Growing up, I loved my mother’s baked clams recipe. I still do. It’s a holiday staple in my family. That said, Baked Clams Oreganata differs slightly from most baked clams recipes. In particular, it has a more pronounced clam flavor, especially when you follow the recipe below. If you love the bold, briny flavor of clams as much as I do, then this recipe is for you!
This recipe is also part of a 6-month collaborative program called the Massachusetts Seafood AmBASSadors and is sponsored by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) and the Woods Hole Sea Grant Education Research Center. Funding is provided by the proud commercial fishermen of Massachusetts from permit fees at no additional cost to the fishermen via DMF’s Seafood Marketing Grant program. It’s also in conjunction with Eating with the Ecosystem, a New England-based non-profit working to expand awareness of and access to local New England seafood.
Because the real purpose of this Baked Clams Oreganata, including recent recipe posts for bluefish recipes, black sea bass recipes, smoked mackerel recipes, caldeirada (Portuguese fish stew), and grilled striped bass, is to showcase the abundant and sustainable seafood here on the east coast.
And that’s why I highly recommend making this recipe with littleneck clams. Littlenecks are the smallest-sized quahog clam (the iconic hardshell clam species here in New England) which makes them the perfect size for Baked Clams Oreganata.
Baked Clams Oreganata is an Italian-American dish, most often served as an appetizer. It consists of clams, either chopped or whole, which are topped with a breadcrumb and herb mixture of oregano, garlic, and other seasonings (many variations exist). It is then broiled or baked and finished with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Many Baked Clams Oreganata recipes use chopped canned clams and while they are certainly convenient and cheap, their flavor is not as robust as using whole clams.
Furthermore, as someone passionate about supporting local seafood, I know that littlenecks almost always come from small shellfish aquaculture operations, which are crucial to the health of our coastlines. Farmed clams, mussels, oysters, and sometimes scallops, filter excess nutrients from the water, improve water quality, require no feed (unlike fish farms), and help create habitat for other marine species.
Canned clams, on the other hand, are not quahogs. They are sea clams. Sea clams are harvested by dredging the ocean floor. They are then canned and sold by large industrial seafood corporations with questionable sustainability practices.
Now, if you live in an area of the country where you can’t find whole littleneck clams, then substitute a similar small-sized clam, such as manila clams.
I should also mention that you can certainly chop up whole littlenecks, because some people, especially kids, will prefer it this way. However, and this is just my opinion, chopping them blurs the line a little bit between baked clams oreganata and well, baked stuffed clams.
Baked clams typically refer to baked stuffed clams. And baked stuffed clams use much bigger clams. For quahogs, that means cherrystones (medium-sized quahogs) and quahogs (for whatever weird reason, the largest size quahog is also called “quahog”). The clams are chopped or diced fine and then mixed with a breading mixture and stuffed back into the clam shell and baked. The breading mixture has a lot of variations. Some, like Rhode Island stuffed clams (called “stuffies) include peppers and sausage such as Portuguese linguica or chourico. They are incredibly delicious too!
But baked stuffed clams are much denser and more filling than Baked Clams Oreganata. Two can be a full meal! With Baked Clams Oreganata, you don’t want too much of the breading mixture. We want a predominant clam flavor. One of the problems with both recipes, especially store-bought versions, is the tendency to use too much breading which drowns out that quintessential briny clam flavor.
For the exact ingredient amounts, see the recipe card below.
Clean the clam shells of any grit by rinsing and scrubbing in cold, running water. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium or large stockpot. Add the clams and cover the pot. Boil for five to seven minutes, or until the clams open. The shells will open at different times.
Remove the clams with tongs as they open and set them aside to prevent the meats from overcooking. Slowly strain the broth through a fine mesh colander and set it aside. It should be a steely gray color, like so…
Littlenecks won’t add much volume to the water but they’ll add an intense briny flavor. If it’s too salty, simply add a little water to dilute the flavor. But it should be pretty salty!
Once the clams are cool enough to handle, detach the top shell of the clam. Then gently pull the meats away from the muscle that attaches them to the bottom shell and place it back in the shell, unattached. Littlenecks typically detach quite easily, but if some are stubborn, use a knife to gently cut the muscle.
If you want to chop the clams into smaller pieces, use scissors and cut them in half, quarters, or however you’d like. Place the clam pieces back in the bottom shell.
Most recipes mix all the topping ingredients in a mixing bowl and then top the clams with this breadcrumb mixture. But for a deeper flavor, I like to saute them in olive oil first.
Heat the extra virgin olive oil over medium heat in a skillet or saute pan. Add the garlic and saute for 30-60 seconds, stirring frequently and being careful not to burn. Next, add the breadcrumbs and mix well. Next add the dried oregano, parsley, red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, and parmesan cheese. Mix well.
Note: Avoid cheap, store-bought finely grated parmesan cheese in plastic containers. It’s full of anti-caking agents and has little flavor. Get a good quality hard block of parmesan, aged a minimum of 2 years, and grate it yourself.
Next, add about 1/4 cup of the reserved clam juice and mix well. Keep adding clam juice until you get the right consistency, not too dry but not too wet either. I find that 3/4 cup is about right.
The mixture should stick together a bit as you add the clam juice, like so…
Top each clam with the breadcrumb mixture. Pack it on top and around the sides but don’t over-pack it! Too much of the mixture will drown out the clam flavor. Once packed, drizzle some olive oil over each clam.
These puppies are packed and ready for the oven!
Preheat the broiler to high and adjust the top rack of the oven. Place the clams on a baking sheet or in a baking pan.
To make an optional sauce, add about 1/4 cup wine, 1/2 cup or so reserved clam juice, and 2 TBSPs butter to the baking sheet/pan. Alternatively, just add them to a small saucepan and heat them up.
Broil for a few minutes, or until the top is nice and browned. Watch carefully to prevent overcooking!
While the topping is browning, the butter, wine, and clam juice will heat up and sizzle. Remove from the oven and transfer the clams to serving plates. Carefully pour the sauce into a small serving bowl or two. Anyone who chooses can drizzle a little of this succulent mixture on top of their clams for an extra pop of rich, clammy deliciousness.
Serve the baked clams oreganata with sides of lemon wedges.
Perfect for the holidays or other special occasions, this classic Italian clam appetizer can be made in about 30 minutes from start to finish.
Clean the clam shells of any grit by rinsing and scrubbing in cold, running water. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium or large stockpot. Add the clams and cover the pot. Boil for five to seven minutes, or until the shells open. The shells will open at different times. Remove the clams with tongs as they open and set them aside to prevent the meats from overcooking. Slowly strain the broth through a fine mesh colander and set it aside.
Once the clams are cool enough to handle, detach the top shell of the clam. Then gently pull the meats away from the muscle that attaches them to the bottom shell and place it back in the shell, unattached.
Add 1/4 cup of the reserved clam juice and mix well. You want the mixture to be not too dry and not too wet. Keep adding clam juice until you get the right consistency. I find that 3/4 cups is about right.
To make an optional sauce, simply add 1/4 cup wine, 1/2 cup or so reserved clam juice, and 2 TBSPs butter to the baking sheet/pan.
If you want to chop the clams, use scissors and cut them in half, quarters, or however you’d like. Place the clam pieces back in the bottom shell.
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.