A New England Clambake

A clambake is literally and figuratively “baking clams” along with other foods that are available in summer months in New England – usually lobsters, corn on the cob, chicken and potatoes. These items are stacked on top of each other – sometimes separated by seaweed – with the order determined by cooking time. The most traditional way to prepare a clambake is to cook it in a hole on a beach.

But – there are simpler ways to have a clambake, too. Here are two methods, starting with the most complicated:

  1. Traditional Clambake – this will serve at least 20 people (maybe more).

50 hard-shell clams (be sure they are scrubbed clean or soaked)

4 dozen ears of corn

5 broiling chickens (optional)

20 potatoes (white or sweet)

20 1 ½- lb. lobsters or about 3 dozen soft-shell crabs (depends on the season)

150 soft-shell clams (optional – usually called steamers)

Start preparations at least four hours before serving time.

Dig a pit in the sand about 1-foot deep and 3 ½ feet across. Line it with smooth round rocks that have not been baked before. Have a wet tarpaulin (canvas) ready – big enough to overlap the pit area by about 1 foot all around. Have some rocks handy to weigh down the edges of the tarp.

Build a fire over the rocks in the hole using a hardwood and keep feeding it for the next 2 ½ to 3 hours while the rocks are heating. Gather and wash about 4 bushels of wet seaweed. (It’s even better to soak the seaweed for at least 45 minutes in sea water before use). Have a pail of sea water ready for use during the cooking process.

Peel off the outer layers of husk on the corn saving the inner husks. Pull the inner husks back on the corn so that you can remove the silk and then replace the husk so that the corn kernals are fully protected. Save the discarded husks.

If you plan to add chicken to the bake, quarter the 5 chickens.

Scrub the potatoes and have them ready.

At this point, some people wrap the chicken, potatoes and corn in individual cheesecloth bags so that later each person’s food can be removed as one unit. You don’t have to do that though – it’s just quicker in the end at serving time.

Have live lobsters and/or crab ready.

Now it’s time to build the “bake.”

First, rake the burned wood embers off of the hot rocks. Now cover the hot stones with a layer of seaweed. The pit should now be about six inches deep. If you want you can put a layer of chicken wire over the seaweed covering the rocks. It’s tidier. If you haven’t wrapped the food in individual cheesecloth, it’s time to pack the pit in layers. For the best flavor, start with a layer of hard shell clams, then seaweed, then potatoes, then lobsters or crabs, more seaweed, then chicken, more seaweed, then corn. You can finish off the top with a layer of soft-shell clams (steamers). Be sure you have pre-soaked the fresh steamers in cold water to leach out the sand.

Cover the pile with the reserved corn husks and sprinkle the whole thing with the bucket of sea water. Quickly cover with the tarp and weigh it down well with rocks. Steam for at least one hour. The tarp will puff up during the steaming (a good sign) and you can check for doneness by lifting a corner of the tarp to see if the clams have opened.

Serve with melted butter and have plenty of napkins or towels on hand.

Beer is considered by some to be the best clambake beverage.

Follow with watermelon.  

  • A modified clambake – serves eight people.

Find a wash boiler (a big, oval shaped pan with a top – often made in copper) or a canning pot with a lid.  Have ready some seaweed that has been soaked for at least 45 minutes in seawater. 

Line the bottom of the pot with 4 inches of seaweed.

Add about 1 quart of water (doesn’t have to be sea water).

Start the pot boiling on a stove or outdoor grill.

When the water boils, add 8 potatoes wrapped in foil. Cover and cook for 15 minutes.

Wrap 2 cut-up broiler chickens in cheesecloth and place on top of the potatoes. Cook for 15 minutes longer before adding 8 1 ½-lb lobsters. Cover and cook for about 8 minutes longer.

Then place 8 shucked, foil-wrapped ears of corn on top of the lobsters. Cover and cook for 10 minutes longer.

Now add 48 soft-shelled clams (cleaned by soaking) and cover and steam until the clams open (about 5 – 10 minutes).

Serve with melted butter.

The liquid remaining in the kettle can be served also, but it should be strained through cheesecloth to remove the sand.

There is a third method of clambake that involves a stovepipe buried in the sand, surrounded by hot rocks. It’s a great idea if you happen to have a stovepipe and heavy-duty potholders, but I prefer the two methods above.