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A cherrystone clam is a hard shell clam that is native to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, on the east coast of the United States. It derives its name from its natural habitat in the Cherrystone Creek watershed. As hard shell clams go, the cherrystone variety is on the larger end of the spectrum, and its flesh is tougher than smaller varieties. Cherrystones are popular in cooking, but are typically used in chowders and clam cakes, or are fried and added to other seafood dishes.
These clams are one of many different types of clams that are harvested and sold at seafood markets around the world. They are part of the hard shell family, which means that their shells are tough, durable, and can withstand some pressure and rough tides. These sorts of clams live deep beneath the ocean’s surface.
Clams are usually named after their natural habitats. Manila clams, for instance, are native to the Philippines, Littleneck clams come from Long Island’s Littleneck Sound, and Quahogs come from a Rhode Island bay originally named by Native Americans. Cherrystone clams are no different. Virginia’s Cherrystone Creek watershed, part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, produces a large cherrystone clam harvest every year.
Recreational clammers in these waters can catch cherrystone clams almost year-round. Most of the clams sold commercially are professionally farmed, however. The watershed is home to numerous farming outlets that cultivate the shellfish in their natural habitat. It usually takes about three years for a cherrystone clam to reach maturity. If left undisturbed, these specimens can often live upwards of 40 years, but in a farming scenario they are usually harvested as soon as they hit maturity.
A cherrystone clam is similar to a littleneck clam in a great many respects. Some seafood distributors sell cherrystone clams as “Virginia littlenecks,” or “cherrystone littlenecks.” A cherrystone clam is usually slightly larger than a typical littleneck, however, usually measuring about 2.5 inches (about 6.4 cm) across. They can also be slightly tougher.
Usually, the smaller a clam, the more tender its meat will be. This is important to keep in mind when looking to swap cherrystones for littlenecks in a recipe. A littleneck that is steamed or boiled for immediate consumption may be more tender and flavorful than a cherrystone clam prepared in the same way.
Cooks often use cherrystones in clam chowder, stuffed in clams casino, or minced into clam cakes. They can also be grilled, roasted, and fried quite successfully. Their larger size allows for many different variations on meals with clams.
Like all clams, cherrystones must be carefully cleaned before cooking regardless of how they are to be prepared. Clams are largely sedentary creatures. They typically sit in one spot on the ocean floor, and it is not uncommon for them to come to the market with sand and other grit trapped in their shell. Cooking with clams usually begins with multiple rinses and soaks to ensure that all debris is removed.
The clams must usually be steamed or boiled to open. Shells that do not open, or that crack when they open, should be discarded. Cooks who intend to serve cherrystone clams in their shells often cook them in a flavorful broth. Plain water is usually fine for clams destined for the soup pot or the grill.