Similar to how chickens need to be plucked before you call them poulets, and fish need to be cleaned before you call them poissons, snails need a makeover before you call them escargot. Maybe it's the washing, soaking, shelling and parboiling, but turning fresh garden snails into escargot a la Bourguignon -- or snails prepared in the style of Burgundy, France, where it all began -- feels like something akin to alchemy. And whether they're from Burgundy or your local grocery store, preparing escargot in the shell makes you feel like a world-class chef.
Preparing Fresh Snails
Use a sharp knife to cut away the membrane covering the openings of the shells, if you're using fresh snails. Cover the snails in about 3 inches of cold water mixed with 1/4 cup of salt for every 25 to 30 snails.
Soak the snails for about 4 hours, changing the water and rinsing the shells when you see greenish mucus or white froth building up on the surface. Discard any snails that float.
Boil the snails in fresh water for about 10 minutes, skimming the froth from the water as it appears, and transfer them to a bowl filled with ice water.
Pick the snails out of the shell using a skewer and trim off the intestine, the greenish-black protrusion attached to the bodies. Rinse the snails in a colander under cool running water and place them in a shallow dish lined with cornmeal.
Rub the snails between your palms and fingers with cornmeal to remove the last vestiges of mucus.
Rinse the shells under cool running water while rubbing your fingers over them to clean them and allow them to air dry.
Fill a pot with lightly salted water and simmer the snails until tender, about 1 hour for small snails and 2 hours for meaty snails. Rinse the snails under cold running water and place them on a towel to drain and dry.
Turn Up the Heat
Rinse the brine from canned snails, if you are using them, with running water and set aside.
Make a compound butter by combining room-temperature butter with aromatics and herbs. Escargot prepared in the style of Burgundy uses compound butter made of freshly chopped parsley, a drizzle of white wine, minced shallots, minced garlic, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, but you can use any herbs you like. Place the butter in a bowl and let it firm up in the refrigerator.
Heat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour about 1 inch of salt or dry beans in a shallow baking dish. The salt or beans will hold the shells with the opening pointing upwards so the butter won't spill during cooking.
Insert the snails into their shells. Scoop a spoonful of cold compound butter into the shell openings and position the shells opening-side-up in the salt or beans.
Roast the snails until sizzling, about 5 or 6 minutes. Remove the dish and serve the escargot on an escargot tray with escargot tongs and forks.
- Sprinkle panko breadcrumbs over the butter-filled snails before placing them in the oven for a crispy, golden-brown texture.
- If you want to take a minimalist approach to escargot, simmer them in salted water with mirepoix until tender, about 1 to 2 hours depending on their size, after you clean them. Saute the escargot in butter until golden brown.
- Clean the snail shells after serving and store them in a dry place. Use the shells for escargot in the future if you buy canned snails.
- Instead of using a whole baking dish of salt for escargot, you can use a muffin tin with each hole filled with a small amount of salt.
- You might have more than one species of snail living in your backyard. Only eat backyard snails you can positively identify as Helix aspersa or Helix locorum. Keep backyard snails in a perforated box filled with 1/2 inch of cornmeal for one week, rinsing them and changing the cornmeal every other day, before cooking them. Eating other snail species won't hurt you, but they usually don't taste good and aren't big enough to make them worth the trouble.
- Handle snail shells delicately.
A.J. Andrews' work has appeared in Food and Wine, Fricote and "BBC Good Food." He lives in Europe where he bakes with wild yeast, milks goats for cheese and prepares for the Court of Master Sommeliers level II exam. Andrews received formal training at Le Cordon Bleu.