Clam sauce is a popular topping for pasta, especially linguine. There’s no single way to make it, which is one of the wonderful things about it — like so many Italian dishes, it’s very flexible and can accommodate many different tastes. When served over pasta, it’s also one of the most economical meals one can prepare either for oneself or for the entire family.
There are generally two different types of clam sauce: red and white. The main difference between them is that the red has tomatoes. Red clam sauce can be made with fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes, canned tomato paste or sauce.
When fresh clams are used, they’re generally steamed, the shells discarded, and the meat used with the naturally-occurring clam juice. Using fresh clams adds time, cost and effort to the sauce’s preparation, though, and it’s perfectly acceptable to use canned or frozen clams. Some markets sell cans of cooked baby clams, and most carry canned clams which have been either chopped or minced. All three varieties are fine, and some cooks combine two or three varieties when making large amounts. If frozen clams are used, it’s advisable to also purchase a bottle of clam juice to add to the sauce.
Garlic and onions are standard ingredients of most clam sauces, and olive oil is the most popular choice of oils. Other ingredients are sometimes called for as well, the most popular of which are mushrooms and anchovies, either fillets or paste. If anchovy fillets are used, they’re cooked to dissolve in the oil; they’re never intended to be served whole. These ingredients are generally prepared before the clams are added; in fact, the clams are usually added last, immediately before serving.
Traditional Italian seasonings such as oregano, basil, marjoram and parsley are usually used in making clam sauce. A touch of tarragon will add a seaside flavor, and many recipes also call for small quantities of lemon juice. Cooks who want a spicier sauce will add crushed red pepper flakes or hot sauce in small amounts. If the sauce becomes too watery, it’s acceptable to use flour in small amounts to thicken it.
Clam sauce can usually be prepared very quickly; in fact, it generally takes longer to prepare the pasta than it does to cook the sauce. Some sauce recipes, however, are more involved, calling for wine, additional clam juice or chicken stock as liquids, which must be cooked down to blend the flavors properly. Red sauce can also take significantly longer if fresh or canned whole tomatoes are used, as they have to cook down. If tomato paste or sauce are used, though, they add only a few moments to the preparation time. Clams require very little cooking time, and should be added last to the sauce, just a few moments before serving.
Linguine is the overwhelming choice of pastas when preparing clam sauce. It should be prepared al dente, that is, just a touch firm and chewy. Cooks can be very flexible in how they prepare the linguine once it’s been cooked and drained, although most prefer to toss it with butter or olive oil, with just a touch of salt and pepper, before serving.
Some cooks prefer to mix the sauce into the linguine before serving it. Others serve the two separately and let their guests serve themselves. Linguine with clam sauce should be served with grated or shredded Parmesan or Asiago cheese, a fresh garden salad and garlic bread.