The whelk is from a family of sea snails that are found all over the world, including in the Atlantic off the coast of the Northeast United States, the U.K., and parts of the Pacific. The gastropod can range in size from just a couple of inches to several inches long. It's typically boiled quickly before being served in a myriad of dishes.
What Is Whelk?
The whelk is a sea snail from the family Buccinidae that has elegantly spiraled shells and, when properly cooked, tender and succulent meat. It's popular in Europe, where it is commonly served at seaside stands in Britain, on seafood platters at brasseries in France (where it's known as bourgot), and in pasta dishes and salads in Italy (where the larger varieties are called scungilli). The snail can be served in its shell or removed and incorporated into dishes with relatively minimal prep. While whelk can be a little hard to find in parts of the U.S., it is not especially expensive for shellfish since its often a bycatch.
How to Cook Whelk
Whelk should be scrubbed and rinsed a few times in cool water before cooking. it's typically boiled in salted water for just a few minutes (depending on the size). The quick cooking time will keep the meat tender since overcooking can make whelk rubbery and tough. It can be served in the shell, often with a drizzle of vinegar or a butter dipping sauce. Before plating, lift off the thin, tough covering (called the operculum) at the opening of the shell. If you plan to remove the whelk from its shell, use a fork to extract the meat and remove the dark back section. The shell is inedible.
After boiling, whelk can be served as is or tossed into a pasta dish or seafood salad. You can even grill it quickly over high heat.
What Does Whelk Taste Like?
Whelk has a briny and sweet flavor, not dissimilar to clams. It has a pleasantly chewy texture when not overcooked—it can become tough when cooked too long. Larger varieties of whelk have a meatier texture than smaller varieties. It pairs nicely with butter and a touch of acid from vinegar or fresh lemon.
Abalone vs. Whelk
Abalone, once a popular menu option at fancy seafood restaurants, has been nearly fished to extinction. The well-regulated shellfish is celebrated for its rich, sweet, and tender meat. While the large gastropod is related to sea snails, it's a different animal entirely. Whelk is typically smaller than abalone (although some varieties are similar in size) and housed in a spiral shell rather than a flat shell. It is also much cheaper and serves as a good substitute for abalone. Whelk requires less preparation than abalone but is more prone to chewiness.
The most common small variety is simply sold as "whelk." They are tender and easy to cook up at home. Larger varieties are often sold as scungilli, which can include the knobbed whelk and channeled whelk. In Scotland and Britain, red whelk is sometimes called a buckie. Periwinkles, which are sea snails in the family Littorinidae, are often mistakenly referred to as a whelk, as are conchs from the family Strombidae.
Whelk can be served directly from the shell with a butter sauce, quickly grilled, deep-fried, or incorporated into pasta or salads. It can be used in recipes in place of similar seafood like conch, abalone, or even a clam. For each of these recipes, swap the seafood for just-cooked, shelled whelk.
Where to Buy Whelk
Look for whelk on menus at seafood-centric restaurants and from chefs who like to feature less-common ingredients. In the U.S., you're more likely to find them in the Northeast or here and there on the West Coast.
If you're lucky enough to live on the coast and have access to a good fishmonger, ask if they carry whelk. Whelk is typically sold live, in its shell, by the pound. Buy the freshest whelk possible and cook it up as soon as you can for the best results. Frozen whelk is sometimes available in Italian markets or at seafood counters. The meat is cooked before freezing and can be defrosted and added to sauces or sautés.
Whelk is best when bought live and fresh and cooked as soon as possible. Store in the fridge for up to 24 hours before cooking. Leftovers will keep for a day in an airtight container in the fridge, but, like most seafood, whelk is best eaten freshly cooked.