What are Littleneck Clams?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Littleneck clams.
Littleneck clams.

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.

Clams should be stored in a refrigerated area in a colander to stop liquids from pooling.
Clams should be stored in a refrigerated area in a colander to stop liquids from pooling.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@ ValleyFiah- I like to cook steamer clams in a sauté pan over a grill. I usually use little necks or cherry stone clams that I presoaked in brine to get rid of the sand.

I heat the pan over the fire and sauté butter, garlic, parsley, and shallots in the pan. Once these ingredients are cooked, I add the clams and pour a half bottle of dry white wine into the pan. I cover the pan and shake gently every couple of minutes. When you start to hear the clams pop, they are almost ready. Once they have all opened, they are ready to eat.

Just be sure to cull all the dead and damaged clams before you start or they will stink up your pot.


When cleaning little neck clams, it is always best to clean them just before you use them. You can also use the cleaning as an opportunity to make the clam bellies plumper.

Take your clams and use a nailbrush to scrub the shells in cold water. Once scrubbed clean, cover the clams with cold water and add a few cups of panko breadcrumbs to the container. Let them sit for about a half hour, and rinse.

The clams will eat the breadcrumbs, expelling any sand particles and contaminants in the process. The breadcrumbs will also stay in the clam bellies, making for plump clams that really absorb flavors.


A few little neck clams are a nice addition to a Paella Valencia. They are small and tender, and will soak up the flavor of the stock, saffron, and olive oil. The shells also make a nice spoon for scooping the paella from the bottom of your dish!

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