People who like clams generally speaking you’ll fall into one of two categories: clam lovers and clam likers. Clam lovers can be summarized in four words: the brinier the better. They love raw clams on the half shell, steamers dipped in clam broth and the clammiest clam dishes you can possibly make. If that describes you, you’ll absolutely love the first clam bisque recipe below for a traditional clam bisque. It’s got that ultra-briny flavor that hardcore clam enthusiasts crave (which by the way, includes myself).
Clam likers are those that like clams but don’t necessarily love the ultra-briny stuff. They veer more towards dishes that tone down the saltier side of clams, things like clam chowder, stuffed clams, clam cakes, and so forth. If that describes you, you’ll love the second recipe below for a tomato clam bisque.
Now you might not even be aware that there is such a thing as clam bisque. It is one of those old time soups you rarely see anymore. The only place you’ll really find it is in the dusty pages of old New England seafood cookbooks. Why it faded away I don’t know. But what I do know is that a clam bisque is a thing of almost mystical beauty, one of those soups that I imagine would be served to satisfy the deities of ancient seafaring civilizations.
Similar to a lobster bisque, which enhances the flavor of lobster, clam bisque also concentrates and intensifies the salty, herbaceous flavor of fresh clams. Therein lies its seductive allure.
There are two reasons for this. The first is the clam liquor inside the clam shells which contains the briny essence that clam lovers adore. Every clam bisque (or any clam soup) recipe starts out by steaming whole clams in a little water. When the shells open they infuse the water with their liquor. This is known as clam broth or clam juice. Clam lovers sometimes call this heavenly broth the “nectar of the sea.”
The second reason clam bisque is so delicious is the clams themselves. Sounds obvious but there’s a secret…
This is a secret that either nobody knows (because nobody makes clam bisque anymore) or a secret closely guarded by chefs. But even chefs may not be aware of it because not even chefs make clam bisque anymore. Let’s face it, when it comes to seafood soups, you rarely see anything other than clam chowder and lobster bisque on menus.
In the classic Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, which features dozens of rare old time recipes, author and chef Howard Mitcham writes of his clam bisque recipe, “Now it’s almost sacrilegious to ask you to do this, but this soup has to be clear and light colored, so-o-o split the bellies of the clams and rinse out the contents. (I’ll never ask you to insult a clam like this again).”
At the very least, Mitcham humorously acknowledges that removing the clam bellies will sacrifice flavor. And that is the secret.
Do NOT remove the clam bellies!
Yes, pureeing whole clams into a bisque will slightly darken the color and prevent if from being a clear soup. Personally, I don’t give a rats behind about this! There is SO MUCH FLAVOR in those clam bellies! Why discard them? It also takes more work to split all those clams and remove the bellies.
Chefs do it because it makes the soup look more appetizing. After all, paying customers don’t want unappetizing looking food. But this blog is for home cooks, not for chefs in restaurants and I’m telling you with absolute certainty that the flavor of a clam bisque with whole clams is superior to one with the bellies removed. It is for this very reason that I actually prefer clam bisque to lobster bisque.
Listen, I’m not saying you MUST only use whole clams. I’ve made clam bisque both with whole clams and clams that have their bellies removed. For the latter, that typically means canned clams. Sometimes a local fishmonger will have fresh clam meat by the pound which is often stripped of clam bellies. That’s always a better option that canned clams. But you know what? Canned clams still make a really good clam bisque. Is it epic? No. But not everything needs to be epic. You can make either of the recipes below with canned clams. It will certainly save you some time and money which I understand is not insignificant for most people these days.
If you want to substitute canned clams for the recipes below, simply strain the clams from the juice and reserve the juice. You’ll get about 1/2 cup of clams per can which is about the equivalent of 12 whole steamed littleneck clams. You’ll need to purchase some additional bottled clam juice to measure the 3 total cups of clam broth in the recipes. Bar Harbor brand clam juice is outstanding.
Traditional clam bisque is a simple, straight up, no frills version that highlights the briny quality of fresh quahog clams. All you need is clams, onions, scallions and cream.
This recipe highlights the harmony of briny clams and sweet, acidic tomatoes. It’s sort of a hybrid between a tomato-based chowder and a brothy tomato clam soup.
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a 5-6 quart stock pot and add clams. Steam for about 5 to 10 minutes. Stir clams once or twice to steam evenly. Remove from heat as soon as the shells open. Remove the clams and strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer. Set the broth aside and reserve.
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.