Did you know that New England fish chowder is the origin of every chowder in the United States? It’s true! Although today there are many regional chowder styles, it all started with New England fish chowders in colonial days.
They are the original chowders and actually pre-date clam chowders.
The first fish chowder recipe was printed in the Boston Evening Post in 1751 while the first recipe for a clam chowder was printed in 1832 (source). By the early 20th century clam chowder had usurped fish chowder as the people’s choice. Fast forward to today, and New England clam chowder remains the most popular of all seafood chowder recipes.
But a classic New England fish chowder recipe can easily rival a clam chowder if it’s made in the traditional manner. The problem is, that very few people make it this way anymore, including most restaurants. So what makes this recipe for fish chowder different from other fish chowder recipes?
Primarily two things.
It really puts the classic in a classic New England fish chowder and countless types of seafood soup recipes. Nothing can surpass the taste of homemade fish broth (also called fish stock) made the right way.
It creates a wonderful background flavor of the sea. Yes, it’s an extra step but it will really elevate your New England fish chowder beyond the legions of average-tasting fish chowders. Otherwise, you’re just making a standard fish chowder with chicken stock or even worse, a crappy boxed seafood broth.
Don’t get me wrong. A standard fish chowder made with chicken stock can still be good. But it’s not as ideal as real homemade fish broth. Fish broth enhances and complements, you know, the seafood flavor in fish chowder.
And I know boxed broths are convenient. But seafood broths do NOT package well. They lose their fresh aromas and flavors and turn overly fishy and flat.
It’s why you’ll see so many added flavorings and preservatives in boxed seafood broths. That said, there is one really good fish broth product I recommend which you can find in my detailed post about fish broth. You’ll also find a video demo for how to make fish broth.
I should also mention that another substitute for fish broth is bottled clam juice diluted in a little water. But just remember, if you choose clam juice or boxed broth, you won’t be making a classic New England fish chowder. There’s also one other thing that differentiates a classic New England fish chowder from other fish chowder recipes.
When you thicken a chowder, typically with a roux of butter and flour, you can easily obscure the flavor of the fish broth. The beauty of a classic New England fish chowder is the fresh ocean flavors of fish. Let’s not screw it up with an overly pasty, sludgy texture! This is one of my big pet peeves with most restaurant-style chowders.
Of course, when it’s done right, a nice lightly thickened chowder has a wonderful texture. But thickening chowder is really best suited for clam chowder because clams and clam broth have strong, salty flavors. Fish (especially whitefish) and fish broth have more subtle flavors which are more easily masked by thickeners.
But I also understand that most people grew up craving thickened chowder. I know I certainly did. In my video below, I give the option to use a slurry of potato starch as a thickener which I think it’s easier to control the thickness compared to a roux.
Finally, here’s a tip that may contradict classic New England fish chowder recipes but is something important to consider in our current climate of overfishing and the globalization of seafood.
Back in the days when the cod family was the backbone of New England’s fishing economy, it was also the backbone of most fish chowders. As chowder’s popularity spread, so did the inclusion of other types of fish, especially haddock, which is a close relative to cod. Both cod and haddock are still the most common choices today. But cod has been tragically overfished. And I think there are better choices than haddock.
Any type of lean, mild whitefish is perfectly suitable for this fish chowder recipe. The mild, unassuming flavor of most whitefish means different species are very interchangeable.
Try to use an undervalued whitefish species, if possible. Undervalued whitefish are abundant and sustainable types of whitefish that are not as familiar to consumers though are just as delicious as cod and haddock.
If you live in New England, undervalued whitefish species include monkfish, hake, Atlantic pollock, black sea bass, blackfish, and porgy. You could even make a Redfish Chowder. If you live in other coastal areas, seek out what’s local to you.
Try to avoid whitefish species imported from overseas such as tilapia, cod (often imported from Norway), branzino, and Chilean sea bass.
In my cookbook, New England Soups from the Sea, I include 19 profiles of different New England fish species and encourage readers to be curious and open to less familiar species. It also includes 6 fish chowder recipes using these undervalued species as well as many other types of fish soups!
From Rhode Island to Maine—Get 80 locally inspired recipes that honor the traditions of America’s northeast.
It’s important as consumers that we ask where our seafood comes from and support our native fisheries. Contrary to popular belief, we have incredibly abundant, sustainable, and well-managed fish stocks in America. That’s right. If you purchase seafood raised or caught in American waters, it is sustainable.
And yet, 90% of our seafood is imported from other countries. When we buy fish from overseas at the expense of our native seafood, it hurts our local fishermen and fishing economies.
When it comes to fish chowder, there are plenty of native US whitefish species to choose from.
In this Facebook Live event, I demonstrated how to make a New England fish chowder from scratch. Honestly, it’s a little clunky and long and was meant more for a live, interactive class rather than a quick and cleverly edited YouTube video. But I decided to upload it anyway. If you have the time to watch it, you can clearly see how a classic New England fish chowder comes together.
For exact ingredient amounts, see the recipe card at the bottom
In a medium stockpot heat the bacon over low heat until a few tablespoons of fat render out. Stir frequently until browned but be careful not to burn. Remove the bacon but leave the fat in the pot. Set the bacon aside.
You can easily make homemade bacon bits from the reserved bacon. Before serving the fish chowder, add the reserved bacon to an oven-proof baking dish and bake at 350 degrees until crispy. Voila! That’s all there is to it.
Add the onions, thyme sprigs, and bay leaf to the fat and saute for about 5 minutes over medium heat until the onions are softened and translucent. Add butter, if needed, for additional cooking fat.
Bring it to a boil.
Add potatoes, cover the pot, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes until the potatoes are cooked through.
Add the fish and simmer gently for a few minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let the chowder sit until the fish is cooked through. Thicker and denser pieces of fish will need a little more time to cook than thinner and flakier pieces.
Add 1 cup of heavy cream, stir gently, and taste. Add up to one more cup of heavy cream, to desired taste. Add salt, to taste.
Ladle into individual bowls and add optional seasonings, to taste, such as freshly ground black pepper, chopped chives, or chopped parsley.
Salt pork is cured with salt and is fattier and saltier than bacon. It usually comes in a large block or slab. The extra fattiness is ideal to use in chowder because the fat renders out, which makes for a great cooking fat at the same time adding a wonderful, smoky, and salty flavor.
Salt pork is not always readily available in supermarkets so if you can’t find it, bacon is a suitable alternative. If you’re using bacon, try to find or use fattier pieces.
Medium-starch potatoes such as Yukon gold potatoes or white potatoes are the best choices. Red potatoes are good too. Just make sure to avoid high-starch potatoes like russets, which easily fall apart during cooking.
Yes, but I don’t recommend it. The fat content of whole milk is too thin for chowder, especially modern-day conventional brands. If you’re concerned about the fat content, half-and-half is a better choice than milk. But please keep in mind, that clam chowder is healthy when good-quality ingredients are used. Always seek out organic, grass-fed dairy products.
Glad you noticed! 😉 It’s called curing or aging. Over time, the flavors in chowder (and other soups) meld, mingle, and intensify. I always recommend making chowder in large batches for this very reason.
Dairy-based soups do not freeze well. Furthermore, the fish will turn mushy. It’s always best to consume your fish chowder within 3 days.
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.