When I was growing up, we ate New England clam chowder all the time. It was one of my favorite treats.
How to Make the Best Clam Chowder
When I was growing up, we ate New England clam chowder all the time, and it always came from a can. We thought it was quite a treat.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I first tasted "real" New England calm chowder— naturally, I was amazed at the difference! After that awakening, I decided to try my hand at making it at home, and I began searching for a recipe.
Once I read that the process involved picking and cooking fresh clams, I gave up before I even started. Recently, however, I found a recipe that called for a mixture of fresh and canned clams, and then another that just used canned clams and their juices. That seemed easy enough, so I gave it a try.
It was good—but not as good as the thick and creamy clam chowders I'd had in my favorite restaurants. So after some trial and error, I eventually combined those recipes with a potato chowder recipe that I had made before. The end result was the most delicious New England clam chowder I've ever had!
You won't need any fancy equipment or special skills to make this recipe, and it comes together in about 45 minutes. Admittedly this is not a low-fat recipe, but I've included some tips at the end of the article that will help reduce the fat without sacrificing too much in the way of flavor.
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 pound bacon, sliced into 1/2-inch chunks
- 1/2 medium onion, finely diced
- 2 large russet baking potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-inch cubes
- 3 to 4 tablespoons flour
- 1 quart whole milk
- Spices to taste: Old Bay Seasoning, dry thyme leaves, dry dill weed, salt and pepper
- 3 (6.5-ounce) cans minced clams with juice, strained (juice reserved)
- 8 to 12 ounces frozen corn (optional)
- Oyster crackers (optional)
- Remove the bacon from the packaging. While the pieces are still stuck together, cut them into 1/2-inch chunks, then peel the pieces apart. (This is easiest if the bacon is really cold; you can even place it in the freezer for 15 minutes before slicing it!) It's best to use plain old bacon—hickory or maple-flavored bacon will throw off the flavor of the soup. (Note: We will use the bacon as a garnish at the end of the recipe. If you prefer not to use it as a garnish, you can skip the step of cutting it up and just separate the slices and continue to the next step).
- Add the butter to a large non-stick soup pot over medium heat. Once the butter has melted and the foam has subsided, add the bacon.
- Cook over medium heat to render off as much fat as you can. The bacon is done when the pieces are crispy brown—don't let them burn! This should take about 10 minutes.
- While the bacon is rendering, dice the onion and peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch cubes.
- Once the bacon is done, scoop it out with a slotted spoon, leaving behind the rendered fat. Reserve the bacon for garnish, if desired. If not, you could save it for your next salad or as a topping on pizza!
- Add the onions to the bacon fat and sauté for a few minutes until golden and slightly translucent. Add the spices to taste; you can always add more later, so don't overdo it at this point!
- Turn the heat to medium-high.
- Add the potatoes to the onions and stir to combine.
- Sprinkle the flour over the mixture. The more flour you use, the thicker the chowder will become.
- Cook the potato, onion and flour mixture for about 4 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Pour in enough whole milk to just cover the potatoes. This should take most of the quart, if not all of it.
- Stir to incorporate and let everything cook together for a few minutes, then add half the reserved clam juice. Let the chowder cook for a few more minutes, then give it a taste. If it needs more clam flavor, add more clam juice. Be aware that the clam juice can be salty, so avoid over-salting the chowder until you add the clam juice to the mix!
- Reduce the heat back to medium and continue to cook until the potatoes are softened but not mushy. Russet potatoes can overcook pretty quickly and dissolve altogether, so keep an eye on them. The total cooking time from when you add the milk until the potatoes are ready will probably be 10 to 15 minutes.
- When the potatoes are nearly done, add the minced clams. (Since the canned clams are already cooked, if you add them too soon they will turn rubbery, so save them for last!)
- Give the chowder a final taste and add more spices, if needed.
- Turn off the heat. If you want to add frozen corn to the chowder, now is the time! The corn will heat through in a few minutes from the residual heat in the pot.
- Cover the pot and let the chowder sit for a few minutes to thicken.
- Serve with the bacon bits and oyster crackers!
That's all there is to it! The whole thing, from prep to service, should be about 45 minutes.
Tips to Remember
- I've seen other recipes for New England clam chowder that call for using fresh steamed clams, but they don't seem to have enough liquid from the steaming to make up for the clam juice that the canned clams are packed in. That's why I just stick with the canned ones!
- Hold off on adding the clams until the end of cooking so they don't turn rubbery.
- The clam juice can be salty, so avoid adding too much salt until near the end of cooking. I usually end up using all of the clam juice—you should have just over one cup of clam juice from the two cans.
- Be sure to keep an eye on those potatoes so they don't overcook! If you're worried about over-cooking the potatoes, you can use a heartier potato, like Yukon Gold. They take a little longer to cook, but they hold their shape better than russet potatoes.
- If you don't give a wit about fat and calories, you can make an extra creamy clam chowder by substituting 1 pint of whole milk and 1 pint of light cream for 1 quart of whole milk; heck, you can really go crazy and add 1 tablespoon more butter at the end of cooking!
Reduced Fat and Calorie Tips
If you want to reduce some of the fat and calories without affecting the flavor too much, here are some tips for doing so:
- You can substitute reduced-fat milk (1% or 2%) for the whole milk. Just add a little extra flour in step 9 to compensate for the missing milk fat.
- Instead of using butter in step 1, I've had success with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, or a combination of 1 1/2 tablespoons each of butter and olive oil.
- While you might be tempted to skip the bacon to save fat and calories, I wouldn't recommend it! That rendered fat adds a ton of flavor, so maybe make this an occasional treat, instead.
Well, I hope I've inspired you to give this creamy clam chowder a try! It's way better than the canned stuff I ate as a kid, even if it is a little more decadent than some other recipes for New England clam chowder that you might see out there.
It's a family favorite in my house, and hopefully it will become one in yours, too.