What makes a great fried clam? We go to clam shacks to find out

An order of fried clam strips at Sea Swirl in Mystic. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
An order of fried clam strips at Sea Swirl in Mystic. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Clams: They're a quintessential summer delight here in New England. And for good reason. New England is home to some of the best clams in the world, along with the largest clamming industry.

Once harvested and distributed, clams, whether steamed or raw, put onto a roll or into chowder, are easy to love. They’re tangy, sweet and not too salty and have been the inspiration for many a recipe, festival, bake or seaside restaurant.

Perhaps the most universally loved recipe that has evolved from our clam-eating habits over the years are clams of the fried variety — both in strip and whole belly form. Dating back to 1916, the strip was, according to clamming legend, invented when Massachusetts-based clam shack owner Lawrence Woodman (aka Chubby) decided to throw some excess strips in the same lard he used to cook potato chips — thus creating the first fried clam. Every summer since, the delicacy attracts hordes in pursuit of the perfect fried clam.

But what exactly makes a great fried clam? How do factors, which include everything from timely deliveries to breading, affect their taste? And just how easy is it to get clams out of the mud and onto your plate?

We talked to three local clam shack owners along the way and a large New England seafood distributor to find out. We also taste-tested both strips and whole belly clams from a handful of popular shacks throughout the region, looking for the subtle differences that can play through in taste and texture. Here’s what we learned.

Drench 'em in batter

It’s lunchtime on a weekday afternoon, and Costello’s Clam Shack of Noank is plenty busy pushing out orders to an eager lunch crowd. It’s here on Costello’s sun-soaked deck overlooking the Mystic River that we try our first batch of fried clams — a large tray of lightly fried strips and whole bellies.

“They’re fluffy and fresh,” Costello’s owner Chelsea Mears says.

“We really take pride in the fluffiness,” adds restaurant manager Sam Hanley, while also commenting on the clam’s lighter-than-average taste. The fluffy texture combined with a lighter batter helps ensure that a sweet-clam flavor plays through, Hanley says — one of the more important factors when determining if a fried clam is any good.

“It’s all in our homemade beer batter,” Hanley says. “That and making sure there aren’t excess breading clumps on the clams.”

As part of their frying process, Costello’s employees take raw clams straight out of their gallon-sized containers (which are delivered to the restaurant four times weekly) and drenches them in a homemade beer batter before putting them through a Red-E-Mix breading. Then the clams are sifted and fried.

Though Costello’s breading and frying process doesn’t vary widely from their nearby competitors (each restaurant will typically put their clams through two different types of homemade breading or batter), it’s the smallest of preparation differences that will account for slight variations in taste. That and frying times.

As a standard, whole bellies are usually fried longer than strips (there is more meat to cook), but the length of time a restaurant can leave their clams in the fryer will vary.

“I usually listen to how the clams sing,” Hanley says while plunging a basket of strips into the fryer. “You have to wait until the simmer quiets down. For us, the moment it gets quiet is the moment when we know when to pull the strips out. That is around 45 seconds for strips and 90 for bellies. But other places will let their clams sit for a tad longer.”

Sea Swirl of Mystic, after putting their strips through two different dry mixes will fry for 60-90 seconds, while Skipper’s Restaurant of Niantic could let theirs sit longer. Though Skipper's clams are put through a milk wash and a dry mix, the longer frying time resulted in the crispiest clams while Sea Swirl had the darkest.

Typically, the longer a clam is fried, the nuttier it will taste, and shorter frying times will yield more of an ocean flavor. Finding that perfect frying time, though, can often be difficult, especially considering that kitchen staff will often be rushing about.

“You have maybe a 10-20 second window for perfect completion,” says Sea Swirl manager Ryan Devlin-Perry while sitting at a picnic table in front of his roadside restaurant. “If you cook them even ten seconds too long they’ll explode. Or (the clams) will be like a rubber band. So people will complain about that.”

Another secret? Fresh frying oil.

“That’s a big thing. And we go through a lot of oil,” Devlin-Perry says. “I filter my oil every day, but sometimes I will have oil for only two days and throw it out. Keeping the oil fresh is very important.”

Sourcing

Visit Skipper's on any summer weekend and the line will likely wind out the front door and onto its deck. But having to wait 20 minutes in the steaming humidity doesn’t seem to ever deter hungry patrons from getting their seafood fix here or anywhere else for that matter. In fact, such a wait seems to only add to the experience, especially if you've just walked straight off the beach.

One question comes to mind, though. Just how many gallons of clams are crowds eating through in a week or a single day?

"About 20 gallons of strips and 15 of whole bellies per week," says Skipper's owner Lefty Sirpoulos.

Sea Swirl, on the other hand, will average 25-30 gallons a week of each, while Costello's will typically go through 10 gallons of each a day.

And though Skipper's sources their clams from Digger's Choice — a Massachusetts-based clamming company distributed by US Foods, many clam shacks in this area (which include Costello's, Sea Swirl, Sea View Snack Bar in Mystic and Captain Scott's Lobster Dock in New London) order theirs from Ipswich Maritime Products.

IMP, which was founded 1986, supplies clams to 1,200 restaurants across the country.

Based out of Ipswich, Mass. (considered to be the capital of the clamming industry), their clams are sourced from 24 different locations or "landings" from Canada to Maryland (20 are based in New England), where clams are bought directly off the docks from local clam diggers (those who provide whole bellies) and dredgers (those who provide strips).

From there, clams are brought into one of four IMP processing plants, where they are quickly dipped in a boiling hot wash before immediately being placed into an ice-cold bath. They are then shucked, thrown into a gallon containers and shipped out to clam shacks around the country. Within a day from being shucked, fresh clams typically arrive to our local clam joints where they can safely stay refrigerated for another two days.

Where your clam is coming from could vary depending on supply, says IMP owner James Lampropulos. If there is a clam shortage in Massachusetts one week (due to, say, a large storm that closes the offshore clam beds), the majority of clams that will be distributed will come from Maine and Canada, or maybe even Maryland. Restaurants can order clams from specific locations (most in this area request clams from Massachusetts and Maine), though in the event of a shortage, when demand is at a high, shacks may forgo such requests.

Last summer’s clam strip shortage, for example (due to mechanical problems on several dredging boats), put many shacks into a bind. Those that could lock down clam orders had to pay higher-than-average prices to keep up with demand, while other restaurants were forced to disappoint customers after being granted, say, three gallons a week compared to a typical 15. Restaurants with the most paying power, or those with the longest-standing relationships with their seafood providers, were prioritized, leaving newer or smaller shacks with their hands in their pockets.

Besides weather upsets or just a bad day of digging, softshell clams (aka steamer and whole belly clams) require a tremendous amount of manual labor from diggers to provide even just one clam.

“It’s one of those things where people like to complain about when clam prices go up, but I mean, the clam diggers, this past weekend were digging in close to 95 degrees, bugs were everywhere ... it’s hard work,” Lampropulos says.

With pitchforks in hand, diggers must burrow through and turn over one-to-two feet of mud, as many as three or four times, to find even a single clam.

“It’s not like you just go down and churn over mud for a couple inches. You have to dig,” Lampropulos says. “It’s one of those things where you don’t really understand how hard it is to get the clams. But if you could see what it takes to get every single one that you eat — say you get a clam plate with 20 clams — that’s 20 times someone had to bend over and dig a hole to get all 20 clams.”

Whole Bellies vs. Strips

Aside from breading nuances and sourcing locations, a larger debate seems to persist. Whole belly clams or strips?

“I’ve been working here for 10 years, and everybody loves the strips. You can even really not like seafood and enjoy the strips,” says Costello’s manager Sam Hanley. “The bellies are definitely more of an acquired taste.”

“The belly is just so meaty. It’s juicy, too. It’s funny, but depending on your audience, you can almost guess if they are going to order strips or bellies.

“Bellies are typically for someone who is just really a seafood connoisseur, they just want that meatiness. But strips are for everyone, they are just sweet and tender.”

m.biekert@theday.com

An order of fried clam strips at Sea Swirl in Mystic. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
An order of fried clam strips at Sea Swirl in Mystic. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

The pricing for both clam strips and whole bellies vary throughout the summer, depending on supply and demand. As of Tuesday, here is a roundup of local prices for both a clam strip and whole belly clam dinner. All include a side of fries and coleslaw.  
Costello’s Clam Shack of Noank — $13.95 for a clam strip dinner, $17.95 for a whole belly dinner.
Skipper’s Restaurant of Niantic — $14.99 for a clam strip dinner, $23.49 for a whole belly dinner.
Sea Swirl of Mystic — $16.96 for a clam strip dinner, $22.28 for a whole belly dinner.

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