More American than hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza, the New England clam bake is arguably New England’s quintessential meal, maybe even America’s. European explorers were introduced to this method of cooking by Native Americans in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Held on festive occasions and best experienced on a beach in early autumn, the New England Clam Bake is the very definition of simplicity. Lobster, mussels, crabs, steamers, sausage, potatoes, corn on the cob and a generous amount of seaweed are layered in a bed of hot coals or stones and steamed for hours.
Preparing for a traditional New England clam bake can be a multi-day process where the cooking is actually much easier than the prep. It begins with the digging of a fire pit. A half dozen or so large rocks are placed in the pit and covered with firewood. The wood is ignited to heat the rocks.
The next step is to collect seaweed from the beach while the wood is burning. You’ll need a lot so make it a group activity. It’s a great one for kids to be involved in. Be sure to have a couple of large containers because the seaweed will need seawater to keep it fresh while the wood burns.
After the wood burns down to ashes, they are swept away and a fire grate is placed over the hot rocks. Lay down a first layer of seaweed and then alternate layers of food and seaweed, ending with a layer of seaweed. Place slower cooking foods like potatoes, corn, and onions in the lowest layers with the sausage in the middle, and the seafood in the topmost layers.
Finally the entire pile is covered with a wet canvass tarp or burlap sacks to capture the steam. Keep plenty of seawater handy to keep the covering wet.
While you can use just about any food you wish, there are some standards for a traditional clam bake. The following list will provide a feast for up to 10 people.
- 3 to 4 pounds round clams
- 6 to 10 large baking potatoes
- 2 to 3 pound of sausage (smoked or polish)
- 6 medium onions, peeled
- 6 to 10 ears of corn (husk left on but silk removed)
- 8 to 10 live lobsters
- 12 lemons cut into wedges
- Lots of melted butter
Preparation and Serving
After the food steams for two to three hours (depending on how much heat you have), you dismantle your pile of food and seaweed. All the food should be collected into a single container, usually a chafing dish, large sheet pan, or a galvanized tub. Your feast can then be dumped out on a picnic table covered with butcher paper or newspaper.
Leave a large bowl of the lemon wedges and several smaller bowls for the melted butter.
You and your guests are now ready to dig in. While the ingredients are simple, the taste is surprisingly complex. There’s a slight smokiness from the fire, a strong flavor of salt and the sea from the steamed seaweed, and strong earthy flavors from the potatoes, corn, and onions.
If you live away from the beach or an area that doesn’t allow open outdoor fires, you can recreate a traditional clam bake in your own kitchen with these easy to follow instructions:
- Put six ears of corn in husks to soak in salted water for one hour.
- In the bottom of a 20-quart steamer place six cups of water. Cover with the upper section of the steamer and add a generous layer of wet, well-rinsed seaweed.
- Take three boiler-fryer chickens that have been split, and wrap them in cheesecloth. Tie with corners of the cloth and place on top of the seaweed. You may also use 3 or 4 pounds of your favorite smoked sausage instead or in place of half of the chicken.
- Wrap five medium-sized, unpeeled potatoes in the same way and place them on the chicken.
- Wrap the six ears of corn in cheesecloth and place them on top of the potatoes.
- Add four dozen small clams with each dozen wrapped in separate cheesecloth bundles.
- Add six one-pound lobsters also wrapped in cheesecloth.
- Top the ingredients with seaweed.
- Place a medium-sized, unpeeled potato in the middle and cover. Steam until the potato on the top is cooked, about one and a half hours.
- Serve with melted butter and lemon wedges.
Serves 6 to 8.
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