Clams, mussels, and oysters belong to the group of shellfish known as bivalves, and they can all be grilled in the same fashion. These two-shelled creatures are easy to cook; when they open, they are done. One of the biggest challenges when cooking bivalves is making sure they are clean. Even perfectly cooked clams and mussels can be made inedible by lingering sand. Over the course of developing our recipe, we learned that careful shopping plays the most important role in minimizing your kitchen work and ensuring that your shellfish are free of grit. While steaming is the easiest way to cook clams and mussels (oysters are often eaten raw on the half shell), grilling these bivalves is an appealing option, especially for summer entertaining. It's also an incredibly simple preparation. The key to great bivalves on the grill is not to move the shellfish around too much, and to handle them carefully once they open. You want to preserve the natural juices, so when they open, transfer them with tongs to a platter, holding them steady so as not to spill any of the liquid. Add an easy sauce or flavored butter to complement the natural brininess of the shellfish.
Hard-neck clams (that is, littlenecks or cherrystones) are worth the extra money because they remain tightly closed when harvested, keeping the meat inside free of sand. We recommend purchasing rope-cultured mussels for the same reason. In general, we prefer oysters from cold northern waters, because they tend to be briny and have a flavor that's more crisp than that of oysters from warmer southern waters. And always look for tightly closed clams, mussels, and oysters (avoid any that are gaping; they may be dying or dead). The clams may take slightly longer to cook on a gas grill than they do on a charcoal grill. If you like, serve the clams with lemon wedges, hot sauce, and some tomato salsa.
1A. For a charcoal grill: Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
1B. For a gas grill: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave all burners on high.
2. Clean and oil cooking grate. Place clams on grill and cook (covered if using gas), without turning, until clams open, 6 to 10 minutes.
3. Using tongs, carefully transfer clams to platter, trying to preserve juices. If desired, discard top shells and loosen meat in bottom shells before serving.
Substitute 2 pounds scrubbed and debearded mussels for clams. Grill as directed in step 2, decreasing cooking time to 3 to 5 minutes.
Substitute 24 oysters for clams. Grill as directed in step 2, decreasing cooking time to 3 to 5 minutes.
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Grilled Clams, Mussels, or Oysters with Spicy Lemon Butter
Prepare the butter while the grill heats up. Have your guests remove the meat of the shellfish with small forks and dip it into this tangy, spicy butter.
Melt 4 tablespoons unsalted butter in small saucepan over medium-low heat. Off heat, add 1 tablespoon hot sauce, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cover to keep warm. Grill clams, mussels, or oysters as directed. Discard top shells. Pour warm butter mixture into serving bowl; serve shellfish with lemon wedges and warm butter for dipping.
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