When I married my husband, Matt, I got a lot of things: a kind, caring partner; a rambunctious pit bull-Jack Russell terrier mix; and an extended in-law family of lifelong New Englanders. Matt’s mom is one of five and his dad is one of seven, which means that there were a lot of people at family gatherings. As an only child, I was captivated by all of the commotion — and the array of good food.
Food was at the heart of all of the celebrations: Matt’s grandma Grace’s cheesy potatoes, glazed ham, tender meatballs, and lots more. Matt’s dad, Dave, got the family cooking gene, too. One of my first meals at my in-law’s was beef stew, which was infused with a savory spiciness that I couldn’t quite place. (It was pepperoni!) This kind of ingenuity spoke to my Midwestern roots, as the Midwest is a region where cooks liberally and lovingly use spiced, encased meats of all kinds.
As our family grew and we added our son, Gus, we began to have smaller family celebrations with Matt’s immediate family: Matt, Matt’s brother and his family, and Matt’s parents. One of the highlights is Gus’s birthday in mid-July. I’m always on cake duty, and in recent years Dave has started making a grilled clam boil for a fun main course.
What Is a Clam Boil (and Is It Different from a Clambake)?
As a New England newbie, I didn’t grow up with clam boils, a delicious mix of seafood, sausages, and veggies that you steam in a big pot. After doing a little research and talking to a few New England cooks, including my father-in-law, I found that there’s some debate about the difference between a clam boil and a clambake. Some cooks contend a clam boil is layered in a pot, and a clambake starts with digging a pit in the sand, then lining it with rocks, building a fire, and then layering in seaweed and your ingredients. Emeril, a Massachusetts native, makes his clam boil in a pot. Brooklyn-born Ina, on the other hand, uses a similar method and calls it a clambake. Ultimately, I think the difference between the terms comes down to who you ask. And because this is Dave’s recipe, we’re going with clam boil.
Why the Grilled Clam Boil Is Ingenious (and Easy!)
A classic clam boil comes together on the stove in a very large stockpot (Emeril calls for a 30-quart pot in his recipe), but Dave’s ingenious twist has guests build the boil in small aluminum loaf pans and moves the cooking to the grill. This great in so many ways. First, you don’t have to own, acquire, or wrestle with a giant pot. And everyone can choose what they like best. Here’s our real-life situation: Gus is a vegetarian, so he can skip the meat and seafood. Matt’s mom is pescatarian, so she can go all in on the seafood and pass on the meat. I like extra potatoes, so I can have it my way, too. Building the clam boils outside by the grill is also a fun party activity. Ready to get started? Follow these three easy steps.
- Choose your ingredients. This is your party, so choose whatever you like. We usually do corn and potatoes (parboil them first), onions, clams (cherrystones are Dave’s favorite), shrimp, hot dogs, smoky linguiça sausage, and pepperoni, of course.
- Set up your clam boil bar. Arrange the prepped ingredients, as well as various cooking liquids (clam juice and white wine are our faves) and spices on a table near the grill. Dave is a fan of Camp Mix, but Old Bay also shows up on the table. You’ll also want a stick of butter for slicing and adding to the mix. Pro tip: Add more butter than you think you should.
- Have everyone fill their clam boil pan. Now for the fun part! Grab a pan and load it up with your favorite things. Add some cooking liquid and a little too much butter, cover with foil, and mark your name on top. Hand it off to whoever is grilling and cook until everything is cooked to your liking. It’s as easy as that!
Serving Your Clam Boil
Once the clam boils are finished cooking, pull them off the grill (use hot pads — they’re hot!) and let them sit for a minute or two. Carefully peel off the foil and douse your clam boil with hot sauce, if you like. You’ll notice a fair amount of liquid in the bottom of the pan, which is a delicious combination of seafood and sausage juices, plus wine and butter. Make sure you have plenty of crusty bread for soaking up all of that good stuff. Serve with melted butter for drizzling over the corn and potatoes and for clam-dipping. When you’re done, cleanup is a snap: Just rinse well and recycle (check to see if your local area accepts lightly soiled aluminum foil!) the pans and the foil.
Dave's Make-Your-Own New England Clam Boil
Prep time 25 minutes to 30 minutes
Cook time 50 minutes to 55 minutes
- 5 pounds
clams, such as littleneck or cherrystone
- 2 1/2 pounds
small red potatoes (about 12)
- 1 tablespoon
kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
- 3 sticks
(12 ounces) salted butter, divided
- 1 pound
large raw shell-on shrimp (31 to 36 per pound), thawed if frozen
medium yellow onions
- 3 medium ears
- 1 (12 to 16-ounce) package
kielbasa, linguiça, or chorizo sausage
- 12 slices
Freshly ground black pepper
Old Bay and/or lemon pepper seasoning
- 4 1/2 to 6 cups
clam juice, dry white wine, or beer
Hot sauce, for serving
Crusty bread or rolls, for serving
Place 5 pounds littleneck or cherrystone clams in a large bowl of cool, salted water for 20 minutes to 1 hour. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes.
Place 2 1/2 pounds small red potatoes in a medium saucepan, cover with cool water by 1-inch, and add 1 tablespoon of the kosher salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are almost cooked through and a knife slides into the potato but meets slight resistance at the center, about 20 minutes. Drain.
When the clams are ready, drain, rinse, and scrub the clams to release any visible debris. Wipe out the bowl and return the clams to the bowl.
Heat an outdoor grill to direct, medium-high heat (375°F to 400°F). Meanwhile, cut 2 lemons into 6 wedges each and set aside for serving. Cut 12 tablespoons of the salted butter into 12 pieces and place in a small bowl. Place 1 pound large shrimp in a bowl.
Prepare the following, arranging in piles on a baking sheet: Cut the potatoes in half. Peel and cut 3 medium yellow onions into quarters. Shuck and break 3 ears corn in half with your hands.
Prepare the following, arranging in piles on a second baking sheet: Cut 6 hot dogs crosswise into thirds. Halve 12 to 16 ounces kielbasa lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 2-inch wide half-moons. Add 12 slices pepperoni.
Place 6 disposable loaf pans at one end of a table. Line up the following next to the pans in this order: clams, shrimp, veggies, meats, small bowl of kosher salt, black pepper, Old Bay and/or lemon pepper seasoning, butter, and 4 1/2 to 6 cups clam juice, dry white wine, or beer. Place a roll of aluminum foil and a permanent marker at the end of the table.
Let each person build their own clam boil in an aluminum pan: start with the clams and shrimp, then add meats and veggies as desired. Season the top of each serving with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay or lemon pepper seasoning. Place 2 pieces of the butter on the top, then pour in 3/4 to 1 cup clam juice, white wine, or beer. Cover each pan tightly with foil. Using the marker, write your name on the foil.
Place the pans on the grill, working in batches if needed. Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender, the meats are heated through, the shrimp are pink and firm, and the clams open, 20 to 25 minutes.
Use oven mitts to carefully remove the pans from the grill onto a heatproof surface or individual heatproof plates. Carefully uncover the clam boils (watch for steam) and discard any clams that didn’t open. Let the pans cool slightly. Meanwhile, place the remaining 1 1/2 sticks salted butter in a small saucepan. Heat on the grill until the butter melts, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour into 6 small bowls.
Serve the clam boils with the lemons, hot sauce, bread, and melted butter.