According to chef Arlin Smith, not all types of shellfish are worth grilling, but some can really shine with some smokiness from the grill. Smith is one of three co-owners of Big Tree Hospitality, a restaurant group in Portland, Maine, that includes Eventide, an eatery famed for its oysters and brown-butter lobster rolls.
A Maine transplant from the Midwest, Smith knows how to shop for shellfish, whether at a big chain grocery store or right off the fishing boats, so he shared his best tips for buying, preparing and grilling crustaceans and bivalves with TODAY Food.
Remember: Liquid is your friend. Shellfish are mostly water, so don't dump the liquid (aka "liquor") from shells — it helps to cook and flavor the meat.
How to grill oysters
"When it comes to oysters, it's very user-friendly because the heat is doing the work for you. You don’t have to think about how to open these and eat them raw," Smith said.
At the fish market or seafood section of your grocery store, look for larger, heartier varieties from cold water (anything from Connecticut, northwards) like Damariscotta River oysters because the meat will shrink down on the grill. Oysters are optimal for those without access to fresh shellfish because they're extremely resilient and can live out of water for up to two months after being farmed. As long as they're on ice, you're good to go.
Discard any oysters with open shells prior to cooking, and do not force open any shells that do not open on their own while cooking — you should toss those.
Here's how Smith preps and grills his oysters:
- Preheat the grill to medium-high heat. If cooking on a charcoal grill, this is the normal bed temperature.
- Place the oysters in their shells on the heat. Within about 5 minutes, the shells will begin to pop open on their own, which means the oyster is dead. Once they've popped, remove oysters from grill using tongs.
- One at a time, place the cup side of the shell down on a cutting board and, taking a sharp pairing knife or clam knife, run the blade through the middle of the shell in order to cut the adductor muscle (which holds the shell closed).
- Place opened oysters back on the grill and add sauces. Barbecue sauces, compound butters and vinaigrettes all work beautifully. A classic mignonette or anything with shallot and a little acid will also create a fresh, beautiful flavor. Once the sauce begins bubbling, about 2 minutes, remove from grill and plate.
How to grill mussels
Mussels are far more delicate than oysters. For this reason, it's best to steam them first, until the shells open, and then finish them on the grill. If they're cooked on the grill's intense heat for the whole time, their brittle shells can crack and break.
While steaming first may sound like an annoying extra step, it makes these delicious mollusks a marvelous make-ahead option, perfect for potlucks and parties. Just follow Smith's steps:
- In a pot with a steamer, bring your liquid (water, broth, wine or beer) to a gentle simmer, throw in mussels and steam until the shells begin opening, about 7 to 8 minutes for large varieties. Remove them with a slotted spoon as soon as they begin to open.
- Once cool enough to touch, remove mussel meat with your fingers.
- Rip the shells in half at center and discard one half.
- Place the meat back into its half shell and top with your favorite compound butter or sauce. Either plate, cover and refrigerate (if making ahead) or place onto grill at medium-high heat and cook just until sauce or butter melts and begins to bubble (about 2 to 3 minutes).
How to grill clams
According to Smith, the cooking method for clams really depends on the type of clam you buy. For this grill guide, the chef goes with a common variety called littleneck clams, which home grillers can treat pretty similarly to oysters.
And, just like with oysters, discard any clams with open shells and don't force open any shells that do not open on their own while cooking — those should be tossed.
- After preheating the grill to medium-high heat, lay clams out directly on the grates. When the shells begin to pop open (typically after about 5 minutes), remove from grill.
- Clams have two connectors that will need to be removed if the heat from the grill doesn't remove them. To do this, run a clam or pairing knife through the shell's center and underneath the meat until the shell pops completely open. This will loosen the meat off the shell.
- Discard half the shell and place meat in other half.
- For the sauce, clams (unlike oysters) don't want sweetness (like barbecue sauce). Instead, use butters with bright, citrusy notes, like lemon with diced shallot and herbs (thyme works well) to pair with the clams' more metallic flavors.
- Place back on the grill until the sauce begins to bubble, about 2 minutes.
How to grill lobster
For grilling lobster, you ideally want to purchase the crustacean alive from the tank at your local market so it maintains all its moisture until you cook it. Grilling it is super easy, infusing the meat with a subtly smoky flavor as the natural juices steam it.
How to prepare your lobsters:
- Place lobsters in the sink while you preheat the grill to medium-high.
- One at a time, hold the lobster down with one hand and, with a chef's knife, pierce the top of its head in the middle and then run the knife down lengthwise until you've cut the body in half.
- Remove the entrails from inside each lobster while it's still in the sink and discard.
- Place the lobsters shell-side down, with the meat facing up, on a tray.
How to grill them:
Season the meat with salt and pepper and brush with melted butter (don't overdo it — too much butter will cause the flame to flair up and impart a burnt flavor).
- On medium-high heat, place lobsters shell-side down, directly on the grates. The grill time varies depending on the lobster, but it shouldn't go any longer than 10 minutes. Once the shell has turned a vibrant red, has some black marks and the meat is no longer translucent, they're ready.
- Remove from the grill and serve with drawn butter.
How to grill shrimp
While cold water oysters can stay fresh on ice for months, shrimp are far more delicate, said Smith, so in order for them to survive the travel time when imported (which most are), they have to be frozen immediately after being caught on the boat or as soon as they're processed on land.
"Any octopus, squid, shrimp is frozen if you're eating it in the U.S. unless you're getting it locally off an actual boat," Smith said. "Being frozen, it's not bad. It's a way of preserving."
Because of depleted waters, shrimp can be difficult to buy fresh, so Smith never puts it on his menus. Still, bags of frozen shrimp from the supermarket are a convenient option for many, and Smith says grilling is a great way to maximize flavor.
- Look for head-off, shell-on shrimp that are little larger (like a 21/25 count). The count labeled on bagged shrimp represents how many shrimp there are per pound. The lower the count, the larger the shrimp. The shell creates a layer of protection for the grill's high heat so they retain their moisture.
- Marinade shrimp ahead of time in something acidic, like garlic and vinegar or spiced yogurt.
- On medium-high heat, place shrimp directly on the grill (or on a skewer) and cook about 3 minutes per side, until the shrimp is pink and completely opaque and the shells have a nice char.
- Remove, serve with your favorite sides and enjoy!
How to grill scallops
When you're shopping for scallops at the market, Smith advises asking the fishmonger what the scallops were packed in. If they were packed in a solution (typically a mixture of a brine with sodium) to help hold moisture artificially, avoid buying for the grill because it can actually cause the scallops to leach out their liquid. Instead, look for sea, diver or day boat scallops (bay scallops are too small to grill) that are fresh or frozen, juicy and fat.
To ensure you get the right size, Smith says to make an "OK" symbol — you want the scallop to be the size of your pointer finger to your thumb, or bigger.
- Give scallops a gentle massage with a brush of olive oil and season simply with salt and pepper. The thin oil coating will help them to not stick and pull apart on the grill. A very clean, hot grill will also help them from sticking.
- Gently crush one side of the scallop by pressing down lightly with your fingers and place on medium-high heat, about 4 minutes per side.
Gently turn them and just touch the other side, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove them from the grill and enjoy.
"Grilled scallops really shine in grilled salad — getting that nice char with sweet flavor. Pull them off, cool them down," said Smith. "They can be peeled like mozzarella sticks. Tear them up into three to five pieces per scallop. Serve with a spoon on a charcuterie board. It can be made ahead and served cold. It's one of my favorite things."