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Shucking Clams and Oysters

Fine Cooking Issue 22
Photos: Boyd Hagen.
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I’ve noticed that whenever I go to an oyster bar, the guy shucking the shellfish (it’s almost always a guy) usually has bulging forearms and biceps that rival Popeye’s. I always figured that before I’d be able to open a clam, I’d have to hire a personal trainer. But I’ve learned that with the right tools, a little technique, and yes, a bit of muscle, even a weakling like me can open shellfish.

The right tools make the job easier

Before shucking, arm yourself with a heavy-duty kitchen towel, a pot holder, or a specially designed shucker’s glove as protection from any slip of the knife or the rough edges of the shell. Set a small bowl nearby to catch any juices that spill. You’ll want to pour these flavor-rich juices back over the shellfish or add them to whatever you’re cooking.

Specially designed knives make the work easier. A clam knife has a thin, flat blade. You can also open clams with a regular table knife as long as it’s not too pointed. An oyster knife is shorter and sturdier, with a pointed tip for boring into the shell hinge to pop it open. A sharp kitchen knife makes a poor and dangerous substitute for either of these tools. Some shuckers wedge a church-key type of can opener between the shells to pry them apart, but the opener’s sharp tip can cause injuries if you’re not careful.

Hold the clam firmly in the palm of your towel-covered hand. You’ll notice that one side of the shell flares out slightly. Insert the knife at that point, force the blade between the shells, and pry them open.
Once you’ve opened the clam, cut through the muscles that hold the meat to the shell. Take care not to cut through the center of the clam.

Pry shells open with a push, a twist, and a little muscle

Shellfish open most easily when they’re cold. Keep clams and oysters refrigerated until you’re ready to shuck, and begin by scrubbing the shells clean under cold running water. Discard any that aren’t tightly closed.

Clams are easier to open than oysters. Their shells allow you to slide a knife between them without having to twist or pry your way in.

Oysters, on the other hand, can be quite tenacious. They’re best opened by boring the tip of the oyster knife between the shells, near the hinge at the pointed end.  Twist and push the knife with a fair amount of force until the shell pops open.

Secure oysters for easier handling. Hold the oyster, flatter shell up, with a folded towel and place the tip of the knife near the hinge at the pointed end. Pry and push the tip to bore into the shell until it pops open.
Make oysters easier to eat. Run the knife along the inside of the shell and loosen any meat that still clings to it.

It takes practice to find just the right spot to insert the knife. If the shell crumbles, which often happens, move to another spot along the side of the shell and try again.

Whether you’re opening oysters or clams, once you get the knife between the two shells, keep the blade flush with the underside of the shell. Your goal is to cut the top muscle (clams have two, oysters one) as close to the shell as possible without piercing or damaging the soft meat.

As you free the top shell, carefully pry it loose and finish detaching any meat that clings to it. If the shellfish are headed for a raw bar, hold the bottom shell level so you won’t spill the tasty juices. Then slip the knife under the meat nestled in the bottom shell to release it.


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