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Mouthwatering Manhattan Clam Chowder with Whole Clams

Chowders

Sometimes you just have to plant your feet on the ground, take a stance, and stand firm. For this Manhattan clam chowder recipe, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Why? Because this recipe will not be using canned clams. Nor will I recommend canned clams as an alternative option. No, you must be able to purchase fresh, whole quahog clams for this Manhattan clam chowder recipe.

manhattan clam chowder recipe

The results will totally be worth the extra time. The results are nothing short of astounding, the way a tomato-based red clam chowder should be, with a pronounced clam-forward flavor balanced by tomatoes, herbs, spices, and minimal veggies. It should taste like the sea, not a tomato-vegetable soup!

And No Chicken Broth

Nor will this recipe use chicken broth. Countless Manhattan-style clam chowder recipes include chicken broth instead of clam broth. Truth be told, it’s not a terrible choice. But it’s too earthy, in my opinion. Manhattan clam chowder is a seafood soup first and foremost. A homemade clam broth, simply made by steaming fresh, whole clams, adds that beautiful briny flavor of the ocean.

Because contrary to what most residents of New England believe, tomatoes and clams do have a natural symmetry. The sweetness and acidity of tomatoes make a nice union with the briny, salty character of clams. They make an amazing combination in chowder!

Hear me out if you live in New England and think that sounds blasphemous. As a native New Yorker, I totally admit that most Manhattan clam chowders are pretty awful. Most taste like an insipid tomato vegetable soup. I’ve always preferred New England clam chowder.

And then, many years ago, my uncle made a very different type of recipe for Manhattan clam chowder with fresh, whole clams, and very few vegetables. Even the tomatoes were kept in check. My entire perspective changed that day. It was one of the best seafood chowder recipes I’d ever tasted.

This recipe is inspired by my uncle’s creation and goes for a purer, more restrained type of Manhattan chowder recipe, one without excessive vegetables and one that highlights the actual, get this, CLAMS in Manhattan clam chowder.

So I’m making this entire recipe with fresh, whole quahogs, both cherrystones and littlenecks, and with a fresh, homemade clam broth.

Canned clams and boxed chicken broth be gone!

manhattan clam chowder recipe pin

Why Fresh Clams

The difference between fresh and canned clams is like the difference between a juicy steak and a well-done steak. The former retains its flavor, the latter has it all cooked out. Of course, if you like the taste of used car tires, by all means, go for canned clams. But if you want to try a Manhattan clam chowder recipe that actually tastes good, well, ya gotta use fresh whole clams. Look at these beauties I got from a local seafood market…

cherrystone clams

Ain’t they purdy? I just love the curved lines and the different colors. It reminds me of patterns in the sand at low tide.

Why Quahogs

In particular, fresh quahogs, a species of hard-shell clams, are the ideal choice in Manhattan clam chowder. These are the iconic clam species on the east coast of the United States. Most fishmongers will carry them and many supermarket seafood departments also have them.

Quahogs come in several different sizes depending on their stage of growth. The smallest (and youngest) are called littlenecks, medium-sized quahogs are called cherrystones and the largest are also referred to as quahogs.

For this recipe, I’m going to use a combination of cherrystones and littlenecks. The former will serve two purposes. First, to make a clam broth. And second, for the succulent, juicy clam meats, which we’ll chop and add to our chowder in the same way you’d add a can or two of canned clams.

Here’s a picture of whole cherrystone clam meats, after the clams have been cooked.

steamed cherrystone clam meats for manhattan clam chowder

They’re like plump little water balloons bursting with succulent clam flavor! For this reason, I don’t always chop them before adding them to a chowder. Typical practice is to chop or dice them. Just know you will lose a little of their tenderness when you do this.

It’s not that big of a deal but I gotta say the experience of chomping on a fresh whole clam in a chowder is pretty otherworldly. Dicing them up too finely will leave them prone to turning rubbery when you add them to the hot chowder in the last step. This is exactly the problem with canned clams.

The littlenecks will be added whole to the chowder. They’ll cook in the broth, open, and release additional clam flavor to the chowder.

seafood cookbook imagery

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How to Make Clam Broth

Fresh clams have the added benefit of creating their own clam juice (also called “clam broth”). So there’s really no need for chicken broth when you use whole clams. Or bottled clam juice! All you need to do is put them in a stockpot with a cup or two of water and steam them. The shells will open, release their juices, and create a divinely delicious broth with a fresh ocean flavor. Like so…

Some Additional Manhattan Clam Chowder Tips

Fresh clams and their broth are vital. But there are a few other things that can help too.

Don’t Overdo the Veggies

By the veggies, I mean the carrots, celery, onions, and green peppers. Personally, I hate green peppers in most soup recipes. I find them a little too bitter so I leave them out entirely. I keep the other veggies to a minimum. Let them contribute their flavors but remember, this is a seafood soup, first and foremost, not a tomato-vegetable soup.

Don’t Overdo the Tomatoes!

Tomatoes are of course what makes red chowder red. But you actually don’t need that much for a nice balance of tomatoes and clams. You want about two cups. That’s about what you’ll get from a 28-ounce can of tomatoes, drained. And then some tomato paste to add some richness. Fresh tomatoes are great but they have to be of good quality and in season. Forget those tasteless mass-produced tomatoes in supermarkets! They should be against the law.

It’s only during late summer and early, when tomatoes are in season, that I would recommend fresh tomatoes. Because it’s currently the middle of winter, I’ll be using canned tomatoes, which is totally fine. Try to get good-quality canned tomatoes. In particular, San Marzano tomatoes from Italy are renowned for their flavor. I like Cento, as well as Muir Glen.

Make sure to first drain any canned tomatoes. The excess liquid can water down the chowder and dilute the flavor.

Fresh Herbs are Best

They’re just more aromatic and flavorful than dried. In this Manhattan clam chowder recipe, we’ll be including fresh thyme, oregano, and parsley. Fresh thyme and parsley are easy to find. Fresh oregano is not always available. If you can’t find fresh, dried is OK.

Ingredients Needed for Manhattan Clam Chowder

On the left are four pounds of cherrystone clams and on the right are four pounds of littleneck clams. Most seafood markets will have both sizes. If by some chance they only have one size, just get 8 pounds of that one. Including both will not alter the overall taste. I just love having clams in their shells in Manhattan clam chowder. Littlenecks are the only quahogs that are small enough to include whole in their shells.

two types of quahog clams

Here is everything else you’ll need. See the recipe card for exact ingredient amounts and serving sizes.

ingredients for manhattan clam chowder
  • 4 pounds cherrystone clams 
  • 4 pounds littleneck clams
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 strips bacon
  • 2-3 TBSPs unsalted butter, if needed
  • 1 medium onion 
  • 2 carrot stalks
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 2 TBSPs tomato paste
  • 4-5 cloves garlic
  • 4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 TBSPs fresh oregano or 1 TBSP dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes or paprika
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 cups clam broth
  • 1 pound potatoes
  • 1 28-ounce can tomatoes
  • 1 cup parsley loosely packed

Kitchen Tools You’ll Need

How to Make Manhattan Clam Chowder

Step 1. Make the clam broth from the cherrystone clams

See the video above and make adjustments for 4 pounds of clams steamed in 2 cups of water. Or simply follow these instructions:

Rinse and scrub clams well in cold water. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a large stock pot. Add the clams, cover the pot, and steam for about 10 minutes or until the clams open. Check frequently and remove clams with a slotted spoon or tongs as soon as they open. Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer and set the clams aside. You should get about 3 cups of clam broth. When the clams are cool enough, remove the clam meats from their shells and set them aside.

Step 2. Roughly chop the clam meats

Don’t dice them too fine. Chop into quarters and/or eighths. And leave just a few whole!

Step 3. Heat the bacon

rendering fat from bacon

In a heavy bottom stock pot (ideally a good quality enameled cast iron stock pot), render fat from bacon over medium heat for about five to 10 minutes. When a few TBSPs render out, raise the heat to medium and brown the bacon slightly. Remove the bacon but leave the rendered fat in the pot.

Step 4. Add the onion, carrots, and celery.

cooking veggies in bacon fat

Add butter for additional cooking fat, if needed. Because my bacon wasn’t too fatty, I did have to add about 3 tablespoons of butter. Saute for 5 to 10 minutes or until the veggies soften.

Step 5. Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and red pepper flakes (or paprika).

I typically include red pepper flakes but had run out. I used paprika instead. Either one is fine but I do prefer the added heat of red pepper a little more. Stir for a minute or two.

Step 6. Add the tomato paste

adding tomato paste

Stir the tomato paste around for a few minutes. Let it brown a bit. If it sticks a little to the pot, that’s OK. It adds some flavor and will easily scrape off in the next step.

Step 7. Add the tomatoes and clam broth

adding tomatoes and clam broth

Bring the chowder to a rolling boil and simmer for about 10 minutes

Step 8. Add the potatoes

Simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through. For a little thickening, press and mash a few of the potatoes against the side of the pot, and stir well. The starch will slightly thicken the chowder.

Step 10. Add the whole littleneck clams

adding littleneck clams

Simmer until all the shells open about 10 more minutes.

littleneck clams opening

Step 11. Add the chopped cherrystone clams, bacon, and fresh oregano

Slowly stir everything together and season with salt, to taste.

Step 12. Season, to taste

Ladle into bowls and add additional garnishes and seasonings, such as fresh parsley, freshly ground black pepper, fresh chives, hot sauce or red pepper flakes, and/or oyster crackers.

Full Manhattan Clam Chowder Recipe

manhattan clam chowder recipe

Manhattan Clam Chowder

This Manhattan clam chowder recipe features whole clams instead of canned. The difference is astounding and totally worth the extra time required!
Print Recipe Pin Recipe
CourseMain Course, Soup
CuisineAmerican
Prep Time10 minutes
Cook Time35 minutes
Total Time45 minutes
Servings4 servings
Calories795kcal
AuthorCraig Fear
Cost$40

Ingredients

  • 4 pounds cherrystone clams
  • 4 pounds littleneck clams
  • 2 cups water makes about 4 cups broth
  • 4 strips bacon
  • 2 – 3 tbsp butter unsalted, if needed
  • 1 yellow onion diced
  • 2 stalks carrot diced
  • 2 stalks celery diced
  • 4 cloves garlic diced
  • 4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaf
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes or paprika
  • 2 TBSPs tomato paste
  • 1 28-ounce can tomatoes San Marzano, organic
  • 3 cups clam juice
  • 1 pound potatoes cut into small cubes, about 2 to 3 cups
  • 2 TBSPs fresh oregano chopped
  • 1 cup parsley loosely packed

Optional seasonings, to taste

  • Fresh parsley chopped
  • Fresh chives chopped
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Tabasco or other hot sauce
  • Oyster crackers or other crackers

Instructions

  • Rinse and scrub clams well in cold water. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a large stock pot. Add the clams, cover the pot, and steam for about 10 minutes or until the clams open. Check frequently and remove clams with a slotted spoon or tongs as soon as they open. Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer and set the clams aside. You should get about 3 cups of clam broth. When the clams are cool enough, remove the clam meats from their shells and set them aside.
  • When the clams are cool enough, remove the clam meats from their shells and set them aside. Don’t dice them too fine. Chop into quarters and/or eighths. Leave a few whole, if desired.
  • In a heavy bottom stock pot (ideally a good quality enameled cast iron stock pot), render fat from bacon over very low heat for about five to 10 minutes. When a few TBSPs render out, raise the heat to medium and brown the bacon slightly. Remove the bacon but leave the rendered fat in the pot. When the bacon has cooled, chop it into bacon bits and set aside.
  • Add the onions, carrots, and celery. Add butter for additional cooking fat, if needed. Saute for 5 to 10 minutes or until the veggies soften.
  • Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and red pepper flakes or paprika. Stir for a minute or two.
  • Add the tomato paste, stir in and saute for a minute or two. Let it brown a little bit.
  • Add the tomatoes and clam broth. Bring the chowder to a rolling boil and simmer for about 10 minutes.
  • Add the potatoes. Simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through. For a little thickening, press and mash a few of the potatoes against the side of the pot, and stir well. The starch will slightly thicken the chowder.
  • Add the littleneck clams and cover the pot. Cook for about 10 minutes or until all the shells open.
  • Add the chopped cherrystone clam meats, the fresh oregano, and bacon. Stir everything together and season with salt, to taste.
  • Ladle into bowls and add additional garnishes and seasonings, to taste.

Nutrition

Serving: 1serving | Calories: 795kcal | Carbohydrates: 65g | Protein: 84g | Fat: 20g | Saturated Fat: 8g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 3g | Monounsaturated Fat: 6g | Trans Fat: 0.3g | Cholesterol: 186mg | Sodium: 1232mg | Potassium: 1202mg | Fiber: 5g | Sugar: 9g | Vitamin A: 3701IU | Vitamin C: 58mg | Calcium: 286mg | Iron: 11mg
Fearless Eating may receive commissions from purchases made through links in this article. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. More info here.
Mouthwatering Manhattan Clam Chowder with Whole Clams
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About the Author

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.

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