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Clams vs. Muscles

This is a close look at the dish with clams and mussels on ice and lemon.

We hope you get the joke in the title. The delicious delicacy mussels, pronounced muscles, often get misspelled. People also often confuse it with clams.

Both clams and mussels taste delicious. They have that in common. The two foods also closely resemble one another. They belong to the same taxonomic class — bivalves.

When you want to differentiate, you must look at the scientific differences. They differ in both habits and habitats.

Related: What to Serve with Steamed Clams | Types of Clams | Clams vs. Oysters | How to Clean Clams | How to Store Clams | Clam Alternatives

What Makes a Clam a Clam?

Think of clams as the shy type of bivalve mollusks. These delicious edible mollusks reside in burrows. You must dig to find them. The shyness joke aside, this intelligent creature hides itself in the sand as a protection mechanism. It makes it tougher for predators to locate it.

While they get referred to differently in the US and UK, consider it nothing more than a toe-may-toe or toe/mah/toe type thing. The definition of a clam remains the same regardless of how you say it.

This is a close look at a few pieces of clams.

A clam’s body consists of two equally-sized, broad roundish shells. Although it may surprise you, clams can feel emotions. When they feel safe, they open their shells to expose their inner self. (That’s the part humans cook and eat.) When a clam feels alarmed or threatened, they close their shells to protect themselves from danger. They create such a tight seam from closing this shell that they inspired multiple idiomatic phrases in the English language, including to “clam up.”

Conversely, you can also be said to be “happy as a clam” which describes when a clam feels completely safe and opens its shell widely. Clams have no heads, rather like Ichabod Crane after he became the headless horseman. They have no eyes, therefore are blind. Their related seafood buddy, the scallop has eyes.

This is a table depicting the nutritional values you get from eating clams.

With respect to gender, depending on their species, clams can be male or females, or hermaphrodites. Softshell clams typically are born either male or female. Some species can change gender from male to female or female to male. Although they have both genders, and they can feel some emotions, they do not date, woo mates, nor marry. The clams of a specific gender use a method called broadcast spawning. Each gender sends its reproductive cells out into the water.

The males send sperm, and the females send eggs. These travel the ocean tossed about by the waves, and when sperm and egg find each other and join, a baby clam occurs. From its birth, the baby clam exhibits wanderlust. It roams the ocean as it grows. Only when it reaches adulthood does the clam find a spot on the floor of the body of water and burrow to make a home.

This versatile creature serves as both delicious food and an important textile. Its shells become buttons, money, and aquaria. A variety of world cultures cook with clams, and they feature heavily in the cuisines of Asian countries, Europe, and the US. Whether you eat sautéed clams in garlic butter or clam chowder, it will probably taste fabulous.

Giving Mussels Their Muscle

This is a close look at a few pieces of mussels.

The term mussel refers to a bivalve creature that can live in freshwater or saltwater ecosystems. Mussels just aren’t that picky about their water, but they do get attached to where they live. In a literal sense, the seafaring mussel and the freshwater mussel has a foot which allows them to attach themselves to solid objects. In freshwater mussels, this foot takes on a hatchet shape. The suction cup-like foot allows them to move across the ocean floor or floor of the freshwater body to determine where they would like to live.

The mussel also belongs to the group of edible bivalves within the family of Mytilidae. These edible mussels travel until they find their desired home, then attach to a substrate there, such as sand, silt, or rock. This home resides in the intertidal zone, also called the seashore or foreshore. Those terms refer to the area of the shoreline that is above water level at low tide but at high tide goes underwater.

They typically pick a substrate that remains partially exposed, making most of them a bit different from the clam who likes to bury itself. There are a few species of mussels who like living in the deep-seas, around hydrothermal vents.

While clams have a roundish shell shape, a mussel’s shell shape takes on length. Its prominent foot sticks out and makes it obviously not a clam. Despite the suction cup foot, ocean waves could easily dislodge it, so it takes power in numbers. Mussels live in groups or clumps on the same substrate. You might see a gathering of them attached to a rock.

They form symbiotic colonies, meaning they help each other out. At low tide, the mussels in the center of the clump have no water directly available, but the other mussels pitch in and share their water.

This is a table depicting the nutritional values you get from eating mussels.

Mussels have distinctive gender, either being female or male. Similar to the process of clams, the males send their sperm out into the water. The females suck the sperm into themselves, but the fertilization occurs externally. Outside of their mom, they develop into larvae that attach to one of a few specific species of fish.

The fish species depend on the mussel species. The larvae attach the fish’s fins or gills and hitch a ride for about two weeks during which time, they age to the point of being able to fend for themselves. This two-week stage of early life is called glochidia. At two weeks, the bivalve mollusk stakes out its clump and assumes the underwater version of apartment building life.

Frequently Asked Questions

The world of bivalves remains diverse. Questions arise about everything from how to cook them to whether they are all edible. (They are not.)

Do you cook clams and mussels the same way?

Both can be steamed, boiled, baked, sautéed, fried, or roasted. You can eat clams raw, however, you cannot do this with mussels.

How do mussels and clams differ in taste?

The mussel has a milder flavor and takes on the flavor of whatever else goes into the dish. This makes them similar to cooking with tofu. They remain tender when cooked and chewy. Clams taste saltier and more assertive. They taste fishy and, like mussels, exhibit a chewy texture. When overcooked, their texture becomes rubbery.

In what types of dishes can you use these mollusks?

This fabulous source of seafood protein works well in many types of dishes. Clams became famous in the US as a part of New England Clam Chowder. The French sometimes flavor lobster bisque with them. Both options work well in soups. Clams are also popular bar foods whether served raw or as fried clams.

Mussels work as an ideal ingredient in paella and seafood scampi. Either seafood delight works well steam and dipped into a butter sauce. Numerous ways exist to enjoy these shellfish, so conduct a search on your favorite search engine for recipes.

Why do clams and mussels cost so much?

Neither of these shellfish is easy to obtain, so edible clams and mussels cost a bit more. It takes a lot of effort to find clams since you must dig for them. Similarly, once you find a clump of mussels, you must detach them from their substrate. The fishing industry prefers fish you can easily catch with nets.

This quicker, cheaper manner of obtaining a fish catch prevails. Few people dig for clams or hunt for mussel clumps. It is all a matter of labor costs and overhead. You can get around this if you live on the coast or near a freshwater source that has mussels or clams living in it. You can dig for them or hunt for them yourself. It is up there with finding crawdads in a creek for stew.