Perfect New England Clam Chowder

Updated on April 7, 2019
Carb Diva profile image

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Source

The Great Debates

In the history of mankind, there have been many serious debates:

  • Is man granted Heavenly salvation through faith or good works? (Luther vs. Tetzel)
  • Are electrons, light, and similar entities waves or particles? (Einstein vs. Bohr in the 1927 conference on quantum mechanics)
  • The legitimacy of teaching Darwinism in tax-funded schools (Clarence Darrow vs. Wm. Jennings Bryan in defense of creationism vs. evolution in the Scopes trial of 1925)

May I add one more significant debate to the list—should clam chowder be made with milk or tomatoes?

. . . that rather horrendous soup called Manhattan clam chowder . . . resembles a vegetable soup that accidentally had some clams dumped into it."

— James Beard (American cookbook writer and chef, 1903-1985)

What is Chowder?

According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, the word chowder was derived from the French word for a large cooking vessel—a chaudiere (caldron) in which Breton sailors tossed their catch for the preparation of a communal stew. These original chowders contained not clams but fish, typically cod, haddock, or bass. Chaudiere's, or chowders, crossed the Atlantic with New World settlers to fishing towns such as Boston, Nantucket, and New Bedford.

The first published recipe for seafood chowder appeared in the second edition of American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. Ms. Simmons' version called for bass, salt pork, crackers and a side of potatoes.

"Take a bass weighing four pounds, boil half an hour; take six slices raw salt pork, fry them till the lard is nearly extracted, one dozen crackers soaked in cold water five minutes; put the bass into the lard, also the pieces of pork and crackers, cover close, and fry for 20 minutes; serve with potatoes, pickles, apple-sauce or mangoes; garnish with green parsley.”

By the middle of the 19th-century, potatoes were being added to the stew rather than being served as a side dish. Although there were numerous interpretations of the recipe based on the availability and seasonality of ingredients, the basics of chopped seafood suspended in a creamy white base remained the same.

Originally that "creamy white base" was composed of hardtack biscuits soaked in water. That evolved into hardtack softened with milk, and ultimately the biscuits were discarded, but the milk remained.

Let's examine each of the components of a New England clam chowder which should then help us assemble the perfect recipe.

First, the Pork

Source

If you have never cooked chowder, you might be wondering why pork is an ingredient in a seafood stew? The answer is flavor. Hundreds of years ago salt pork was inexpensive, easy to acquire, and provided an easy umami flavor boost to dishes that otherwise would have been meatless and bland. When you think of popular New England dishes (perhaps baked beans and slow-cooked green beans come to mind) you will always find a piece of salt pork lingering in the pot.

However, I would posit that what salt pork boasts in flavor it lacks in texture. Salt pork is mostly fat and adding it to chowder results in a grease-filled kettle of stew. On the other hand, sliced bacon is much leaner. It has some substance, but it's smoked—a flavor that can overpower the delicate briny flavor of fresh clams. The texture of thin-sliced bacon can also become tough during the long cooking process.

I prefer a compromise of slab bacon cut into 1/4-inch dice. Cook it low and slow to coax out every bit of fat and leave crispy umami-rich bits in the bottom of the pot.

Vegetables for Flavor

Click thumbnail to view full-size
celeryonionsbay leaf
celery
celery | Source
onions
onions | Source
bay leaf
bay leaf | Source

Onion, celery, and bay leaf; in cooking these are called aromatics—vegetables and herbs that, when cooked in fat, add depth and impart deep flavors to cooked dishes. When slowly simmered onion and celery provide a sweetness.

Bay leaf is different; its flavor is difficult to define; actually, it is more of a smell than a taste. It is pine-like, but not as assertive as rosemary. The aroma is more like menthol or eucalyptus. Can you taste it in chowder? You might think not, but compare a bay-infused chowder to one without, and you will notice a subtle difference. Bay leaf doesn't shout, it whispers. Listen to it.

Potatoes

Source

Potatoes fall into three categories—starchy, all-purpose, and waxy.

  • Starchy (high starch) - Russet/Idaho
  • All-purpose (medium starch) - White, yellow, blue/purple, Yukon gold
  • Waxy (low starch) - Red, fingerling

Let's tackle each of these in reverse order. Waxy potatoes have one thing going for them. They are sturdy. When cooked they hold their shape, and that's about the only positive I have to offer. I'm sorry waxy-potato lovers, but red and fingerling potatoes have little taste and a firmness that just doesn't belong in my steaming bowl of comfort food.

I have no doubt that frugal New Englanders will use the potato which is readily available (the all-purpose Yukons and Kennebecs grow well there). They are buttery and play nicely with the clams and bacon, but they are still not my favorite.

Perhaps I am allowing my regional bias to show, but I prefer the Idaho baking potato, the russet, for my chowder. It delivers the best honest-to-goodness potato flavor and breaks down just enough to help thicken the chowder base without relying on a heavy slurry of flour and liquid.

And, of Course, the Clams

Source

If you are fortunate enough to have access to fresh (live) clams, for goodness sake you must use them in this dish! I live in the Puget Sound region, and we have a cornucopia of clams available to us—manila, littlenecks, butter clams, Pacific razor clams (the sweetest most delectable clam on earth), and the outrageous-looking Pacific geoduck (it's pronounced GOO-e-duck).

But what if you can't obtain fresh clams? Please don't despair because (guess what) even the best restaurants that make great chowder, use canned or frozen chopped clams. If I can't obtain fresh, my clam of choice is frozen. Why? Canned clams are pre-cooked in the canning process and tend to be rubbery and too salty.

At the end of this next video, the chef shows us how to flavor the remaining liquid, but you don't have to worry about that step. He is merely steaming clams and then serving them in a flavored buttery broth with some good crusty bread. We're not doing that today. Keep the bread if you wish, but skip the buttery broth and move on to making a creamy rich soup.

Now, let's put all of these components together into a Perfect Clam Chowder.

The Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 8-ounce bottles clam juice
  • 1 pound russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 2 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3 slices slab bacon, finely diced
  • 2 cups onions, finely diced
  • 1 1/4 cups celery (about 2 stalks), finely diced (use the more tender inner stalks)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 pound frozen baby clams or minced clam meat, thawed and drained (reserve the clam juice)
  • 1 1/4 cups half and half

Instructions

  1. Bring the bottled clam juice and potatoes to boil in heavy large saucepan over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
  2. Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until it begins to brown, about 8 minutes. Add the onions, celery, bay leaf, and dried thyme. Sauté until vegetables soften, about 6 minutes. Stir in flour and cook 2 minutes (do not allow the flour to brown). Gradually whisk in the reserved juice from the clams. Add the reserved potato mixture, the clams, and the half and half.
  3. Simmer chowder 5 minutes to blend flavors, stirring frequently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and keep refrigerated. Bring to simmer before serving.)

Adapted from a recipe which originally appeared in Bon Appetit magazine, November 2000.

Oyster Crackers

Source

The perfect bowl of New England clam chowder must be accompanied by the perfect oyster cracker. Of course, you can buy them at the grocery store, but have you ever thought of making your own?

This recipe from SeriousEats takes about 80 minutes total, but only 20 minutes of that is actual "working" time. Give it a try. They're fun to make (and quality-control sampling is mandatory).

Bits of Trivia

  • Herman Melville devoted an entire chapter of his book, Moby Dick, to a description of Try Pots, a chowder house in Nantucket, Massachusetts.
  • Western Rhode Islanders prefer a clear (brothy) chowder.
  • The State of Maine is divided both geographically and gastronomically by Penobscot Bay. Those living on one side of the bay make their clam chowder with tomatoes; those on the other side insist on milk, no tomatoes.
  • In 1939 Maine state representative Cleveland Sleeper introduced a bill banning the tomato from clam chowder. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass.


Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Lum

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment
      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Shauna, I've been known to slip in a bit of carrot when (I thought) no one was watching. Thanks for confirming that New England chowdah is the best.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        8 months ago from Central Florida

        I love New England Clam Chowder. It's one of my favorite soups.

        I have a recipe that I cut out of the Orlando Sentinel decades ago. It's a recipe that a local high end seafood restaurant made. Said restaurant is now defunct, but their chowder recipe is delicious. There's no pork in it, but there is grated carrot. It's really yummy!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Kaili, I can't argue with your logic. It's not like you eat it every day, right? Thanks for stopping by and have a great week!

      • Kaili Bisson profile image

        Kaili Bisson 

        8 months ago from Canada

        I love it both ways, but will admit to leaning more toward the cream one...but with real cream, not half and half. If I'm going to be bad, I'm going all the way!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Oh, Eric, I can always depend on you to add a bit of spice to my otherwise bland day.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        8 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Alright maybe some tomato like a red stock. I know my common law, statutory law and judge made law. It is not illegal to put tomatoes in but then it is not Clam Chowder = to each their own.

        I just cannot help it, my chowder includes both clam and oyster maybe a portion of fish fried and dropped in. I go all by the border and add those spices.

        I learned how to cook chowder from both my mom and living in Vermont and New Hampshire. Go up Burlington way and it is Great Lakes chowder.

        When I am in the bucks I include crab and lobster. Go with a hint of Bisque.

        But I live in a Vietnamese Pho' house so what do I know about Basa and Mud fish.

        Way too long winded - sorry.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Wow, Bill, I'm (almost) speechless. I found something you would be willing to eat LOL. That is high praise indeed and I thank you.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        8 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish, you are my bestest. When I'm feeling down you always come through and lift my spirits.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        8 months ago from Olympia, WA

        I love the white stuff. Red chowder I won't touch with a ten foot pole....a long way of saying I would try this recipe. :)

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        8 months ago from USA

        This is one of my dad’s favorites (next to she crab soup) but my mother strongly dislikes seafood so she doesn’t cook fish at all. He just got out of the hospital so I will have to make him this and homemade bread. (No tomatoes here!). Your writing is simply splendid. You could make mud pie sound wonderful you’re so good.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, delishably.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://delishably.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)