My clam sauce recipe is an Italian American tradition passed down through generations. Serve with linguine for an authentic experience!
We love spaghetti with clam sauce for dinner, it’s one of our go to quickie dinners when there’s nothing in the house ~ but that clam sauce usually comes from a can. Today I decided to give one of our favorite dinners an upgrade with some fresh littleneck clams I found at Costco. Most large supermarkets carry fresh shellfish in their seafood cases year round, too, so you shouldn’t have any trouble locating them. My clam sauce recipe is a classic that gives ‘pasta for dinner’ a whole new meaning.
did you know?
Clam sauce is an Italian American dish, not so much found in regional Italian cooking. It became popular in cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, which have long histories of Italian immigration and vibrant Italian American communities.
what you’ll need for this clam sauce recipe
- fresh littleneck clams (in their shells)
- littleneck clams are among the most commonly available clams. They are young clams which are small, tender, and have a sweet flavor. Because of their small size they’re often used in clam sauces.
- canned clams
- a can of clams augments the clam presence in this pasta. Baby canned clams are tender and super convenient. You can make the sauce with only canned clams if you like, just double the quantity.
- olive oil and butter
- garlic and shallots
- white wine
- dried oregano
- fresh parsley
the right pasta for clam sauce
You’ll definitely want a strand pasta ~ linguine is probably the most commonly associated with clam sauce. Spaghetti or fettuccine are also good choice. I used thick bucatini spaghetti.
how to prep fresh clams for clam sauce
When you buy clams in the shell they are live animals. It’s important to understand the steps to take to prep them, and why you are doing each step. You want to keep the clams alive until you cook them: cooking live clams helps prevent the consumption of potentially spoiled or contaminated seafood.
- Give your clams an initial rinse in cold water to remove any debris. Check each clam for any cracks, chips, or open shells. Discard any clams that are cracked, broken, or don’t close when tapped.
- Soak (purge) them in a large bowl of salted cold water for 30 minutes to an hour. This allows them to purge any impurities or sand that’s inside the shell so you don’t get any grit in your clam sauce. You’ll notice little bubbles rising and some of the shells opening partially during this time.
- Drain and rinse again under cold running water.
- Give the clams a final inspection, discarding any that are still open or have damaged shells. To test open shells, tap them on the counter…if they close they’re good to go, but if they remain open, discard them.
is it humane to cook live clams?
Some ethical concerns are raised around cooking live clams and other shellfish like mussels and lobster. Animal welfare advocates remind us we should be minimizing the suffering of all living creatures, including those used for food. The jury’s still out on whether clams suffer or can feel pain, but they do have nervous systems and methods such as pre-stunning or using rapid freezing techniques before cooking are being explored as ways to reduce potential suffering.
making clam sauce, step by step
There are a few steps to this clam sauce recipe, but they happen fast and all in one pan.
- Sauté garlic, shallots, oregano and red pepper flakes in olive oil.
- Add clam juice and white wine.
- Simmer for 5 minutes to reduce down a bit.
- Add canned clams and fresh parsley.
- Bring back to a simmer.
- Top with little neck clams and steam, covered, for about 5 minutes, until the clams open.
- Toss with pasta and serve!
should you add cheese to pasta with clam sauce?
The Italians don’t mix cheese with seafood. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but it’s come down through the generations as tradition. Some claim that the flavor of cheese competes with the delicate flavor of seafood. It could also be a matter of geography ~ the coastal fishing regions of Italy were separated from the inland dairy regions as the cuisine developed. We actually like a bit of grated Parm with our clam sauce, so as far as I’m concerned you can go either way.
clam sauce faqs
What’s the difference between white and red clam sauce?
- White clam sauce is made with an olive oil, garlic, and white wine base, and has a delicate flavor, while red clam sauce features a tomato base with a tangy, slightly sweet taste, making it heartier.
What’s the best canned clam sauce?
- I like Progresso, and I usually augment it with extra canned baby clams, fresh garlic, and parsley. I’ll post my canned clam sauce recipe one of these days!
What’s the best wine to use?
- A dry white wine like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, or Chardonnay works well for white clam sauce.
Can I make clam sauce without wine?
- Yes, if you don’t use wine you can substitute with more clam juice or chicken stock.
Clam Sauce Recipe
- large Dutch oven, skillet, or braising pan
- 2 lbs Littleneck clams
- 10 ounce can whole baby clams
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 shallot, finely minced
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- pinch red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 cup reserved clam juice from canned clams
- 3 Tbsp butter
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/3 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
- black pepper
- 3/4 lb strand pasta, either spaghetti, linguine, or bucatini
- Parmesan cheese, optional
- lemon wedges
- Give your Littleneck clams an initial rinse in cold water to remove any debris. Check each clam for any cracks, chips, or open shells. Discard any clams that are cracked, broken, or don't close when tapped.
- Soak (purge) them in a large bowl of salted cold water for 30 minutes. This allows them to purge any impurities or sand that's inside the shell. You'll notice little bubbles rising and some of the shells opening partially.
- Drain and rinse again under cold running water.
- Give the clams a final inspection, discarding any that are still open or have damaged shells. To test open shells, tap them on the counter…if they close they're good to go, but if they remain open, discard them.
- While the clams are soaking start your sauce. Drain the canned clams and reserve the liquid. Set both aside.
- In a large pan big enough to hold the entire recipe heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic, shallots, dried oregano and red pepper for a minute or two, stirring almost constantly.
- Add the white wine and reserved clam juice (which should be about 1/2 cup) to the pan and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for about 5 minutes to reduce a bit.
- Meanwhile cook the pasta in salted water until al dente.
- Add the canned clams to the sauce, along with the cleaned littleneck clams, spreading them out across the pan in a single layer. Bring back to a boil, turn down the heat, cover the pan, and steam until the clams open, about 5 minutes. Give them a stir to redistribute a couple of times during steaming.
- Remove the shelled clams to a plate. Add the cooked pasta to the pan. I like to use tongs to transfer it directly from the pot to the pan, although this requires careful timing to get everything ready at the same point. It's fine if a little starchy water comes along with the pasta. Give everyhing a good toss with the butter, lemon juice and fresh parsley.
- Arrange the shelled clams back into the pot, nestling them down into the pasta a little bit. Your dish is ready to serve. I like to add fresh cracked black pepper, and some might like a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Note: In Italian cooking it's often advised to avoid adding cheese to seafood pasta dishes like linguine with clam sauce, but we like add grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. To each his own 🙂