It’s official – I need to take a vacation.
After reading up on these amazing creatures, I’ve decided to head to the coast and make gooseneck barnacles my life.
That may seem drastic, but believe me, it’s not. By the time you’re done learning about these crazy barnacles, you’ll be desperate to try them too.
Although there are different kinds of edible barnacles, the most common is the gooseneck barnacle. These are also called percebes in Europe, specifically Spain and Portugal. Since gooseneck barnacles yield the most meat, we’ll only focus on them in this article.
What are Gooseneck Barnacles?
These barnacles were named by a Welsh monk who thought they resembled goslings. I think they look more like dinosaurs or dragons, but everyone’s different! This crustacean is in the same family as crabs and lobster! However, they grow in intertidal zones on rocks and manmade formations instead of scuttling around the ocean floor.
Speaking of habitats, let’s talk about ships! Since gooseneck barnacles are sessile, they will grow on just about anything and stay there – rocks, moors, ships, even whales. Obviously, sailors get hungry at sea. Who wouldn’t? So, when Spanish sailors got hungry, they’d reach over the edge of their ship and scrape off some barnacles to eat.
Gooseneck barnacles grow in Europe and the West Coast of North America, from Alaska to Baja California. However, it’s illegal to harvest them in California, and neither Alaska nor Washington have commercial fisheries. So, if you want to eat them, head to Vancouver, Spain, or Puget Sound! In Canada, there’s a long history of indigenous tribes eating gooseneck barnacles.
Fun fact: In Spain, one single pound of percebes can cost up to $100! To give you some context, Lobster Anywhere sells three pounds of live lobsters for $79.95. Although that may seem crazy, there’s good reason for the high price tag.
Is it Safe to Eat Barnacles?
Yes! It is. However, they must be cleaned and cooked to be safe, like crabs, lobsters, clams, and shellfish in general.
There’s more. Researchers discovered that barnacles, like every other sea creature, contain microplastics. They harvested some from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has a ton of plastic. This doesn’t mean you can’t eat them, but may serve as a reminder to consume less when possible. And not litter!
What Does a Barnacle Taste Like?
Gooseneck barnacles are beloved around the world for their unique taste. Most often compared to crab or lobster, they do have a mild briny flavor, but not so much as oysters or clams. In fact, they’re rather sweet. Many say they taste like the ocean where they’re from, which is part of what makes them so popular.
How to Harvest Barnacles
As much as I want to go out to the tides and start harvesting right away, I know I shouldn’t. It takes 20+ years for these barnacles to grow big enough to eat, so locals encourage training to prevent over-harvesting.
Depending on where you’re harvesting, there may be guidelines and permits you’ll need. For example, in some places, you can only gather them off of manmade structures and harvest one cluster every ten feet. Of course, these rules will vary depending on the place, so do your research beforehand.
Those guidelines must be followed. A 2016 study concluded that only 2% of Oregon’s adult goosenecks were large enough to harvest. Those rules are put into place to protect this species and make sure we don’t overfish them, as we have with many others.
You have two options when harvesting gooseneck barnacles: by hand or with a tool. Pull them off individually if you’re only planning to gather a few. If you want more, consider using a tool, such as a scraper. You can use it to gather a hefty chunk at a time, but be careful not to damage whatever they’re growing on underneath. Once you have a bundle of barnacles, place them in a bucket of seawater to preserve them.
I know that sounds simple enough, but remember where you’re harvesting them. You are at nature’s will. The tides are strong and powerful, and the best ones to harvest are usually in the most dangerous spots. Please be careful as you harvest and bring a buddy with you in case something were to happen.
Besides, it’s not always a good idea to harvest them. Gooseneck barnacles love to grow on rough surfaces, such as textured rocks and other sessile creatures, like mussels or algae. When harvesting, be careful not to damage any other life they may be growing on.
One of the other dangers of scraping is leaving smooth patches. Gooseneck barnacles are unlikely to regrow in the same spot if they aren’t harvested properly. If the surface they leave behind is now smooth, they won’t regrow there. So, be extra careful.
How to Select a Good Barnacle
Gooseneck barnacles are small by nature, so you’ll want to pick the ones that are the biggest. The big ones range between 20-80 millimeters, but good luck finding a whole bunch of them.
The part that holds the meat is the long fleshy stalk (peduncle) attached to the hard exterior. Make sure you’re picking ones that have long and thick stalks. If they’re mostly shell, you’re not going to get any meat.
Unfortunately, the best ones grow in dangerous spots – where the waves crash against them most often. They have to grow stronger and denser to cling to the rocks, which means thicker peduncles. Be ready for the waves!
How to Clean the Sand from Your Barnacles
There are two methods of cleaning barnacles: the fancy, in-depth version, and the easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy version. If you’re worried about sand, I’d stick with the fancy version. But if you’ve eaten a lot of shellfish and have developed a taste for it, try the easy way!
Whichever one you try, remember to blanch/boil them first for easier dismantling.
Fancy, in-depth version:
Barnacles’ mouths have a long feeler that steals plankton from the water. That’s where most of the sand goes in! Take the rocky-looking part of the barnacle and crack it open. Then, pull out the feeler, which looks like a spider. Once the mouth is open and the feeler is out, rinse it thoroughly with running water.
After that, cut off the head (the dinosaur-looking bit) and then make a small incision in the skin and peel it off. The meat of the peduncle is covered by tough outer skin that needs to get removed before it can be eaten. Once the skin is off, you’re good to go! You should be left with an orangey piece of meat.
Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy version:
This one is really going to shock you. Step one: tear off the head and mouth (which is the hard shell portion). Step two: pull the meat out of the tube of tough skin. And there you have it! Granted, this version is far simpler, but it may not be as clean or sand-free.
Do Restaurants Serve Barnacles?
Some do! Since they are so difficult to commercially harvest and ship, they’re rather uncommon in the U.S. However, if you’re in Portland, there’s a good chance you can find some gooseneck barnacles in a fancy restaurant or two.
They are very popular in Portugal and Spain, so maybe it’s time to take a trip!
Can You Eat Crab Legs with Barnacles on Them?
Yes! Barnacles on crab legs do not infect the meat itself, so they should still be safe to consume.
In fact, if there are barnacles on your crustaceans, that generally means they’re older and may be better tasting.
Are Barnacles Healthy?
Healthy is relative, but I’d say these barnacles fit into the category of “clean-eating.”
Gooseneck barnacles are essentially water in flesh form; 90% of their composition is water! Aside from that, they have a decent amount of protein (around 4%), and a low amount of fat. However, what really makes gooseneck barnacles shine is their high quantities of B1, B2, and tons of minerals. They’re also rich in potassium!
How to Cook Barnacles
In Europe, you may find percebes grilled, smoked on planks of oak, or served in escabeche, which is like ceviche. On the other side of the pond, we have the First Nations' way of preparing gooseneck barnacles. The traditional Nuu-chah-nulth tribe’s method is to heat stones over a fire and then drop them into a container of seawater. Once the water is boiling, they add the barnacles for a few minutes and then fish them out and eat them by hand.
We’re going to stick with the basics today, though our recipe will closely resemble the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe’s.
Seawater (or homemade salt water)
Garlic butter sauce
Steamed gooseneck barnacle juice
Bring your pot of seawater to a brisk boil. If you need to make your own, remember the ocean is super salty, so less is not more in this situation.
Once the water’s boiling, toss in your gooseneck barnacles and blanch them for 1-3 minutes depending on the size. Next, drain them and throw them in an ice water bath to cool completely. This step usually takes a few minutes.
You’ll know they’re cooked through when the skin has completely separated from the meat. To check, you can cut off the tip of one of your barnacles and examine the layers.
After they’ve been cooked, you’ll remove the heads (if you want) and outer layer. Underneath the tough skin will be the coral-colored meat, and that’s what you’ll eat!
Slice them into bite-sized pieces et voilà!
If you have some that are too small to eat, Portland chef Jacob Harth recommends steaming them as you would with clams and then saving that juice. That way you can serve the prepped barnacles with a spoonful or two of the juice to keep the briny flavor strong.
As for toppings, remember, their flavor is rather delicate. You don’t want to overpower it. A squeeze of lemon juice will work fine, or a homemade garlic butter sauce, just as you might eat with crab meat. Nothing too crazy!
The amazing, mythical-looking gooseneck barnacle is my new favorite thing. This barnacle is edible, though wildly difficult to harvest, hence its status as a delicacy.
If you live on the west coast of North America or the beaches of Europe, why not give some gooseneck barnacles a try?
I hope you learned a thing or two – I know I did!