Frequently Asked Questions: The Atlantic Razor Clam

Video Feature: How To Prepare Razor Clams for Raw Use

Q: What is a razor clam?

A “razor clam” is a general term for an elongated saltwater clam that resembles a closed straight razor. Different razor clam species can be found across the coasts of North America. There are over 23 species in the Atlantic alone. The most common Atlantic razor, however, is the Ensis directus, or more commonly known as the Atlantic jackknife clam.

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Q: Where can you find razor clams?

Razor clams can be found in intertidal and subtidal zones of bays and estuaries. They are filter feeders with short siphons, so they live just beneath the surface to feed. When low tides expose the bottom, they dig and burrow themselves deeper into the mud with their strong muscular feet. They are extremely sensitive to vibrations, so depending on where they’re being attacked from, they can propel themselves out of their burrows or dig even deeper to escape.

Q: How are razor clams harvested?

There are a number of ways to harvest razor clams depending on which zone they live in:

Subtidal Razor Clams

Razor clams found in the subtidal zone are usually diver caught and harvested by hand because of their brittle shells. The subtidal zone never goes dry, therefore the only way to access them is to dive underwater to reach the bottom.

Intertidal Razor Clams (most common in New England)

Harvesting razors from the intertidal zone may not require diving gear, but the clams are also harvested by hand. At low tides, the water recedes to give diggers access to the bottom. Diggers must dig quickly or use tricks and tools like clam guns and salt solutions to catch these fast movers. In Massachusetts, a salt solution is sprayed into their burrows. This salinity disturbs the clams enough to get them to emerge from their holes. Diggers then pull the razors by hand before they escape.

Q: Why are razor clams so limited? When are they available?

Razor clams are a limited item because they must be harvested gently and by hand. Unlike other shellfish, they cannot be dredged. Subtidal razors cannot be harvested in great supply and intertidal razors can only be harvested if ­all of the following conditions are true:

  1. Low negative tides to access the sea bed

  2. Low negative tides within daylight hours

  3. Weather and air temperatures permitting

Tides are dictated by the pull of gravity between the Moon and the Earth. When the moon aligns with the sun twice a month (New Moon and Full Moon), this pull of gravity (or tractive force) causes high tides to be higher and low tides to be lower. These extreme low tides are the opportune times for razor clamming, but if they occur outside of daylight hours, no shellfishing will be allowed.

Summer is a good time for razors because there’s a longer window for low tide to occur during daylight hours. In other seasons, checking low tides on a tide chart will be useful in predicting when razors may be available in a given month.

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What to look for in a tide chart   Look in the “low” column for negative tides. Each area is different, but the smaller the number, the lower the tide. if the time of the negative tide falls within daylight (see “Sun” column), likely chances there will be razors available around that date,  weather permitting . These tides will coincide with the new moon and full moon (see “Moon” column) in each month.

What to look for in a tide chart

Look in the “low” column for negative tides. Each area is different, but the smaller the number, the lower the tide. if the time of the negative tide falls within daylight (see “Sun” column), likely chances there will be razors available around that date, weather permitting. These tides will coincide with the new moon and full moon (see “Moon” column) in each month.

Q: What’s the best way to transport and keep razor clams fresh?

When transporting razor clams, it is important to make sure they are packed tightly so they do not move around. Their shells are fragile and susceptible to breakage. Some harvesters will make bundles and band them together with rubber bands to help them stay closed and alive. If transporting with wet ice, the containers should have drainage to prevent the clams from sitting in still water. The best way to keep razor clams fresh is in a fridge with a damp towel over them, making sure there is plenty of drainage.

Q: What is a razor clam’s shelf life? How soon should it be used?

We recommend using these clams immediately for the best results, especially if serving them raw. The typical shelf life of a razor clam is about 5 days from harvest.

Q: How do I prepare or clean a razor clam?

Razor clams can be easily steamed open, so they do not require much prep besides a rinse. If you’re using them raw, however, you’ll want to clean off some debris. In this video, Bekah shares a quick overview on how to prepare razor clams for raw use.

Q: What are some ways to serve razor clams?

  1. Raw: slice only the foot section thinly and serve back in the shell. Garnish with herbs, oils, caviars, and other aromatic elements.

  2. Ceviche: using the foot section, slice it thinly and toss it with fresh citrus juice. Let it sit for a few hours before serving with your favorite corn or potato chips.

  3. Grilled: put the entire rinsed clam on the grill over high heat just until they open – finish with lemon juice, salt, and olive oil for a simple yet classic treat.

  4. Sauté: Begin by sweating onions, garlic, and/or shallots and then add the clams and a bit of white wine. Once the clams open up, transfer to a dish and serve. Garnish with fine herbs. These can also be removed from the shell, chopped and tossed with the cooking liquid as a sauce for pasta.

  5. Seared: remove one shell and season the clam. Place meat side down on a hot surface (like a griddle, plancha, or heavy bottomed pan) for just a few minutes until the meat has a light brown color. Remove and garnish as you would for a raw preparation.

  6. Poached: remove the meats (foot and belly) completely from the shell and place in a heavy bottomed pot and cover with olive oil. Add garlic cloves, whole mustard seeds and whole coriander seeds. Bring from room temperature to a warm state over medium low heat. Pull from the heat and cool when you see small bubbles start to rise from the clams. Cool and serve on toast with fresh aioli and parsley.

When Are Razor Clams Available and How To Check the Tides

Many of our customers ask, "Do you have any razor clams available today?"

The short answer is, it depends on the tide. Lori explains, "[Harvesters] actually shove their hands into the mud just to grab the clams and do them one by one. So it's a little bit of an arduous task. The tides do have to be either negative or particularly low, and they have to fall in daylight hours."

Customers can check when razor clams may become available by looking at tide charts. US Harbors has a great site that covers tide charts all along the US coasts. Here is an example of a tide chart:

Example of a tide chart from USHarbors.com showing tide schedule in Cape Cod Canal, East Sandwich.

Example of a tide chart from USHarbors.com showing tide schedule in Cape Cod Canal, East Sandwich.

What To Look for in the Tide Chart

To identify potential razor clam harvest times, check for 0.0 to negative tides under the "Low" column. Then, see the corresponding times and make sure they are within daylight hours outlined under the columns with the sun.

Remember, it takes diggers some time to harvest these bad boys, so one hour before sunset will not be enough time. A good example of potential razor clam availability is December 6-8, Fri - Sun. You can see on the chart that these tides are negative, low tide is after sunrise, and there is plenty of time before sunset to give the harvesters time to dig.

But there are also other considerations besides the tide!

Weather conditions tend to be the primary culprit. Sometimes it can be too windy or there may be an impending storm that will change the optimal time for harvesting. It can be a bit unpredictable, so we HIGHLY recommend to our customers to use razor clams as a special rather than an everyday menu item due to irregular supply.

Make sure to check the location of the tide charts because every area has a different tide schedule. If you want to learn more, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife has a great article that explains the process and terminology.

Think you got what it takes to harvest your own? Watch this man dig!

Source: The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and The Seattle Times