand on the bottom of the container, lift the clams out, drain and rinse the container, then fill it up again with fresh salted water and drop the clams back in. Do this as many times as necessary until they stop spitting out sand. Only then are they ready to cook.
Cooking the Clams
There is some debate over whether to cook clams once or twice with stuffies. I’ve seen recipes argue that the only way to make stuffies is to first shuck the raw quahogs, capture and save their juice (to later moisten the filling), and finely chop the raw clams before folding into the filling and baking. This is the “cook once” approach.
I understand the concern and instinct to only cook the clams through once. It reduces the risk of overcooking the clam meat into a tough, leathery chew toy of sorts. But shucking the giant hard-shell clams always feels a bit risky, and requires a lot of upper arm strength, even for an experienced shucker like myself.
I found in testing that cooking the clam meat twice (once to steam the clam open to access the meat, then twice when baked in the stuffing) returned great results, without the unnecessary risk of stabbing your hand while trying to shuck open a dozen monster-sized clams. Once the cooked clam meat is finely chopped and folded into a rich buttery sausage laced filling, there is no discernible unwanted tough texture. The twice-cooked clam meat actually offered a welcome bit of bite in contrast to the soft bread-based stuffing.
Admittedly, this is a fair amount of work to get to the clam meat. If you want to avoid dealing with the clams, I have found that a good seafood monger (at least in my experiences in Massachusetts and Rhode Island) will sell you chopped raw quahog clam meat with already cleaned shells to make stuffies at home. If you choose to go this route, you can skip steps 2 through 4 in the recipe, then add about 2 cups of the raw clam meat with the onion mixture when cooking; bottled clam juice, meanwhile, can be used in place of the clam cooking broth.
Making the Stuffing
Once the clams and their shells are prepared, the rest of the stuffing comes together fairly easily. Onion and bell pepper are sautéed along with the chouriço in a large amount of butter until tender and the butter has taken on a smoky flavor and rusty hue. A quick bloom of garlic, paprika, and fresh thyme round out the aromatics for the stuffing.
As with many other bread-based dishes, stuffed clams came into existence to stretch budgets and to provide carb-rich meals for hard-working fishermen, farmers, and other long-day laborers. Recipes reflect this by often calling for a range of pantry-friendly binder options. While breadcrumbs or your preferred cracker would make a perfectly fine stuffie, I prefer using oven-dried bread here. The dried bread cubes soak up the infused clam brine and bind well with the clams and aromatics for a stuffing that remains moist inside yet crisps on the outside during baking.
I’ll admit it, the former line cook in me really wanted to douse the clams in white wine while steaming them open. But white wine is a little too out of place for the humble stuffie. Every version of stuffed clams I’ve had in New England always use lemon for a hint of acidity. It cuts through the richness of all the added butter nicely.
All these stuffies need is a final wedge of lemon, a simple red hot sauce like Tabasco, and an ice cold beer. And a pristine coastal New England view wouldn’t hurt.
Rhode Island–Style Stuffed Quahog Clams (“Stuffies”)
These large quahog clams are stuffed with a Portuguese-influenced mixture of bread, briny clams, and smoky chouriço.
- 1 pound high-quality white sandwich bread or soft Italian or French bread (450g; about 1 loaf), cut into 3/4-inch dice (about 2 1/2 quarts) (see notes)
- 12 quahog clams (about 8 pounds; 3.6 kg), purged and scrubbed (see notes)
- 1 stick unsalted butter (4 ounces ;113g)
- 1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion (4 ounces; 113g), from 1/2 medium yellow onion
- 1/2 cup finely diced green bell pepper (4 ounces; 113g), from 1/2 medium green bell pepper
- 3 ounces Portuguese-style chouriço or Spanish-style chorizo, casing removed and finely diced
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika, optional (see notes)
- 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh lemon juice, plus lemon wedges for serving
Adjust oven rack to middle position. Heat oven to 275°F (130°C). On a rimmed baking sheet, spread bread in a single even layer and bake, rotating sheet and stirring bread cubes several times during baking, until bread is completely dried, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool, then transfer to a large bowl; set aside. Increase oven temperature to 400°F (200°C).
In a large Dutch oven, bring 3 cups (710ml) water (should measure about 1-inch deep) to a boil. Add clams and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until clams open, 8 to 12 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove clams from water as they open and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet to cool.
Measure 2 cups (475ml) of the clam cooking liquid and set aside. Reserve remaining clam broth for another use or discard (see notes). Wipe Dutch oven clean with a paper towel.
Working with one clam at a time, use a paring knife to carefully separate the clam meat from the shell. Transfer clam to cutting board. Separate the now-empty top shell from the bottom shell at the hinge. Discard the top shell and rinse the bottom shell under water to remove any shell fragments. Transfer the cleaned bottom shell to a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with remaining clams. Finely chop the clam meat into roughly 1/8- to 1/4-inch pieces; set aside.
In the now-cleaned Dutch oven, melt butter over medium-high heat just until foaming subsides (do not allow butter to brown), about 2 minutes. Add onion, bell pepper, and chouriço, and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened and chouriço begins to crisp and render its fat, 7 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, paprika (if using), and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Off heat, stir in 1 1/2 cups (355ml) of reserved clam broth, minced clams, lemon juice, and parsley. Let cool slightly, about 10 minutes.
Pour clam mixture into the bowl with bread croutons and stir until well combined. Squeeze bread between your fingers or mash with a spoon until a homogenous mixture is formed, no dry spots remain, and about half of bread pieces are broken down to a coarse paste-like consistency. If mixture is too dry, add remaining 1/2 cup (120ml) broth, 1 tablespoon at a time, as needed. Mixture should be moist but not wet. You should have about 4 cups of filling.
Divide stuffing among reserved cleaned clam shells (about 1/3 cup each). Bake until stuffing is heated through and golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges.
Large Dutch oven
Stale bread may be substituted for fresh. Use 1 1/2 quarts stale bread and skip step 1.
Quahog clams are large hard-shell clams. They are sometimes sold as “chowder clams.”
To purge clams, submerge them in a large container of salted cold water (about 3% salinity) and let stand for 30 minutes. Lift out clams. If there is no sand in the bottom of the container, they’re ready to scrub and use. If there is sand, drain and rinse the container, fill with fresh salted water, and return clams for 30 more minutes. Continue this process until the water is clear and free of sand.
If you want to avoid steaming the clams and cleaning the clam shells in this recipe, a good fish monger will sell you chopped raw quahog clam meat, and already cleaned shells to make stuffies at home, just call in advance and ask. If you choose to go this route, skip steps 2 through 4 in the recipe. Add 2 cups of raw clam meat with the onion mixture to saute and cook through. Substitute bottled clam juice in place for the clam cooking broth.
Unused clam broth can be cooled down and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.
The amount of seasoning and paprika in chouriço can vary greatly. If you are using a deep rich red chouriço that has a strong paprika aroma, you might not want to use the additional paprika in the recipe.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The clam shells filled with stuffing can be covered and refrigerated, prior to baking, for up to 2 days or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight before baking.