Snails: From Field to Fork

Want to take garden snails from field to fork?

You can, and should, but there’s a couple of in-between steps you’ll need to take care of first.

For starters, you should know that snails become food pretty much the same way they do everything else - very slowly. After collecting them, you’ll need to purge, cook and process your catch before using them in any of the recipes you’ll find on this site. The whole process will likely take around two weeks, so plan accordingly.

It might seem like a lot, but don’t be intimidated! It’s all pretty straight forward and relies mainly on the snails being allowed to do their thing.

I’ve outlined the steps here:

Purging

Brown garden snail can be a delicious addition to your kitchen, but before you eat them, they’ll need to undergo the following purging process to ensure you and your dinner guests don’t wind getting up sick.

Why purge, you ask?

Well, as we know, snails are an invasive pest, one that takes a massive economic toll on the agricultural industry and amateur gardeners alike. As such, there’s a pretty big market for insecticides and snails baits meant to kill these little fellows, and the effects of these chemicals aren’t limited just to snails. In the old days, the snail bait of choice was chocked full of toxic arsenic, and while the chemical companies have wisened up a little since then, you probably don’t want to accidently eat whatever it is they’ve opted to use instead.  

Here’s some good news: Anything that’s been chomping on snail bait probably won’t last long enough to be found on your next snail hunt, but just to be safe, you should purge your snails for anywhere between 10-14 days before eating them.

The purging process basically consists controlling your snails’ diet for an extended period of time, allowing them to rid their systems (read: poop) of any unwanted elements. To do this, you’ll want to place your snails in an enclosure - like a small igloo cooler or five gallon bucket - and give them access to food, water and some fresh air.

To ensure your snails don’t suffocate, you’ll want to choose a breathable cover for the enclosure. You’ll also want to keep in mind that snails can lift roughly ten times their own body weight with relative ease. Choose too light of a cover, or fail to fasten it, and you’ll likely wake up to a snail-style prison break.

I picked up cheap pair of pantyhoes from the grocery store and stretched it over the top of the cooler. Not only does it allow for airflow, but the snails seem to avoid the nylon, making it easy to gather them when it comes time to clean out the enclosure.

With regard to food, I use a mixture of cornmeal and vegetables to keep the little guys’ appetites at bay. Snails are big eaters, so you’ll want to check, and probably replace, your food source every few days. I’ve used lettuce, cucumber, carrot greens, fennel fronds and kale with good results. Water’s pretty simple as well. Just make sure whatever dish you use isn’t so deep that the snails might drown if they wind up inside it. Some people forgo the water altogether, assuming that the snails will get enough to drink during the “baths” you give them every few days. It’s really your call.

Speaking of the baths, there’s something you should know before you think about keeping snails. They poop. A lot. They’ll poop on the walls. They’ll poop on themselves. They’ll even poop on each other.

On one hand, all this pooping is a good thing - it means the snails are effectively purging their systems of anything that might be harmful if eaten. On the other, there’s something truly unsettling about the amount of waste these little things can produce in only a few days.

Trust me, it’s a lot. Be ready.

To keep things clean, you’ll want to empty the enclosure every two or three days and give everything a rinse, snails included.

To do this, gather up your snails and put them in a colander, mesh strainer or anything else that won’t retain water while you rinse. Once the snails are removed, give the enclosure a spray with a hose to remove the snail poop that’s lining the walls. Wipe everything dry and replace your water, cornmeal and vegetable of choice. Over the course of the purge, you’ll probably end up cleaning the enclosure anywhere from five to six times.

Next, you’ll want to rinse the snails themselves. Note, I recommended cleaning the enclosure before the snails. This is because getting the snails wet will make them incredibly active, and it’s a good idea to have somewhere to put them once they’re in this state. To rinse, simply turn on your kitchen sink and, one by one, run some cold water over each of the snails. You’ll probably need to pick them up and work any gunk and grime off of their shells by hand.

Once clean, put the snails back in their enclosure and replace the cover.

During the final cleaning - probably one to two days before you plan to process your snails - you’ll hold off on adding any food to the enclosure. Water, yes, but no food. This brief fasting period will help make sure the innards of the snails are empty when it comes time to eat them.

Cooking and Processing

After about two weeks of purging, it’s time to bid your snails adieu.

As you rinse your snails for the final time, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Once it’s ready, gently add the snails. The boiling will kill the snails relatively quickly, but as they die, they’ll put off a thick slime that will rise to the top of the water and form a rather unappetizing layer of scum. You’ll want to continuously remove this layer, scraping it off with spoon every so often.

After about 10 to 15 minutes, the scum should stop forming. At this point, your snails are cooked and ready to be processed.

Dump the contents of the pot into a strainer to remove the snails from the water. Next, you’ll want to do away with the shells. During the boil, some of your snails will have come out of their shells. For the one’s that haven’t, use a bamboo skewer, seafood fork or wine corkscrew to grab ahold of some of the meat and pull the snail loose.

Traditionally, escargot is served inside it’s own shell, but the larger Burgandy snails used in commercial escargot operations possess a much larger and harder shell than the petit gris we’re working with. For that reason, I opt to toss the shells and serve the basic escargot in a mushroom cap or something similar.

Once the snails are freed from their shells, you’ll want to give them a final rinse to remove any shell pieces that may be stuck to the meat.

At this point, what you have before you is some free-range, wild-caught escargot, a product I’d happy pit against the expensive canned stuff you can buy at specialty food shops.

When my recipes call for “snails,” I mean snails in this purged, cooked and processed state. If you purchase escargot, you’ll sometimes get a product that’s been simmered in court-bouillon, a broth made from white wine and mirepoix. If that’s the flavor I’m looking for in a certain dish, I’ll include the simmering process in the actual recipe instructions.

So there you have it. Snails from field to fork.

As you can see, there’s really nothing to be afraid of when it comes to gathering your own escargot, so get out there, get after it and get some big ones!