Turn garden pests into gourmet treats with this simple guide.
It’s true: you can eat the snails in your garden, at least they are if your yard and nearby properties don’t use any products that are harmful to humans. You’ll also need snails that are at least 1 1/2 inches across to make the whole venture worth your while.
How to harvest snails from your garden
Snails are largely nocturnal and like things damp and dreary so they love to hang out on the underside of succulents and long-leafed plants during the day. If you know there are snails in your garden, make things easy on yourself: Instead of searching here and there for a snail or two under a random leaves, set yourself up for abundant snail success by setting up a board on some rocks or bricks or whatever will keep it a few inches off the ground over some soil in a shady part of your yard. Check it in the morning. Chances are there will be scads of snails clinging to the underside of the board.
Pluck the snails you find from where they lay and plop them in a bucket or other container with high sides.
How to contain and care for the snails
Bring the bucket inside and fashion a cover for it. You need to keep the snails in (they move faster than one would think) and a free exchange of air. A few options:
- A screen set on top and weighed down with a brick works.
- A container with a plastic lid that snaps on and into which you have poked some holes is good.
- Depending on how many snails you have, a large glass jar with holes punched in the lid can work and lets you see just how much slime and poo they produce.
- A shockingly good “lid” can be made from an old pair of tights—cut off the legs of the tights and tie them close, stretch the waistband around the top of the bucket. The tights had the advantage of being something you can dampen each day to help keep the container slightly damp without having standing water in it.
Whatever container you use, sprinkle the snails with a bit of misty water each day after you clean the container, but make sure there isn’t a bunch of standing water on the bottom.• Keep the container in a cool, dark place. That’s what snails like. Tempting as it may be, I don’t suggest keeping the container outside. Both raccoons and skunks love to eat snails and building a raccoon-proof snail bucket seems to me a Herculean task.
How to purge snails
Who knows what those snails have been eating? You want to purge it all out. Start by giving them food they’re happy to eat and you’re happy to have them eat, then giving them time to process that cleans them from the inside out. The whole process can easily be sped up to five days. The key points are:
- To purge the snails, start by feeding them greens and herbs for a day or two. This lets you know what you’re starting with.
- Then feed them cornmeal or oatmeal for a day or two. Since this diet turns their poo white, you’ll know when other stuff is out of their systems. (Note: Gordon Ramsay recommends giving them carrots for this stage since it turns their poo orange!)
- Then give them nothing for a day or two before cooking them. (Note: Some people skip the starving stage, finding it cruel. I saw how much poo these little things make; I didn’t want to eat snails full of it.)
Throughout all of this, clean the container daily. You may be tempted to skip a day, thinking it won’t be that bad. It will be. It will be more than twice as gross. Part of the ick factor comes from the poo, of course, but just as much (if not more) comes from the slime snails leave all over everything. Two days worth of slime takes more than twice as long to clean and scrub out than does one day of slime. Trust me. Before you clean their container, transfer the snails to a large bowl or another container. You might want to keep the temporary container covered. A snail’s pace isn’t quite as slow as it’s made out to be.
How to prepare snails for cooking
Some people chill their snails before cooking them—sending them into a fake semi-hibernation. I found no difference in the taste or texture of the snails that I had chilled versus those I had not.
To prepare the snails to eat and save the shells to eat them in is simple, although it takes a few steps:
- Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
- Cook the snails for about 3 minutes.
- Drain the snails and rinse them with plenty of cool water.
- Use tweezers or pinchers to pull each snail from its shell.
- Bring a pot with 3 parts water to 1 part distilled white vinegar to a boil.
- Add the snails and cook until the slime is gone, about 3 minutes. You may think you can skip this step. You can, of course, since you are the boss of you, but you will end up with slimy specimens I doubt you’ll want to eat. When they re de-slimed, you will see what look like bits of curdled egg in the water: that’s the mucus you’ve cooked off from the snails.
You know have snails ready to stuff into their shells with garlic butter for escargots or cooked with bacon for a simple fall salad.
How to clean snail shells for serving
If you are making classic escargot, you’ll want to clean the shells for serving the snails.
Bring a pot of about 4 cups of water to a boil and add about 2 tablespoons of baking soda. Add the snail shells and boil for about 3 minutes. Drain and rinse the shells. Pat them dry and set them on a baking sheet or piece of foil and dry them in a hot oven.
Note that California snail shells tend to be not all that strong (we don’t have all the limestone in the soil that much of France does, and farmed snails are given a hefty supplement of calcium to strengthen their shells), so handle them gently. If you can use larger shells for smaller snails (using the larger snails for another dish), you’ll make things easier on yourself. Along with shells, you’ll need compound butter.