Littleneck clams are members of the Veneridae family, a large family of mollusks that includes many commercially valuable species. “Littleneck” is not a taxonomic classification, and people use it in varying ways in different parts of the world to refer to several different clam species. This can be both confusing and irritating, although most clams referred to with this name share a number of characteristics that make them very similar on the table, although they are found in different regions of the world.
These clams are bivalve mollusks, meaning that they have a two part shell with a more or less symmetrical top and bottom. They are also roughly circular in shape, in contrast with more oblong edible mollusks like soft-shell clams. The shell is usually ridged, sometimes quite deeply, and it is pale gray to green in color. The inside houses the soft body of the clam, which is surrounded by watery blood, as clams and other mollusks have an open circulatory system.
People have eaten various mollusks for centuries, both raw and cooked and in a wide range of recipes. In the case of littleneck clams, people burrow for the shells in intertidal zones or estuaries, where the mollusks bury themselves in deep sand and mud, filtering tidal waters for nutrients and necessary oxygen. Clams can be steamed, fried, boiled, sauteed, or roasted as part of a stuffing in a larger animal like a turkey.
Littleneck clams are also hard shelled, meaning that their shells are firm and tough to crack. So-called “soft-shelled” clams have more brittle shells that are subject to breakage, although they are far from soft in the conventional sense. In some regions of the world, people refer to small versions of quahog clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) as "littleneck." In the Pacific Northwest, many people call the Pacific Clam (Prothothaca staminea) a “common littleneck.”
When it comes to eating mollusks, smaller is often better, as smaller ones will be less chewy. The same holds true with littleneck clams, also known as steamer clams. When shoppers are choosing clams to eat, they should look for medium sized to small specimens, rather than going for the biggest clams they see. Clams should be alive at the time of purchase; this means that that their shells will snap shut when tapped. Ideally, cooks should store clams under refrigeration in a colander or another device that drains readily, allowing the bodily fluids to drain away rather than accumulating.