In Search of the Best Fried Clams from Boston, MA to Portland, ME

During our travels through New England, we tasted fried clams at some of the most well-known clam shacks. What we learned was the following:

  • While most home cooks will use canola or grapeseed oil to fry because it allows for higher heat without smoking and doesn’t impart a flavor in the food, most of the best clam shacks use lard or a mixture of lard and oil (like vegetable oil). Most home cooks don’t want to use lard for health concerns, but lard produces a different taste that can’t be achieved with “healthy” oils.
  • When the oil is clean, or the lard is fresh, you get a much tastier fried clam. When the oil is used for too long, it creates a burned flavor. We experienced this in two clam shacks.
  • Clams are either breaded or flour coated. The coating is pretty basic for most clam shacks. Mostly, it is corn flour (masa), all-purpose flour, or white pastry flour, with Old Bay for seasoning and paprika, cayenne, and/or black pepper for some heat. Some add a little corn meal for crunch and texture. Be sure to use sea salt and not table salt in the mixture.
  • The clams are first soaked in milk, or an egg wash with milk, or an evaporated milk wash, before coating with the flour and seasoning mix. Most shacks dredge the clams twice, meaning they dip them in the wash and dredge through the flour mixture and then dip in the wash and dredge again. This creates a thicker coating that gives the clams more texture and crunch.
  • For a softer fried coating use a single fry, but for crispy fried clams on the outside, use a double fry. Fry the clams once to firm the coating but not to a golden brown. Remove and drain, then fry them again until golden brown. This is the same technique used to make some of the crispiest French fries and fried chicken you’ll ever eat. Some chefs will use two different oil/lard vats, one at a lower temperature to initially cook and then a higher temperature to brown.
Mixing the clams with the coating at The Clam Box

Mixing the clams with the coating at The Clam Box

  • Clam strips were made famous by Howard Johnson’s restaurants. They signed an exclusive contract with Thomas Soffron, who invented clam strips, which allowed them to serve fried clams across all of their U.S. locations. Whole belly clams don’t freeze well, so inventing “clam strips” to serve solved the problem. These became popular and can be found in many restaurants, however, if you want to really experience the sweet, juicy taste of a fried clam, you must enjoy the whole belly clams. The first person to fry them up and serve them was Lawrence Woodman of Woodman’s in Essex, Massachusetts.
Two Lights' fried clams

Two Lights’ fried clams. You can see the belly on this golden fried clam.

Our experience traveling the New England coast in search of the best fried clams brought about some eye-popping moments. At The Clam Box in Ipswich, Massachusetts, the clams were piled so high with a beautiful golden brown color. At Mabel’s Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport, Maine, the bellies on the clams were so large they looked like they were pregnant. At The Lobster Shack at Two Lights, outside Portland, Maine, the clams were once again overflowing. Surely, the visual food porn has to influence your perception of “the best.”

Two Lights - Cape Elizabeth, ME

The Lobster Shack at Two Lights – Cape Elizabeth, ME

A view from Two Lights

A view from The Lobster Shack at Two Lights

As previously mentioned, there were also some low points. Typically, it was due to overheated oil, old oil, too low a temperature resulting in greasy tasting clams, or too few clams for the price. Some actually had very little flavor, though they were beautifully presented and golden brown.

Farnham's fried clams

Farnham’s fried clams

We went in search of the best and on the day we visited, Mabel’s Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport was the clear winner. Their crispy, golden brown, whole belly clams were sweet and delicious. There was a nice brininess and enough flavor, in addition to being a sweet clam, to cause you to savor every bite. I also believe they use a little corn meal in their mix to add a little more texture to the coating.

Fried clams at Mabel's Lobster Claw - Kennebunkport, ME

Fried clams at Mabel’s Lobster Claw – Kennebunkport, ME

I mention “on the day we visited” because it’s important to remember what we pointed out at the beginning of this article. Each day the clam shacks must source from what’s available. Some days will clearly be better than others. Secondly, if you happen to arrive when the oil isn’t quite hot enough, or it’s just before they change out the oil, the quality and taste will be different.

There are just a few key variables that go in to making the best fried clams, but there are clearly certain clam shacks that try very hard to maintain the consistency of their product from sourcing to cooking and presentation. Here is a list of the clam shacks, in alphabetical order, that we think will provide an outstanding product, and may be the very best on any given day.

Bob’s Clam Hut – Kittery, Maine

The Clam Box – Ipswich, Massachusetts

The Clam Shack – Kennebunk, Maine

Essex Seafood – Essex, Massachusetts

Farnham’s – Essex, Massachusetts

The Lobster Shack at Two-Lights – Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Mabel’s Lobster Claw – Kennebunkport, Maine

Maine Diner – Wells, Maine

Woodman’s – Essex, Massachusetts

We tried other clam shacks, but they didn’t match the quality and taste of those mentioned above. We don’t think it’s fair after one sampling to suggest this was indicative of the everyday quality of their product, so we won’t make mention of them. Those mentioned above were all very good to excellent with Mabel’s being superior on this particular day.

Menu at Mable's Lobster Claw

Menu at Mable’s Lobster Claw

What’s your favorite clam shack on the New England coast from Boston to Portland? Let us know. We’re thinking of developing a similar list from Boston to Rhode Island, but I think we’ve had enough fried clams to keep us full for quite some time, so that list will have to wait.

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