If you’re looking for a great dairy-free clam chowder recipe, look no further. As opposed to most dairy-free clam chowder recipes, this recipe is a REAL New England-style clam chowder. It’s also a gluten-free clam chowder. It’s called a Rhode Island clam chowder and it’s one of the six types of clam chowder you’ll find in New England. Sometimes it’s also referred to as a clear broth clam chowder. Essentially, it’s a New England clam chowder without dairy, a roux (or any thickener), or even a dairy-free substitute.
Most dairy-free clam chowder recipes try to mimic an authentic New England clam chowder by using coconut cream or cashew cream. They’re designed for those with lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy. However, a Rhode Island clam chowder, although it is dairy-free clam chowder, is not designed specifically for that reason.
Rather, it’s best appreciated by hardcore seafood lovers. It’s a really strong, briny, salty chowder. Also, just a warning but never tell a New Englander your chowder includes coconut milk or nut milk. Just don’t. Trust me on this one. You will be ridiculed. Probably not to your face (though maybe) but definitely behind your back.
It’s true. The original New England chowders of the 18th century were fish chowders made with water. Clams and dairy were added somewhere in the middle of the 19th century and didn’t become a standardized New England recipe until the 20th century. So the dairy-free version found in Rhode Island (and parts of coastal Connecticut) may in fact be closest to the original chowders of the 18th century.
Perhaps when this dairy trend started, parts of Rhode Island were either insulated from it, resisted it, or just maintained the tradition of dairy-free chowders. Whatever the cloudy history, today, on the southern coast of Rhode Island, this is the preferred style of chowder, a clear broth chowder.
It’s also not the only dairy and gluten-free clam chowder from New England! Manhattan clam chowder, also popular on the southern coast of New England, and the ever lesser-known Portuguese clam chowder, are also gluten and dairy-free.
If you’re looking for more dairy-free seafood soup recipes, check out my cookbook, New England Soups from the Sea. Not all 80 recipes are dairy-free but you’ll find many that are. You’ll also find many gluten-free clam chowder recipes and other gluten-free seafood soups and stews.
From Rhode Island to Maine—Get 80 locally inspired recipes that honor the traditions of America’s northeast.
That would be quahogs. They are the quintessential hard shell clams of New England. Quahogs are also known as chowder clams because they are the largest of the hard shell clams and are ideal for use 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 I won’t send out the chowder police if you choose to use canned clams. Canned clams, though convenient, easily turn tough and rubbery. They also lack the clam bellies, which contain most of the flavor of the clam meat. Nor are canned clams true quahogs. Canned clams are almost always sea clams, a different species of clam, that are harvested from the ocean floor through dredging. Quahogs mostly come from sustainable aquaculture farms, run by small businesses.
But the true soul of a Rhode Island clam chowder is not the clam meats themselves (though delicious) but rather, the juices inside quahog clams that infuse a Rhode Island dairy-free clam chowder with such beautiful, ocean-fresh flavor.
Companies sell these juices as bottled clam juice but most of them are watered down. But when you make a chowder with quahogs, there’s no reason not to make clam juice yourself by steaming the clams in water which creates clam broth. Clam broth and clam juice are pretty much the same things. It’s ridiculously easy and takes about 10 minutes tops! Here’s how to do it…
I should also mention that fish broth is sometimes used instead of clam broth. Fish broth is also a fine choice though your dairy-free clam chowder won’t be as strongly flavored. However, a real homemade fish broth has a more rounded flavor as it typically includes vegetables and herbs.
Either way, you can’t go wrong!
A gluten and dairy-free clam chowder recipe, Rhode Island clam chowder is for true seafood lovers, It has a strong briny and salty flavor and is a great alternative to the more common cream and tomato-based chowders.
To make clam broth, place clams in a large stock pot and add 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook about 10 minutes until shells have opened. Strain broth through a fine mesh strainer and set aside. Remove clam meats from shells and set aside.
Heat the bacon or salt pork in a medium-sized stock pot over low heat until a few tablespoons render out. Raise the heat to medium and brown the meatier pieces, being careful not to burn. Remove and reserve the browned pieces but leave the fat in the pot. Before serving the chowder, you can reheat the crispy browned cracklings from the salt pork or the bits from the bacon and add them as a topping.
Add the onions, celery, thyme sprigs and bay leaf and saute about 5 minutes until the vegetables are softened.
Add clam broth and bring to a boil. Add potatoes, reduce heat slightly, cover pot and simmer for 10-12 minutes or until potatoes are cooked through.
Chop clams roughly, into quarters or halves, and stir into chowder. Leave a few clams whole, if desired.
Ladle into individual bowls and add optional seasonings, to taste.
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.