Welcome to Fearless Eating’s Ultimate Guide to New England Chowder! This is the most comprehensive post available online about New England’s most iconic meal. It includes not just 12 chowder recipes but also information on the history of chowder, essential ingredients, regional styles, and lots lots more.
If you’re here just for the recipes, you can simply click on the links in the Table of Contents section below. But please understand, New England chowder is more than just the sludgy, overly chewy clam chowder appetizer you’ll find in most restaurants. If you take the time to read this post you’ll have a better understanding of what New England chowder really is and the many choices you have for making it at home. Let’s get started!
An Ultra-Brief History of Chowder
New England Chowder Styles
– The 5 Essential Chowder Ingredients
– Mostly Essential Ingredient #6
– The 5 Non-Essential Chowder Ingredients
The Two Great Chowder Debates
1. Tomatoes or No Tomatoes?
2. To Thicken or Not to Thicken?
Curing and Cooling Chowder
New England Chowder Recipes
– Classic Creamy New England Clam Chowder Recipe
Clam Chowder Recipes
– Maine-style clam chowder
– Rhode Island clam chowder
– Red clam chowder
– Portuguese clam chowder
– Long Island clam chowder
Shellfish Chowder Recipes
– Mussel chowder with fennel
– Lobster corn chowder
– Scallop chowder with wild mushrooms
Fish Chowder Recipes
– Boston fish chowder
– 2 Portuguese fish chowders
– Bluefish chowder
How iconic is chowder to New England? So iconic that an entire book was written on the subject! If you’re a food nerd like myself, check out A History of Chowder: Four Centuries of a New England Meal. What I’m sharing below is an ultra-brief summary just to give a quick sense of how New England chowder has changed through the centuries.
What never seems to change though is that New England chowder tends to bring out some furious opinions and debates. Some swear by milk, others cream and some swear by no dairy at all. Some swear by salt pork instead of bacon. Some use flour to thicken chowders, other use potatoes and some say to never use thickeners. Many abhor tomatoes in chowder, but contrary to popular belief, some places around New England serve tomato-based chowders, especially along the southern coast.
Having tried every possible New England chowder variation, I’m here to tell you that everybody’s opinion is right. And everybody is wrong. They’re right because all chowders, no matter the regional variation, if they’re made with real food ingredients, are absolutely delicious!! And they’re wrong for the exact same reason.
Listen, I love anyone who has strong opinions about food but a brief foray into the history of New England chowder will show that chowder, like all foods, is never static, always evolving, mixing with other cultures and continuously reinventing different versions of itself.
It’s hard to imagine chowder without those three ingredients but the early chowders of the 18th century resembled little of what we’ve come to know as New England chowder today. They were made by layering salt pork, onions, fish and crackers, often in repeating layers, in cauldrons and cooked over an open flame. Water or sometimes wine (or both) was added to distribute the heat for even cooking and not as a brothy base. Thus the early chowders were much thicker than today. Large cauldrons could feed a lot of people and were conducive to community settings where chowder parties on beaches, sailing boats, at churches and other social gatherings became common and helped spread its popularity around New England.
As chowder became fashionable in the 19th century, recipes started appearing in print publications including cookbooks, most of which were written by women for women, at a time when women had few opportunities outside their expected roles as mother and housewife. Many creative touches and refinements were added such as fish stock in place of water. The American Frugal Housewife (pictured right) is one such example. Recipes differed widely but the second half of the 19th century saw the convergence of what most people think of as chowder today.
Potatoes replaced crackers though the latter remained a staple as a chowder accompaniment. Milk and cream became popular additions in northern New England and tomatoes in southern New England. And clams start to gain wider acceptance in place of fish, though it would take another hundred years before they’d supplant fish as the dominant chowder protein.
These are the years from about the turn of the 20th century through World War II. The accounts of the abundance and variety of seafood in this era are almost hard to believe compared to today. Along our eastern coastline, people embraced the bounty of the sea in all its myriad shapes, sizes and species. And it all went into the chowder pot.
In The Book of Chowder, Richard Hooker writes of this time, “The great Delmonico’s in New York City, for nearly a century the country’s model of excellence, made chowders of freshwater fish – eels, perch or wallyeyed pike – and saltwater fish – sea bass, sheepshead, blackfish or kingfish.”
Cookbooks from this era present an astounding variety of recipes. The Soup Book, published in 1949 by chef Louis DeGouy features not one, not two, but 100 different chowder recipes which include the likes of blackfish, carp, catfish, crabs, eel, fish roe, flounder, frogs legs, fluke, halibut, mussels, oysters, perch, pike, snapper, sturgeon and turtle.
However, little did most people know that this abundance had its roots in overfishing and overharvesting. Combined with increasing industrial pollution of our coastal waterways, the coming decades would see a shocking decline in fish stocks and shellfish beds. But for a brief time it’s important to note that fish chowder and clam chowder were equally popular.
After World War II, millions of Americans move to the suburbs to raise baby boomers and turn the laborious task of food production to giant corporations. The supermarket age of highly processed foods takes hold and no food is immune to the unstoppable force of convenience and “progress,” not even chowder.
Chowder becomes homogenized by canned soup companies and fast food chains. In his book 50 Chowders, chef Jasper White cleverly calls it the “howardjohnsonization” effect. Restaurant franchises like Howard Johnson’s bring New England-style chowder to the masses and with it, two changes that become somewhat universal.
First, within industrial food factories and fast food kitchen environments, canned clams are more cost effective, retain their texture better, and are much easier to make into chowder compared to canned or even frozen fish. Second, most of these chowders are now universally flour-thickened, often to the point of excess. Thick, pasty New England clam chowder becomes America’s favorite chowder.
Chowder purists lament the rubbery canned clams and the gloopy thick texture. However, for the millions exposed to chowder for the first time, it’s a soul-satisfying rich and creamy elixir of the land and the sea.
I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that this includes myself.
I still remember my first bowl of sludgy canned New England clam chowder. It had to be either Campell’s or Progresso which means it had to include a plethora of artificial flavorings and chemicals. I’d guess this year was either 1981 or 1982 (which means I was probably watching Different Strokes or The Jeffersons when I ate it).
To my kid taste buds it was pure heaven.
Years later, with hundreds of bowls of chowder under my belt, I was better able to differentiate between good and not-so-good chowder. My love of homemade stocks and broths, fresh seafood and good quality dairy taught me how much better chowder is when those things are emphasized.
But this era played an important role in redefining what chowder was, even to New Englanders who may have grown up very near the coast, but whose families were no longer dependent on the sea, and were just as likely to eat clam chowder from Red Lobster or Hojo’s as they were from a local clam shack using fresh ingredients, or even less likely, from Mom, who was now often working full-time along with Dad, leaving little time for home cooking.
Thick and creamy New England clam chowder still dominates the chowder landscape but I think we’re entering a new era for chowder, one that combines the great diversity of seafood that was embraced in the first half of the 20th century, with the growing awareness in the first half of the 21st century that we need to be more conscious of where our seafood comes from.
I see the roots of this starting to take place everywhere. Many chefs and restaurants are trying to offer more local and creative fare and they’re putting their own unique spin on chowder using good quality ingredients.
I’d like to think that someday soon, Americans will embrace chowder as not just as an appetizer at a chain restaurant, but a nourishing homemade meal; that one will walk into a locally owned fish market, pick up a piece of in-season fish caught by a small-scale sustainable fishery and happily add it to the chowder pot. Or, support a local restaurant that’s sourcing its seafood locally and creating new and inventive chowder recipes! There’s nothing wrong with a bowl of real, creamy New England clam chowder. It will always be my favorite type of chowder. But chowder can and should be so much more than just that.
Keep an open mind with the chowder recipes below! Let go of your regional bias. Let go of your expectation of what chowder should taste like. Some of the recipes will be familiar and some new. Try the ones that are unfamiliar! When REAL food ingredients are used, it’s almost impossible to make a bad tasting bowl of chowder, no matter the regional style.
There’s four basic regional New England chowder styles all of which I have recipes for at the end of this post. Some would argue that there are even more than four. For example, there’s a little-known Portuguese-style clam chowder that lives on in pockets of the south coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. And I’ve seen suggestions that there are styles unique to Cape Cod, Connecticut and even the small coastal section of New Hampshire. But for simplicity sake, here are the four main styles:
This is the style most people are familiar with. Also called a “white” chowder and sometimes a “Boston” chowder. It’s thickened with flour, creamy and rarely deviates from the five essential ingredients.
Never thickened with flour, a milk base (instead of cream) and thus a thinner overall consistency. Sometimes thickened slightly with potatoes. Sometimes uses soft shell clams instead of hard shell clams. Often flavored with butter.
Also called a “clear broth” chowder and sometimes a “southern New England” chowder because it’s also popular in parts of coastal eastern Connecticut too. It’s defining feature is that it’s dairy free and thus a clear broth. Sometimes includes tomatoes and sometimes doesn’t. Often uses herbs liberally.
Also called a “red” chowder and more associated with New York, it’s nonetheless still popular in southern New England along the Connecticut coast and into Rhode Island. Most Rhode Island establishments offer Manhattan, Rhode Island and classic creamy styles. Also dairy-free but made with a tomato base that usually includes vegetables such as carrots and peppers and spices such as oregano, basil and thyme.
Despite the many differences in New England chowder styles, there are certainly some unifying factors. For the most part, there are 5 essential ingredients and 5 steps for using them that unify almost every regional style. By following the information in this section you can easily start making your own homemade chowders without the need for any written recipes!
Step 1: Heat salt pork or bacon over medium-low to medium heat until the fat renders out. Brown the meatier pieces, turning frequently to prevent burning, and remove them for later. Leave the fat in the pot. Add a TBSP or two of unsalted butter, if needed.
Every chowder recipe starts out by dicing salt pork or bacon into smaller pieces and then heating it in a stock pot over medium-low heat, until the fat renders out. This fat serves two purposes. One, for flavor. And two, for a cooking fat to saute onions and other vegetables. Salt pork and bacon are interchangeable in any New England chowder recipe. But a few distinctions should be noted.
First, you might be wondering what salt pork is because it’s not very common anymore. Salt pork is quite simply, pork fat that is salt cured. Prior to refrigeration, many foods were salted as a preservative, including pork, which was an essential food for early Americans. Salt pork is similar to bacon but it’s fattier, saltier and it’s not smoked. As the 20th century wore on and refrigeration spread, the need for salt pork declined and bacon was used in its place in chowders.
But the tradition of using salt pork (pictured left) in chowder still hangs on in New England. Many old school New Englanders feel the smoky flavor of bacon is too intense in chowder and overpowers other more subtle flavors. It’s interesting to note that Legal Seafoods, the popular east coast restaurant chain, uses salt pork in lieu of bacon in their chowder recipe. Some say it’s the secret ingredient that makes their chowder unique and better than other chains. That said, salt pork is saltier than bacon and can be a bit much for some folks, especially if your chowder is made with an already salty clam broth.
Personally, I do prefer the flavor of salt pork, however, I have not had a lot of success finding a good quality product. There is sometimes one salt pork product hidden among the legions of bacon choices in supermarkets. But know that modern methods of preserving salt pork are a little different than traditional methods and as a result, modern salt pork products often don’t release a lot of fat. Good quality salt pork is not easy to find anymore so don’t stress it.
Bacon is perfectly fine to use. Just be sure to avoid super lean bacon strips. Remember, you want fattier pieces which will render into cooking fat. Seek out slab bacon (pictured right) or fattier cuts or strips. Regardless if you’re using salt pork or bacon, you may need to add additional fat to the stock pot. In this case, you’ll want to add some unsalted butter.
Finally, as the fat renders out, the meatier portions will crisp up. Be careful not to overcook and burn these pieces, which is easy to do. If using salt pork, you’ll get some wonderful pork cracklings, which you’ll remove and save for later. If using bacon you’ll get some nice browned pieces too, which you can either leave in the pot for additional bacon flavor, or remove and dice up into bacon bits.
How much salt pork or bacon?
For a chowder pot that serves about 4-5 people, you’ll want enough so that it renders about 2-3 TBSPs of fat. That equates to about 2-3 strips of bacon or 1/4 – 1/2 cup of diced bacon or salt pork. Depending on the amount of fat that renders out you might need a little more or less.
Step 2: Add diced onion to the fat rendered from salt pork or bacon and saute about 5 minutes over medium heat until the onion turns translucent or soft. Stir frequently to prevent burning or browning.
Onions are in many ways the unsung heroes of chowder. They’re like brass instruments in symphony orchestras that meld the music together in subtle ways, playing those essential bottom end harmonies that are essential to the whole, but rarely stand out.
Onions add an earthy, astringent, slightly sweet flavor to chowder (or any soup). Your best choice is any type of organic yellow onion. One medium to large onion, diced into roughly ½ inch pieces, is standard for most one-pot chowder recipes that serve 4-5 people.
Shallots and leeks, both members of the onion family, are sometimes used in chowders too. They impart a slightly milder flavor than onions. You’ll also see chives and green onions (scallions) in chowders but their delicate nature means they’re better used as garnishes.
Step 3: Add potatoes and add broth/stock until potatoes are fully submerged. Raise heat to a boil. Put lid on the stock pot, reduce heat slightly and boil about 10-15 minutes until potatoes are cooked through.
Potatoes add body, thickness and their own subtle flavors to chowder. The best varieties are those that will hold their shape after cooking and retain a firm but tender texture. Waxy, medium starch potatoes such as Yukon gold, new or red potatoes are your best choice.
High starch potatoes like Russets tend to fall apart after cooking. Some prefer to thicken chowder this way, that is by mashing them with a kitchen utensil until they disintegrate but I don’t love this method because it gives the chowder more of a grainy texture (more on that in the two great chowder debates section below).
You want about 2 to 3 cups of diced potatoes per 4-5 person serving. That usually equates to around 1 to 1 ½ pounds which is about 2-3 medium-sized potatoes (about the size of avocados). Some like a more potato-rich chowder than others. Flour-thickened chowders tend to need less potatoes. My recipes mostly stick with 1 pound for consistency but feel free to adjust that down or up depending on your preference.
Step 4: Same as step 3
Making a fish chowder with fish stock and a clam chowder with clam juice (also called “clam broth”) will make your chowder totally sublime. Personally, I think it’s the most essential of the essential ingredients.
Fish stock is not hard to make nor does it take long. It took me less than an hour to make those two pots of fish stock. You can see how to make fish stock here.
Because fish stock does not package well you’ll find very few store-bought products. I have yet to find one I can recommend so I really encourage you to make it at home. That said, I understand that making a homemade fish stock is not for everyone. You can always substitute water, a light chicken stock or some clam broth diluted in water. But ultimately, the subtle background ocean flavor of a homemade fish stock (which should never taste overly fishy) will really elevate your fish chowder above the masses of average tasting chowder.
Now as opposed to fish stock, clam broth does package well and there are some good store-bought options. Bar Harbor clam juice is my personal favorite. However, store bought clam juice is unnecessary if you use whole quahog clams, the quintessential hard shell clams of New England. Also known as “chowder clams,” simply steaming some clams in a little water will infuse the water with the salty juice (also called “liquor”) inside their shells. This briny essence of the sea is perhaps the most defining element of a truly authentic homemade clam chowder. All of my recipes below will detail how to make your own clam broth. It’s about as easy as boiling water.
You’ll need about 3-4 cups of stock/broth for a pot of chowder that serves 4-5 people.
Step 5: Turn off the heat and add your fish or clams.
Kinda obvious, right? Please note that other types of shellfish can also be used in New England chowder but there are some nuances and subtleties to their use in chowders which will be discussed in the individual recipe links below.
You can use almost any type of fish for a fish chowder, expect perhaps those that are too small or bony. Lean, flaky white fish such as cod and haddock still predominate New England fish chowders. But meaty, fatty, oily fish such as bluefish, striped bass and salmon can be just as good, if not better.
How to add fish to chowder
To prepare fish fillets for chowder you can chop them into hearty chunks of any size. But if your fillets are not too bulky you can also choose to leave them whole as they’ll easily flake apart once they’re cooked. Because fish cooks quickly, it’s best to not add it to a simmering pot of chowder. When your potatoes are cooked through, turn off the heat completely. Then submerge the fish in the hot chowder, cover the pot and let it sit until the fish cooks through. This will help to prevent overcooking the fish and having it turn tough. Lean fish only need a few minutes. Fattier fish will need a little more time. Gently press into the fish with the bottom of a spoon or the back of a fork. When it gently flakes or easily falls apart, it’s done.
I’d HIGHLY encourage you use fresh whole hard shell clams instead of canned clams. Hard shell clams (pictured below) are the quintessential clams of New England. The largest of them, quahogs, are also known as “chowder clams” because they are are ideal for using in chowders. Other types of hard shell clams are technically also quahogs (quahogs are a species of hard shell clam), though they’re named based on their size. Cherrystone clams are the second largest while littlenecks are the smallest.
Now chowder clams by their very nature are somewhat tough. It’s why they’re used for chowder and not served raw and on the half shell like littlenecks. So you might be asking, why not just use canned clams instead? If they’re already tough, why go through the extra work to prepare whole clams?
First, most canned clams are sea clams, which have a different taste and texture than New England chowder clams. I’d best describe the flavor of canned clams as fairly tasteless. Legendary chef Howard Mitcham, in the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook writes:
The delicious clam loses so much of its sparkle in the canning process that they really ought to label the can something else. You won’t find a recipe in this this book beginning, “Take a can of minced clams…”
None of my recipes say that either. But again, I know some of you reading this won’t want to use fresh clams. In that case, there is one decent canned clam product that I can recommend.
This is the only product that I know of that uses New England hard shell clams instead of sea clams. Better yet, the clams are left whole and not chopped. And unlike more conventional products Bar Harbor does NOT use chemicals to preserve their natural sandy color. Because of this the clams will fade to a darker color and thus they don’t look super appetizing (and thus the negative Amazon reviews). But they retain their flavor a lot better than other canned clam products.
The second reason to avoid canned clams is that they’re already chopped and cooked. Adding them to a hot chowder makes them even tougher. Ever have a restaurant chowder where you can chew the clams like gum? Those are most certainly canned clams.
Why and how to use whole clams
Simply put, the flavor of fresh whole clams is just so superior to canned clams. And you’ll also be able to better control their texture. Here’s a tip:
Keep at least half of your clams whole.
That’s a pic of a clam chowder from Dune Brothers, a fantastic clam shack in Providence, Rhode Island. I LOVED that they used fresh whole clams and that they didn’t chop or dice them.
Chopped or diced clams in chowder increases their surface area and makes them tougher when exposed to extended heat. There’s something so very fitting about whole juicy clams in a clam chowder. You’ll get less clams per spoonful but oh those handful that contain a whole clam are just so epic!
Of course, even whole fresh clams can easily overcook when you steam them to get your clam broth. To keep the clam meats as tender as possible, immediately remove them when they open. And similar to fish, when you add them to the chowder, make sure the heat is turned off. You can also add them AFTER you add milk or cream (more on that next). Finally, the clams that you do chop, don’t dice them too fine. I like to chop them roughly in half or quartered.
Now there’s one more mostly essential ingredient in New England chowder, but it is such a confusing and controversial topic, that it necessitates its own section to discuss its multifarious modern incarnations.
Step 6: Add milk or cream to chowder and stir in.
I say “mostly” because not all New England chowders contain dairy but the most well-known version is certainly milk and/or cream based. Today, there’s many different choices for milk and cream. But of all the choices, I have to mention the one type of dairy that’s best to avoid and which inhabits almost every bowl of restaurant chowder.
Most old school New Englanders lament the overly pasty restaurant chowders of today and blame the thickening for obscuring the flavor but as I’ll point out later, not all thickened chowder is bad chowder. I think modern dairy is just as big a culprit,
But it rarely gets discussed because so few people have tasted the difference between modern and traditional dairy. Most restaurants use modern dairy because it’s cheaper. You however have a choice, and can make homemade chowder that tastes much better than your local restaurant.
In the 1967 gem of a little “book” (more like an in-depth pamphlet), Clam Shack Cookery, a collection of old Cape Cod recipes, fisherman Captain Phil Schwind says this about milk…
For the benefit of those who can’t remember back before milk came in cardboard or plastic containers, all pasteurized, homogenized and preserved, there was a time when milk came in round, glass ‘milk bottles’, and if allowed to set, the cream would rise to the top of the bottle. This ‘top’ milk, nearly cream, was what my grandma was referring to when she spoke of ‘whole’ milk. The rest, the skim milk she used to feed our cat, Old Tiger.
He’s referring to traditional raw milk here and throughout the book asks the reader to use “rich milk” in many of the recipes. Rich milk, along with fresh, whole quahog clams (and their liquor) are the two pillars for making really superb tasting clam chowder.
Unfortunately, traditional milk dairies are not accessible to the majority of Americans. They mostly exist in rural communities and the laws of most states prevent raw milk from being sold anywhere outside the farm.
The good news is that many people are now aware of the problems with modern dairy and there are better choices than ever, even in conventional supermarkets. Organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised milk and cream products are now common. Get the best quality dairy you can as close to 100% rich, traditional milk as possible. It will make such a difference in how your chowder tastes!
Keep in mind that we’re not actually adding a lot of milk or cream to chowder. So even if the quality of your dairy isn’t perfect, other ingredients – good quality vegetables, whole clams or fresh fish and their broth/stock, can still make for a healthy, delicious chowder.
Regardless the source, let’s look at all the milk and cream options as they pertain to the best flavor for chowder.
For the most part, you’ll see three types of cream in stores – light cream, whipping cream and heavy cream. Light cream usually contains somewhere between 18% to 30% fat. Whipping cream contains somewhere between 30-36% fat. And heavy cream, the richest of all three, contains at least 36% fat. There’s very little difference in taste between the whipping cream and heavy cream. Each has its own preference among chefs for different cooking applications like baking, making sauces, whipped cream and soups too.
You can use any three of these for chowders, however, I would highly recommend heavy cream. The word “heavy” can sometimes imply fatty and unhealthful, but from a good quality grass-fed source, this is the most nutrient-dense part of milk. Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K occur in the fat. This is why most modern low-fat milk is fortified with vitamin A and D. Traditional milk doesn’t need fortification.
There are two advantages to using heavy cream in chowder. First, because it’s so rich and flavorful, you don’t need a lot per recipe. In most of my recipes I use about 3-4 cups of broth or stock for a 4-5 person serving. To that amount you only need a ½ – 1 cup of heavy cream. I always start by adding just a half cup, I stir it in and then taste it. I might add in another ½ – 1 cup if I’m craving a more rich and creamy flavor. But rarely do I add more than 1 ½ cups. This will NOT make your chowder ultra-rich and thick. For that you’ll need to a thickening agent, which is totally optional. Heavy cream is NOT a thickener. Your chowder will still resemble somewhat of a milky consistency. But the flavor will be richer with heavy cream. In the right ratios, it’s the perfect complement to clam broth and fish stock.
The second advantage to using heavy cream is that your chowder will never curdle. Curdling in soups happens when the high heat causes the milk proteins to clump together. If this ever happens in your soup don’t panic! It doesn’t mean it’s gone bad. You can still eat it. It just won’t look very good. But the higher the fat content, the less the chance this will happen. It’s never an issue with heavy cream.
Finally, if you ever have the very fortunate opportunity to purchase raw cream, jump at it. This is what I’d consider the creme de la creme of cream (perhaps the most fitting usage ever of the french term). Its sweet soulfully satisfying rich flavor has to be experienced to be believed. Nothing in stores can compare.
Half and half is pretty much what it says it is. It is half cream and half whole milk. Its fat content is around 12% to 18% fat. Half and half is a closer approximation to rich, traditional whole milk than today’s modern overly processed, flavorless whole milks in supermarkets. If you prefer the taste and consistency of half and half, go for it. It’s your chowder! Do whatever you like best.
I don’t recommend using whole milk for the reasons already stated. It’s too thin, especially modern conventional brands, and the fat content, which is around 4%, just doesn’t make it creamy enough. It’s also more prone to curdling. However, if you can access rich raw milk, in this case, it may be suitable.
I mention this option because you may see it in recipes, especially old-time recipes from Maine. Evidently, back in the day, fresh dairy was not as readily accessible on some parts of the rugged Maine coast as other parts of New England. Canned evaporated milk was used as a replacement. Evaporated milk is just what the name says – the water content of milk is evaporated by 60% resulting in a creamier consistency. The use of evaporated milk in chowders stuck and you’ll still see it in many recipes today.
Nevertheless, it’s a strange choice to me. I did try it once out of curiosity. It did give the chowder a nice, smooth consistency, so I’ll give it that. But I just can’t recommend it. For starters, it has a faint caramelized taste from the high heat process. You can see this in the slightly darker color of the milk. But more importantly, canned evaporated milk is a highly processed and sterilized product. Most companies that make evaporated milk are not using good quality milk from grass-fed sources. With all the better quality options today, I don’t ever see the need for evaporated milk.
Low-fat milk in chowder is like the flute in rock music. It’s not against the law, but it in my opinion, it should be (no offense Jethro Tull fans). It never works. EVER. Please don’t even think about making chowder with low-fat milk. It’s not healthier and it will just result in a bland, watered down chowder. You need the FAT in the milk and better yet, cream, for its flavor!
Some people love these. Some hate them. Thus, they’re optional. They’re certainly not the only ingredients beyond the essentials in chowder, but they’re the 5 most common. In moderation, including them won’t ruin your chowder, nor will not including them. They are simply a matter of preference.
Celery is one of those take-it-or-leave it chowder ingredients. Personally, I almost always leave it out. I don’t love its texture and find its flavor fairly bland. Few of my recipes include it. But some feel it adds a touch of herbal sweetness. You’ll see a lot of chowder recipes with celery. If you do want to include it in my recipes, dice about 1-2 stalks and add it with the onion in step 2.
I love garlic with any tomato-based chowder. It’s a natural fit with the rich sweet flavor of tomatoes. I add a good 4-5 cloves to the two purely tomato-based chowders you’ll find below. But for the dairy-based ones I find its flavor a little too bold. If you’re one of those people who loves garlic in everything and anything, you may prefer adding some but err on the side of caution. Two cloves maximum per my recipes is more than enough. Dice and add them in the last minute with the onion in step 2.
By “tough herbs” I mean herbs that withstand a long cooking time and are added early in the cooking process such as thyme, rosemary and savory. For dairy-based chowders, I love fresh thyme. I don’t find other tough herbs such as rosemary and savory as fitting with dairy-based chowders. Also, keep in mind that dried aromatic herbs are more potent than fresh herbs. Use about half the amount of dried herbs compared to fresh. Either way, you can add your herbs in step 2 with the onions.
Tender herbs are those with delicate leaves that will wither and lose their flavor with extended cooking. Simply add them right at the end before serving your chowder. Or serve them on the side and let each person add as much as they’d like to their bowl. All of my recipes include various herbs in the “Optional seasonings” section. Dairy-based clam chowders with their bold flavors of rich cream and briny clams need only minimal amounts of tender herbs. Chives and parsley can make nice additions but don’t over do it. A roughly chopped tablespoon or so each is all that’s needed per bowl. On the other hand, tomato-based chowders and dairy-based chowders from fish and other types of shellfish can usually handle a more assertive use of tender herbs. I love adding generous amounts of dill to salmon chowder, tarragon or fennel fronds to mussel chowder and cilantro and/or parsley to Portuguese clam chowder.
Salt and pepper are to be added at your discretion and always at the end. Always taste your chowder first and then it’s up to your taste buds. Salt is often completely unnecessary in clam chowders because of the salty clam broth base. Fish chowders however usually need some salting. And I always add pepper. Freshly ground black pepper, in particular, with its pungent aroma and zesty flavor is great in any chowder.
Beyond salt and pepper, there’s not a lot of need for many other spices. I do add a dried bay leaf to most of my recipes which adds some subtle floral and peppery notes though it’s not necessary. If using a dried bay leaf, add it with the thyme in step 2. Tomato-based chowders often include other spices such such as paprika, cayenne or red pepper flakes. If there’s a spice you want to try, well, go for it! Fish and non-clam shellfish chowders are more ripe for experimentation than briny and boldly flavored clam chowders.
Contrary to popular belief, New England didn’t always abhor tomatoes in chowder. From the mid-1800s into the 20th century, tomatoes were featured in recipes throughout New England. Though not as common as their dairy counterparts, they co-existed for many decades without folks getting all bent out of shape.
The highly influential Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer, originally published in 1896, includes a recipe for Connecticut chowder that replaces milk with tomatoes and yet nothing is mentioned of tomatoes being an offensive interloper.
In The Soup Book, renowned chef Louis deGouy claims that Manhattan clam chowder has its origins not from Manhattan but “from Gloucester, Nahant, Cohasset, Scituate, all around the Cape, and up and down Narragansett Bay from the Point to Providence.” His recipe for New England Clam Chowder includes 3 peeled large tomatoes. Go figure.
I don’t know when or why the rivalry became so intense but sometime after World War II tomatoes virtually disappeared from New England-style chowders, especially from Massachusetts to Maine, and the classic creamy New England-style chowders became an increasing source of regional identity and pride.
Whatever the cloudy history, keep in mind that before the mid-1800s very few New Englanders would’ve thought to include clams, dairy or tomatoes in chowder! Who knows what strange twists and turns chowder will take in the next 150 years. One thing is for certain: it will change.
But the whole debate is quite ridiculous. The beauty of clams is that their flavor, especially their liquor, melds equally well with cream as it does with tomatoes. Both types of chowders are fantastic! And though tomatoes are not a regular part of New England chowder, they do live on in some places. The little-known Portuguese clam chowder is perhaps New England’s best kept chowder secret. And Manhattan clam chowder is still a popular choice in southern New England, especially Connecticut. You’ll find recipes for both here as well as a fun hybrid chowder that combines both cream and tomatoes!
The Best Tomatoes for Chowder
As opposed to clams, canned tomatoes are actually a better choice for chowder than fresh tomatoes. Canned tomatoes have a richer flavor and have the added benefit of being much easier to prepare. Simply purchase a good quality can of diced tomatoes and you’re good to go! Muir Glen is a good organic brand with notably good flavor. San Marzano tomatoes from Italy are also a good choice.
Self-proclaimed chowder purists claim thickeners interfere with the pure flavor of clams and dairy and should always be avoided. Maine-style chowders in particular are notorious for their thinner textures and absence of thickeners. But most, like myself, grew up with the rich and creamy texture of flour-thickened chowders that became somewhat standardized in the second half of the 20th century. For us, thickened chowders are synonymous with New England chowder but there is no question that too much thickening will make a chowder overly pasty and bland. However, in moderation, I think a happy middle ground can be achieved whereby the essence of chowder, that magical union of clams, clam broth, dairy, pork and onions, still shines through. Let’s take a look at all the options.
Option #1: No thickeners and/or slightly thickened with potatoes
Pros: No extra cooking steps, a brothy consistency if you prefer that
Cons: Not a silky smooth texture or appearance, a brothy consistency if you don’t prefer that
Many old-school chowder makers insist that thickeners, no matter how much, will ruin a chowder. I don’t agree but I do agree that there is absolutely nothing wrong with not adding a thickener. Your chowder will have a brothier consistency compared to thickened chowders of course, even if you use heavy cream.
If you’d like to slightly thicken a chowder without adding thickeners, you can use the potatoes. Once cooked, simply mash some on the side of the pot and stir in. This will create a slightly grainier texture compared to a flour-based thickener.
Also, know that fat and water don’t always integrate well without a flour-based thickener to bind them. If you choose this option, you’ll often have tiny little droplets of fat pooling on the surface giving your chowder a little bit of a greasy appearance. This is NOT a big deal! It doesn’t impact the flavor and it will still be delicious. However, it is a big deal if you own a restaurant where presentation matters. This is probably another reason restaurants almost universally use flour thickeners.
Option #2: Making a roux with white flour or an all-purpose gluten-free flour
Pros: Silky smooth texture, all purpose gluten-free flours work well
Cons: Can obscure flavor if overdone
A roux is simply equal parts cooking fat (often butter) and flour that are whisked together over medium-low heat for at least a few minutes until it bubbles and coagulates. This process removes the raw, pasty taste of the flour and then it’s added to a soup (or sauce) which thickens it. A roux also binds the fat and water molecules and creates that silky smooth texture and appearance which so many people (self included) crave in chowder.
There are two ways to add a roux to a chowder. You can make the roux in a separate pan and then add it once the potatoes are cooked through (at the end of step 4), stirring it in slowly until your desired thickening is achieved. Or you can add the flour right in with the onions and cooking fat (at the end of step 2) and make the roux in the main pot. You will have to add additional butter with the flour here. I prefer the latter just because it’s one less pot to clean later. If you choose the latter method, know that the flour can quickly burn and clump up with the veggies if not enough fat is added. Make sure to eye it closely and add in more butter immediately, if needed, to sop up the flour and create the roux.
In my experience, a 1:1:1 ratio of flour to cooking fat to stock or broth creates a really nice consistency that’s not overly sludgy and doesn’t compromise the flavor. So if you’re making a 4-5 person serving with 4 cups of broth/stock you’d make a roux of 4 tablespoons flour and 4 tablespoons butter.
If you’re gluten-free, simply use an all-purpose gluten-free flour in place of white flour. I can’t speak for every all purpose gluten-free thickener on the market as they all tend to have different blends of flours but I’ve tried a few different brands and didn’t perceive any noticeable difference compared to using white flour. They thickened the chowder just as well and just as evenly. But there’s another gluten-free thickener option that’s even simpler.
Option #3: Making a Slurry with Potato Starch
Pros: No additional fat is needed, very simple, great gluten-free option
Cons: Not quite the lusciously smooth texture of flour but close!
A slurry is simply a mix of equal parts starch, typically corn starch or potato starch, and cold water that is whisked together. It’s then drizzled into a hot soup and stirred for a few minutes until the soup thickens. In the case of chowder, I recommend potato starch. It has a very neutral flavor and doesn’t overly gel like cornstarch can sometimes. Potato starch doesn’t quite create the perfect silky smooth consistency as white flour but it’s close! It’s certainly a simpler option compared to making a roux as you’re just adding it at the end of cooking.
How to make a slurry
Add a few tablespoons potato starch to a few tablespoons water and whisk it together. Drizzle it into the chowder once the potatoes are cooked, stirring gently for at least a few minutes until you reach your desired consistency.
This may sound strange but when your chowder is done, it’s really not done. You can certainly consume it right away. It will taste good but not as good as it can be. It’s better to wait at least a few hours and even better still, a full day, because as the chowder sits, all the flavors meld and improve over time. This is known as “curing” chowder.
In the Long Island Seafood Cookbook, published in 1939, George Frederick writes:
To eat a chowder within a few hours after making it – or even on the same day it was made – sounds like sacrilege to the old men of the chowder pots of Long Island. They were Long Island’s praetorian gourmet guards, who snorted like whales when an hour-long chowder was offered them.
This advice may be a little extreme (nor do I know what “praetorian” means). I would never have the patience to wait more than a day to eat my homemade chowder! But I always do enjoy it more the next day.
Finally, when you remove your chowder from the stove top, let it cool at room temperature with the cover OFF for a good hour. Only cover the chowder after it has cooled completely. If not cooled completely, condensation will form on the inside of the cover, drip into the chowder and potentially ruin it. To facilitate cooling, put a wooden spoon or some other kitchen utensil under the pot so that the bottom is tilted off a flat surface. In cooler weather, you can leave the chowder outside to cool.
OK, let’s get to the recipes! The first one is a my personal favorite, the quintessential creamy New England clam chowder. My recipe is for a slightly thickened chowder with the 1:1:1 ratio of flour to butter to clam broth that I discussed above. I think this creates the perfect consistency that allows the quintessential flavors of the clams, clam broth and cream to still shine through. Enjoy!
A straightforward New England chowder recipe with all the quintessential ingredients including whole quahog clams and the broth from their liquor. It’s thickened only slightly to create a classic creamy texture while still retaining the briny flavor of the clams and broth.
Rinse and scrub the clams well in cold water. Bring 3 cups water to a boil over medium-high heat in a a large stock pot. Cover and add clams and steam about 10 – 15 minutes until clams open. Check frequently and remove clams as soon as they open. Strain broth and set clams aside. You should get about 4 cups clam broth.
In heavy bottom stock pot, render fat from bacon or salt pork over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. When a few TBSPs renders out, raise heat to medium and brown slightly. Remove browned bacon pieces or salted pork cracklings and reserve for later. Add 1-2 TBSP butter if additional fat is needed.
Add the onion and saute about 5 minutes over medium heat until softened.
Add the butter. Once melted, add the flour and stir constantly with a wooden spoon for about 3 to 5 minutes. The roux should simmer and puff slightly. If it becomes too dry and starts to stick to the pan at any point, add a little more butter.
While the potatoes are simmering, remove the clam meats from the shells. Leave about half of them whole and chop the rest into rough pieces.
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.