Contrary to popular belief, there are many different types of clam chowder in New England. If you live far outside New England, you might only know the famous creamy version.
But if you live within New England, you may know the other regional styles, which means you may be able to name four kinds of clam chowder.
And if you’re Portuguese and/or live on the south coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, you might know New England’s best-kept chowder secret, and therefore, you may be able to name five types of clam chowder in New England.
However, nobody knows all six.
I’ll explain more about that below. First, let’s start with the more well-known types of clam chowder recipes and what differentiates them from each other.
Pictured above, this is the rock star of the chowder world, the uber-popular creamy style that is so universally pleasing to the taste buds, that it’s without question, New England’s most iconic dish.
Its defining feature is milk, but more commonly, cream. It’s also frequently thickened with a roux of flour and butter (to the chagrin of purists).
The classic ingredients consist of clams, clam broth, cream, potatoes, onions, and bacon (or salt pork). It is sometimes referred to as a white clam chowder (to differentiate it from the tomato-based red clam chowders) or a Boston clam chowder.
There are endless heated opinions as to what makes a good New England clam chowder. For something that contains essentially six ingredients, it’s amazing how many variations exist.
Endless debates revolve around the best method to thicken a chowder (some say to never thicken), salt pork vs bacon, and how to prepare and combine the ingredients for the utmost flavor.
Most New Englanders would at least agree that local hard-shell clams (called quahogs) and their succulent juices, as opposed to canned clams and bottled clam juice, are essential. That’s certainly what I preach in my recipe which you can find right here:
The defining feature of a Rhode Island clam chowder is that there is no milk or cream. This dairy-free chowder is sometimes called a Clear Broth clam chowder. The broth can either be a clam broth or a fish stock. Sometimes herbs are included quite liberally.
Otherwise, the ingredients are almost identical to a New England clam chowder. But it has a completely different character. Without any milk or cream to mellow things out, it has a stronger, saltier flavor of the sea, especially if fresh quahogs and a homemade clam broth are used (as opposed to canned clams).
Rhode Island chowder is, in my opinion, equally delicious as all other types of clam chowder. If you love the bold, briny flavor of fresh clams, you’ll love this lesser-known version. Here’s a great article that explains more and includes a recipe:
Though more associated with New York City, Manhattan clam chowder is popular in southern New England, especially along the coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Its defining feature is that it’s tomato-based and therefore is sometimes called a Red clam chowder. It often includes vegetables like carrots and peppers, as well as spices like thyme and oregano.
It is thought to have originated with Italian immigrants, though some suggest it originated with Portuguese immigrants. Regardless, few things draw the ire and disdain of New Englanders (especially those that live in Massachusetts and points north) than tomatoes in chowder. Manhattan clam chowder is often scoffed at and regarded as inferior to the white, dairy-based clam chowders.
Personally, I used to agree with this sentiment. I never really liked it. Most restaurant versions resemble more of an insipid vegetable soup with tiny bits of chewy clams and almost no clam flavor.
Then, one day, I made it myself but I used real quahogs and fewer vegetables. It was then that my opinion changed dramatically. It turns out, clams and tomatoes can make just as good a clam chowder as clams and cream. Don’t believe me? Check out this recipe for a more restrained version that highlights the natural symmetry of fresh clams and tomatoes:
Chowders take on a slightly different feel the further north you go in New England. In Maine, there are three defining features of clam chowder. The first is that soft-shell clams (also called steamers) are included as much, if not more than hard-shell clams.
The cold icy waters of Maine are, at least historically speaking, more conducive to soft-shell clam populations (though sadly, that may be changing due to global warming).
The second is that roux-based thickeners are not as common. And the third is that milk is used more than cream. This means Maine clam chowders are on the brothier side of the chowder spectrum.
That said, there’s a very specific reason I don’t recommend using milk in clam chowder. In my recipe for this type of clam chowder, I explain why and what to use instead:
I call this one New England’s best-kept chowder secret.
It exists in the Portuguese communities on the south coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, such as New Bedford, Fall River, and Providence.
Totally unique, it’s a zesty tomato-based chowder that is completely different than Manhattan clam chowder. Ingredients include Portuguese staples, linguica or chourico (smoked and cured hot sausages), green peppers, garlic, and Portuguese spices.
I challenge anyone who derides tomatoes in chowder to not judge it until you try it! Personally speaking, it is one of the most fantastic chowders I’ve ever tasted. Find a recipe here:
Strange-looking, isn’t it? Yes, this one should raise some eyebrows. It’s the type of clam chowder in New England that no one knows. But there’s a story behind it. Let me explain.
A few years ago, while researching chowder recipes for my next cookbook, New England Soups from the Sea, I came across an odd chowder known as a Long Island Clam Chowder. Because Long Island sits somewhat geographically between Manhattan and New England, the chowder is a fusion between the red Manhattan style and the white New England style. A handful of articles online suggested it was a new trend that was catching on.
I found two restaurants on the entire island offering it up. Considering Long Island has a population of three million people, I didn’t find this a compelling argument that it’s catching on. But I was so curious that I actually went to one of those restaurants to try it for myself.
It was utterly awful.
It was also kind of insulting. They just took a ladle of Manhattan clam chowder and added it to a bowl of New England clam chowder.
WELL, LA-DI FRICKIN DA!
Anybody can do that! That’s not a unique chowder recipe. Sheesh.
In the end, I decided it was, in fact, more of a gimmick than a trend.
Nevertheless, I did see some potential in it. So I went home and attempted to make a better version. I was shocked at my homemade results.
It was fantastic.
Why? Because I used fresh clams and their juices.
It’s the key foundation of any chowder recipe. It’s hard to make a bad bowl of chowder when you do this, no matter the regional style. People’s strong opinions are just that, opinions.
All types of chowder are delicious when real ingredients are used!
I wrote a blog post that included the recipe.
Because it’s been a few years now, that post has since been linked to by other sites as an example of an established regional chowder style. But clearly, they just read my headline and not the post. Otherwise, they’d know I didn’t (and still don’t) see much evidence that it’s a new trend. Ironically, it may now be catching on as more sites link to my post.
The interwebs. What a crazy place.
Later on, while writing New England Soups from the Sea, I felt the true spirit of the recipe really belongs to Connecticut more than Long Island.
Because, unlike Long Island, Connecticut actually borders New York and other New England states. Geographically and culturally speaking, it’s much more of a fusion between the two regions. Furthermore, many coastal Connecticut establishments often serve both Manhattan and New England-style clam chowder. So this recipe is much more in the spirit of Connecticut!
And let’s face it, Connecticut often gets ignored literally and figuratively, as a part of New England. Many people only see Connecticut from behind a windshield, as they drive north to more popular New England destinations. It’s the only state in New England with a significant coastline that doesn’t have a chowder named after it.
I want to change that!
Whether or not the recipe in my book catches on as a new regional chowder style in New England, I don’t know. Probably not. I’m not kidding myself here. But Connecticut needs some love and respect too.
Please understand, the link I’m sharing below is the original post I wrote for my blog several years ago. I decided not to re-name it (for SEO reasons). But in my cookbook, the exact same recipe will be re-named to a Connecticut Clam Chowder. You can check it out right here:
There are many other different types of chowder beyond clam chowders. You can make chowder from almost any type of seafood. The possibilities are endless! My cookbook will feature an extensive chapter on chowder including a section on clam chowder history as well as eighteen chowder recipes!
Including the six clam chowders above, it will also include six fish chowders and six shellfish chowder recipes.
Some of the recipes include:
– Classic New England Whitefish Chowder
– Portuguese Fish Chowder
– Bluefish Chowder with Cherry Tomatoes
– Lobster Corn Chowder
– Crab Cheddar Bacon Corn Chowder
– Scallop Chowder
It will also include 62 other recipes for stocks, broths, stews, bisques and boils!
If you love seafood and soup, you will be as excited as a bluefish in a blitz. 🙂
Though it’s not available yet, it is available for pre-order right here:
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.