How to Forage and Eat Garden Snails

By Iso Rabins

Iso Rabins of forageSF is guest blogging for us every once in a while. Read his last post on his underground restaurant. Follow him on Twitter @forageSF.

You’ve probably had escargots. Delicious, aromatic, filled with garlic, perhaps complemented by a nice glass of Pinot Gris. What many people don’t know is that American garden snails and escargots are nearly the same thing (different species, same genus), and taste similar. If you really want to eat local, take that small mental leap and turn garden pests into haute cuisine. Here's how to do it.

Foraged Escargot-Stuffed Mushrooms

20 snails (the larger the better)
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 bottle white wine
1/2 pound butter
1/2 cup shallots, minced
5 springs thyme (mince leaves of two sprigs and leave the others whole)
2 ribs celery, minced
Handful parsley, minced

1. Collection
Snails are nocturnal, best collected at either dawn or dusk. Since the only thing I get up at dawn for is seaweed collecting (more on that in another post), I go at dusk. Use a plastic container with a secure lid, or they will escape when you’re not looking. Punch some small air holes in the top. Collect at least 20 snails, or it's not really worth it.

2. Cleaning
You’ll need to cleanse their system before cooking in case they ate something bad, like snail bait. This process is similar to purging mussels. I feed them a mixture of wild fennel and cornmeal, some people use lettuce, some use cucumber, and some starve them for their last days (which has always struck me as a bit mean).

House them in a large container with holes punched out of the top. Put in their food, a small dish of water with a low lid (so they can get in), and secure the top of the container tightly (I cannot stress this enough, as they will push off a loose lid, and you don’t want to be stepping on snails in your socks.) Wait 1-2 weeks, cleaning out the container about once a day.

3. Cooking
First, and most traumatic, bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil, place the snails in a strainer smaller than the width of the pot (a chinoise if you have one), and dunk the snails for about a minute. Transfer the snails to an ice bath, cool, them remove the snails from their shells. This will be either very easy or slightly hard, depending on the size of snail. Smaller shells tend to break, but if that happens you can just wash off the shell pieces. Take a small fork (the pros use an “escargot fork,” but I imagine you don’t have one of those), stick the fork into the open end of the snail, and pull. It's that easy. Rinse the snails in cold water to get off any persistent shell pieces.

4. More cooking
Melt 1/2 stick butter over low-medium heat in a medium sauté pan; add half of minced garlic, and lightly sauté until aromatic (you aren’t trying to brown the garlic here). Pour in the white wine; add wine, salt, thyme, pepper, and enough water so the snails will be completely submerged. Bring to a boil, add snails, and then reduce to a low simmer. Cover and let cook for one hour, checking periodically to make sure all your water hasn't evaporated too much.

4. Stuff them into mushrooms
At this point you have what you would have bought in the store, if you purchased escargots. To turn them into a fussier appetizer, preheat the oven to 400°. Clean the crimini mushrooms with a damp paper towel, remove and chop the stems. Chop the snails into small pieces, melt 1/2 lb butter over low-medium heat, add garlic and shallots to pan, and sweat (cook without browning). Once the vegetables become aromatic and lose some of their color, add the snails, mushroom stems, thyme, tarragon, celery, celery, and parsley, turn heat up to medium, and sauté for 10 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic and shallots. Coat each cap with butter, fill with snail mixture, and bake for 10 minutes.

5. Eat
Serve on crostini, preferably dining in the garden where you collected the snails.

Image by Robin Jolin.