It’s too taboo, too controversial a subject for dinnertime, even though debating it might make you crave seafood. Grilled clams vs. grilled oysters – which is better?
“A raw oyster is one of the best things a human on planet Earth can consume,” says Christopher Sherman, CEO of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Massachusetts. “Why grill it once scaled?”
Island Creek farms both oysters and clams, so Sherman is quick to state that he “has no dog in this fight.” But the CEO admits to a certain preference for raw oysters over raw clams, and he usually only grills oysters as a last resort. “I only really find myself grilling oysters when I have a lot of them (which, given my job, I often do) and I’m tired of shucking them,” he says.
Sherman explains that grilling oysters takes a bit of finesse. Sure, he admits, you can put them on the whole grill and allow them to open the same way clams do (one point for clams here, it seems), but oysters do better. when scaled first and adorned with extras. This allows them to “boil in their own liquor, taking on the smoke from the grill,” he explains. Oysters cooked this way are best served with breadcrumbs, bacon, or whatever you can find.
And what about clams? Hardshell clams are best for grilling, which means quahogs and littlenecks on the east coast and manilas on the west. Clam shells, Sherman warns, can break when heated too high, while oysters are heartier and can last longer on the grill. (As a side note, Sherman highly recommends clams on pizza: “If you’re lucky enough to have a pizza oven in your outdoor grilling setup, clams make a better pizza topping (than oysters).” ) To avoid temperature issues, says Eric Bartle, the culinary director of Durant at Red Ridge Farms, a Willamette Valley winery and the Pacific Northwest’s premier olive oil producer, clams are often best cooked in a pan. “You can use a cast iron pan and get the smoke and have fun with a grill, but just quickly steam them until the shells open,” he says.
Bartle, however, loves oysters when it comes to this battle. “The clams are amazing,” he says. “I love them, and they’re great for a clambake, but you don’t get the shade of the grill, even in cast iron. And there’s something magical about putting that oyster right over the fire. The best oysters to grill, he says, are the larger ones, often called barbecue oysters. The summer months, Bartle says, are when the biggest, most succulent and grillable oysters are available, as the oysters continue to grow. “They’re not as firm or tight (as younger, smaller oysters) and are better suited for barbecuing, especially with a dab of your favorite compound butter.”
Butter — any type of fat, really — can help absorb smoke from the grill and will pair well with the natural saltiness of oysters, Bartle says. “Olive oil would be delicious, with a squeeze of lemon and some herbs,” he says. “It’s endless. That’s the fun thing about grilled oysters.
Whether your heart lands on oysters or clams, Sherman has some wisdom to impart to those considering grilling. “Some people think a clam or an oyster isn’t cooked until its shell is cracked open,” he says. “That’s wrong.” Both bivalves can be eaten raw, so there is, he says, “little risk of not using them and all the downsides of overcooking.” He suggests removing the shellfish from the grill as soon as the first slivers open.
So, oysters or grilled clams? Oysters seem to win this debate slightly, although the best way to find out is to fire up the grill and taste for yourself.