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Many cook books advise that fresh clams should be soaked in salt water with a bit of corn meal added. The purpose is that the clams will consume the corn meal, thereby cleansing their gut of sand.

However, I've seen it said elsewhere that this is unnecessary for farm raised clams since they are raised on a medium suspended above the bottom and therefore not exposed to sand.

My question is twofold:

1) Is the first advice valid at all? Does this soaking improve the taste and/or quality of the clams?

2) If #1 is true, does it also apply to farm raised clams or is the step unnecessary?

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2 Answers 2

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According to Ask A Chef the cornmeal is not necessary. It is the salt water that actually causes the clams to purge themselves:

The thought behind using cornmeal is that it is an irritant that causes the clam to "cough" and expel all sand that may be in its shell. There is also a thought that it helps to change the flavor of the meat and make them less fishy (I can't say I have noticed a flavor difference between a clam purged with cornmeal and one without). Whether you use cornmeal or not you will need to use saltwater. Soaking the clams in saltwater for an hour or two will allow them to cycle clean saltwater in and out of the shell and purge the sand. Using cornmeal to purge is common and is thought to aid in the complete expulsion of the sand, but it really is not the real reason the purging will happen.

As far as purging farm raised clams, some (perhaps even most) suppliers purge them for you before sending them to market, so doing it yourself may not be necessary. However, I could not find an authoritative source that indicates this is always true.

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From what I recall from my zoology classes, I'm prone to believe this. Clams are filter feeders and they don't get to choose what comes in the water they filter. It's going through them, cornmeal or not. The coughing thing is probably just silly. If inhaling sand doesn't make you cough, then inhaling cornmeal sure as hell won't. So I'm thinking Ask A Chef is probably dead on. –  Carey Gregory Aug 24 '13 at 5:37
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Further info: This weekend I made linguine with white clam sauce, so I tested the theory about farm-raised clams. I soaked all but 5 of them in salt water (no corn meal). I marked the shells on those 5 so I would know which were which. None of the clams had any sand, including the 5 un-soaked ones. So either the producers purge farm-raised clams, or the way they're raised they don't need purging.

In a week or two I'll try the same dish with wild clams and see if the soaking makes a difference for them.

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Oops, forgot to update this. I did try the experiment with wild clams a few weeks later. Once again, I found no difference. The samples are too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but I'm prone to think it makes no difference with wild or farmed clams. –  Carey Gregory Dec 29 '13 at 22:38
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