Many people love seafood, but they can feel somewhat overwhelmed with all the possibilities when it comes to cooking it. When it comes to clams and mussels, that feeling can be great, indeed.
While there are differences in how each tastes, they have similar flavor profiles. The flavors of clams and mussels have definite seafood overtones, and no one will mistake either for chicken. However, where clams can bring a fishy taste to a dish, mussels generally don’t.
Cooking either clams or mussels often involves steaming them, though other methods can yield delicious meals, which goes for freshwater and saltwater clams and mussels.
Difference Between Clams and Mussels
The main difference between clams and mussels lies in their taste. Clams tend to bring a more robust, saltier, fishier taste to a dish, where mussels have the sea flavor of most seafood but do not taste fishy.
Clams vs Mussels: How They Compare
Here’s how they compare:
- Appearance: Both are fleshy on the inside, but clams usually have rounder shells, while mussel shells are often irregularly shaped. Even clams with oblong shells still have symmetrical construction.
- Flavor: Clams taste like seafood— salty, briny, somewhat fishy (though not overwhelmingly so), while mussels have an earthier flavor in addition to the saltwater overtones; some people identify mushroom flavors in mussels.
- Consistency: Like oysters, clams and mussels both have a chewiness to them, and both are chewier than oysters (clams are usually the chewier of the two). If prepared poorly, mussels can be pretty rubbery.
- Shelf Life: Clams can last in the refrigerator for one to two days, whereas mussels can last as long as five days (remember, though, that once clams and mussels die, they begin to decay, so if they smell bad, don’t eat them, as they’ve turned and can make you ill).
- Use Cases: Clams are better for eating raw than mussels, but other than that, both clams and mussels go well in soups, pasta dishes, paella, and the like.
|Appearance||Round or oval shells colored tan, beige, or white; shells are smooth and shiny||Irregularly shaped shells colored blue, black, or green; shells are a bit rougher than clamshells but not as rough as oyster shells|
|Habitat||Saltwater and freshwater||Saltwater and freshwater|
|Nutrition||iron, zinc, selenium, and B12||Vitamin B (1, 2, 3, 5, and 12), manganese, selenium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium|
|Preparation||Raw or cooked as an entree (often steamed) or as part of a dish||Rarely eaten raw, most often steamed or boiled, and usually need a sauce|
|Taste||Briny and fishy, though not overwhelmingly so||Milder (meaning less of a briny seafood taste) than clams with earthier flavors alongside the softer salty notes|
While clams and mussels aren’t the same, they’re similar enough that one can easily substitute for another. Both are shellfish and bivalve mollusks, the same as oysters, meaning they’re similar to oysters in flavor and consistency. You might also find a pearl in a clam or mussel.
Can you make clam chowder with mussels? Absolutely. It technically won’t be clam chowder since it doesn’t have any clams in it. Still, the taste difference, especially with all the other flavors of clam chowder in effect, will be negligible to all but the most discerning clam chowder connoisseurs.
The only issue you may encounter when substituting one for the other is their size differences. While most mussel varieties usually grow to be about four inches long, some clams can be six inches long or longer. (Inedible clams can grow to lengths measured in feet and weigh more than 500 pounds.)
Clams are typically larger than mussels, so when a recipe calls for a certain number of clams, you’d need to use more mussels and vice versa.
But since many recipes for clam or mussel dishes specify weight rather than a specific number of mussels or clams, using two pounds of clams instead of two pounds of mussels is pretty straightforward.
If you want to substitute clams for mussels or mussels for clams because you’re out of one but have the other, you’ll have good luck using them interchangeably. You can substitute vegetable stock for clam juice, for example, when making a clam base if you’re out of both.
If your vegan friends want to have clam chowder they can live with, king oyster mushrooms inexplicably can bring a seafood brininess to a dish without violating vegan ethics.
As mentioned earlier, clams are bivalve mollusks. This classification means they breathe and feed through gills, as they are filter feeders. They have two shells (each referred to as a valve, hence the name) that they make themselves out of calcium carbonate they produce.
They burrow into the sand, which is why, when people harvest them, they dig for clams. The clams have a kind of foot on the bottom of their shells that allows them to dig into the sand where they can partially bury themselves and filter water through their gills.
This filtration feeds the clams and cleans the water around them. Their ability to filter the water makes clams important to the ecosystem, as they make the water more habitable for other sea and river creatures.
There are more than 15,000 species of clams in the world, and while not all are edible, the ones you can eat can be pretty delicious and nutritious. They are high in protein and contain no saturated fats, although those fats may be otherwise present in a dish made with clams.
Clams taste similar to oysters, though not precisely the same. If you’ve never had oysters, though, that’s no help. Their buttery, chewy texture is as much a part of the taste as the actual flavors, including the briny taste of seawater.
There is also a fishy taste to clams, though it’s not offensive. Unless the clam isn’t fresh or is poorly prepared, you shouldn’t encounter a powerful fishy taste or aroma.
Earlier, we mentioned eating clams raw, as well as clam chowder. But there are many ways to prepare clams, and they can be cooked whole, or they can be chopped or sliced. Linguine with clams is a popular dish, but you can stir-fry them, bake them, even grill them.
Mussels have much in common with clams— they have two hinged shells, feed via filtering, and taste good. One of the main differences is that they are primarily sessile, meaning they don’t move very much through their lives.
Some mussels can move, as some species have a foot like clams do and can use it to move short distances. However, most mussels species attach themselves to a substrate with byssus threads which they secrete and are surprisingly strong. Once attached to something, they usually remain that way for the rest of their lives, which can be 12 years or more.
There are about 800 species of mussels in the world, but only 17 of those are edible. Each of those 17 species needs to be cooked before eating. While eating clams and oysters raw presents a small risk of food-borne illness, raw mussels can pose serious health risks for anyone with any of these comorbidities:
- Extended steroid use (prescription steroids, not anabolic ones for cheating weightlifters)
- Hemochromatosis, an iron disorder
- Immuno-suppressive ailments such as HIV
- Liver disease
- Stomach issues, such as low stomach acid
Incidentally, the main threat to anyone when eating raw seafood is contracting vibriosis. Caused by the Vibrio bacteria, vibriosis symptoms can include diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. It is often mistaken for plain food poisoning. Healthy patients bounce back within a few days.
Mussels taste very much like clams, which explains why they’re so easily substituted for them. Both have an ocean taste, but mussels are much less fishy. They tend to have an earthier flavor than clams or oysters.
Steamed, boiled, or cooked in a broth, mussels bring a less fishy taste to your seafood dishes. As mentioned earlier, since they’re nearly interchangeable with clams, you can conceivably make any clam dish with mussels instead with few problems, if any.
Cooking mussels in wine yields any number of variations on a recipe for drunken mussels, as the alcohol and complex flavors of the wine interact really nicely with mussels and heat.
One thing to watch for is how well the cooked mussel opens. If a mussel doesn’t open when cooked, it should be considered unsafe for consumption. The issue can be one of two things:
- The mussel was dead when it was harvested, in which case you’d be eating something that had been decaying for some time.
- Not enough heat was applied to the mussel in the cooking process, and undercooked mussels can, as we’ve already seen, be health hazards.
Heat dissolves the mussel’s adductor muscles, so if those aren’t fully dissolved, you know you didn’t get enough heat. Discard those mussels.
You might also be interested in: green vs black mussels comparison.