Clam Chowder

Repeat after me, “Chow-DAH!” That’s the way it should be said, if you are anywhere in the vicinity of New England, which is the birthplace of this wonderful clam stew. The word “chowder” is thought to have been derived from “chaudière”, an old French term for cauldron, or a big cooking pot. Traditionally chowder is made with salt pork, onions, potatoes, milk or cream, butter, and fish like cod or haddock, or clams. Many of the older recipes add some wine (Madeira) as well. There’s a wonderful website I recommend called The New England Chowder Compendium which showcases a collection of historical chowder recipes dating back to the 1700s. Chowder is one of those things that is made in many different ways, and pretty much everyone thinks their way is best. It’s worth noting that the variations of this stew go back hundreds of years!

On a recent trip to Massachusetts, we sampled clam chowders at practically every stop. The best one we had, in my opinion, was at a little coffee shop in Concord, Mass. The soup was creamy, but not overly so (some clam chowders can be such cream bombs), thickened a little with flour, but not too much, and with tasty chunks of what appeared to be salt pork, and lots of corn in addition to chopped clams. I loved it! Corn isn’t usually included in clam chowder, but believe me, it’s fabulous.

Here is my take on clam chowder, with plenty of suggestions for substitutions. Even my dad, who insists he doesn’t like clam chowder, loved this soup. Consider the recipe a guideline, and play with it to your liking.

Speaking of which, how do you like your clam chowder? Please let us know in the comments.

Clam Chowder Recipe

  • Prep time: 30 minutes
  • Cook time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 8.

This recipe uses fresh clams. If you don't have access to fresh clams, you can use clam juice and canned chopped clams. In that case, skip steps 1 and 2 and use 16 oz of clam juice, and 1 1/2 to 2 cups of chopped clams, saving the liquid from the cans to add to the clam juice. Salt pork is traditional, it's like slab bacon that hasn't been smoked. You can easily substitute with bacon, or pancetta. If you don't use salt pork, you may need to add more salt to the soup. The flour is a thickener. If you are cooking gluten-free or want a thinner consistency to your soup, leave it out. If you want a thicker soup, add more flour.

Ingredients

  • About 4 lbs of littleneck or cherrystone clams (about 3 dozen clams or so, depending on the size)
  • 1 Tbsp butter or vegetable oil
  • 4 ounces salt pork, cubed (or chopped bacon or pancetta, cubed)
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 1 Tbsp flour (or more, depending on how thick you want the soup)
  • 1 cup dry white wine, like a Sauvignon blanc (or you can use 2 Tbsp of white or cider vinegar, or lemon juice)
  • 2 pounds potatoes (russets or Yukon gold), peeled and diced
  • 1 to 2 cups of water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning (or paprika with a dash of cayenne)
  • 1 1/2 cups corn (frozen is fine) optional
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Method

1 Rinse and scrub the clams to remove of any dirt. Place clams in a bowl, cover with cold water and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour. This will allow the clams to expel some of their grit into the water. Discard any broken clams or clams that are open and do not close when you touch them.

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2 Steam the clams. Place the clams in a large pot and add about a half inch of water to the pot. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil. Let the clams steam until they all open up, 5 to 10 minutes. The steaming water may foam up a bit, so watch so it doesn't overflow the pot. Use a slotted spoon to remove the clams from the pot to a bowl. Strain the remaining clam steaming liquid through a fine mesh sieve to catch any grit, and reserve. You should have 2 to 3 cups of clam liquid. Separate the clams from the clam shells. Discard the shells. Roughly chop the cooked clams.

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3 Place the salt pork and butter or oil in the bottom of a large, thick-bottomed pot. Heat on medium and brown the salt pork. (Note that if you are using salt pork that is mostly fat, you won't need any additional fat from butter or oil, but you might want to put a little water in the pan to help render the fat from the salt pork.)

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4 Add the chopped onion to the pan, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the onions and stir until everything is coated with the flour. Let the flour cook for a minute or two. Slowly add the white wine to the pot, stirring after each addition.

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5 Add potatoes to the pot. Add 2 to 3 cups of the strained clam steaming liquid and a cup of water. The liquid should cover the potatoes. If not, add a little more, either water or clam cooking liquid. Add the bay leaf, thyme, black pepper, and Old Bay. Heat to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, then add the corn (if using) and cook for 5 minutes more, or until the potatoes are cooked through.

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6 While the potatoes are cooking, heat a cup of cream in a small saucepan until steamy. When the potatoes are tender, add the chopped clams and turn off the heat of the soup. Slowly stir in the heated cream. Adjust seasonings. Stir in the fresh parsley.

Serve with oyster crackers or rustic bread.

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Links:

Clam Chowder, Mom, and Memories - a Maine clam chowder by Hank Shaw
Down East Clam Chowder - from Yankee Magazine
New England Clam Chowder from Chef John of Food Wishes
How to clean the sand out of clams - tips from thekitchn
What's the difference between little neck, cherry stone, and quahog clams - also from thekitchn
The New England Chowder Compendium - collection of historical chowder recipes dating back to the 1700s.

51 Comments

  1. Stephanie

    Wow, my day is screaming for clam chowder. I’m having an Old Bay craving.

  2. Jesse Gardner

    I’m such a big fan of clam chowder. So glad you opted for New England and not Manhattan!

  3. Cookin' Canuck

    We are getting absolutely dumped on with snow right now. A big bowl of chow-dah sounds awfully tempting right now. I like the idea of adding some Madeira.

  4. Paul

    You’re so right that “pretty much everyone thinks their way is best.” I grew up in New England and after moving away, discovered that the density of clam chowder varies directly with the distance from New England. In places far removed, it’s almost a pudding; you can stick a spoon in it and it’ll stay vertical indefinitely. You can turn the bowl upside down and it will stay in the bowl. This recipe strikes a nice balance; the richness of cream but not wallpaper paste.

  5. Kankana

    LOVE IT! What better than a creamy soup on a cold night and i looovvee clams.

  6. Toni

    I have had some clam chowder that was just too floury. I started using a little instant mashed potato flakes to thicken it. Much better taste.

  7. Amanda

    I live in Seattle, where the local fish and chips chain Ivars makes great clam chowder. They also do a nice Pacific Northwest chowder, that has less cream and includes chunks of salmon. It is deeelicious! I always take visitors to the Ivars on the Seattle waterfront, where you can eat outside and then toss your leftover French fries to the seagulls.

  8. Skatie

    I make clam chowder with corn all the time, though not due to tradition, much more because we like the flavor. I make both clam and clam/fish chowder, using whatever firm, white(ish) fish is on sale at the time, so we’ve had it with catfish, scrod, tilapia, monkfish, and cod (probably others as well, I can’t remember now). I’ve never used salt pork, but occasionally I’ll throw in bacon. To thicken the soup, instead of using flour, I’ll chop some of the potato very small, and cook it longer, so the potato breaks down. If you don’t have cream on hand, 1/2 & 1/2, or even whole milk in a pinch (I’m usually in a pinch), work too.

  9. Skatie

    Oh, and commenting on Anat’s question about alternatives to dairy, I’ve made fish chowder with coconut milk. It definitely changes the flavor, but with a nice, sweet-fleshed fish, it’s not at all a bad change. I’m not sure if Old Bay would work in that instance (I stick with crushed red pepper for heat if I’m using coconut milk), but it’s worth experimenting.

  10. Raven

    Anyone who would even consider putting corn into their recipe is automatically stripped of their right to say “chow-DAH!”

  11. LONGTALLSALLY

    Very similar to how I do it. I don’t add pork so I add smoked sea salt and extra old bay. I cook my clams in a mix of white wine and water. It adds a nice layer of flavor. If I need more liquid later in the recipe I’ll use fish stock instead of adding more water.

  12. Michele

    On the Outer Banks of NC they make it almost without milk or cream – don’t know what goes in it but the broth is almost clear and very light, not thick with flour either. That is the way I like Clam Chowder. The closest I have seen outside NC is the “light” version at Legal Seafood. Living in California is like living in Clam Chowder Purgatory. Almost every place serves wallpaper paste.

    • Richard Warren

      Sounds similar to style of Crisfield, MD: Shuck 18 chowder size clams, reserving liquid. Strain liquid thru cheesecloth. If needed, add water to make 1.5 cups liquid. Chop clams. Fry 3 strips bacon til crisp. Drain fat & crumble bacon. To lg sauce pan add bacon bits, 1 qt. water, 2 cups diced potatoes, 1 cup chopped onion, 1 tsp celery seed, 1 tsp Old Bay, 1/2 tsp chopped parsley. Bring to boil & cook til potatoes are done (20 min). Add clams & clam liquid. Salt & pepper to taste. Simmer 10 min. Serve. Makes @ 8 cups.

  13. Beth Stone

    Have you tried Rhode Island Clear Broth Chowder? There is also a Rocky Point Clam Chowder that is red, but not like Manhattan. Being from RI myself, I grew up on these, not so much the creamy one.

  14. Maxine

    Here in New Zealand, we call them cockles…. and they are just beautiful…….. I love any sort of fish chowder…….so bring it on.

  15. Mike

    My friends who hail from that land east of New York seem to pronounce it CHOW-duh (not Chow-DAH). Which is fine; I prefer the Manhattan variety and am looking to try that (new to me) RI version. Thanks for reminding us that the weather is changing.

  16. Leon Festinger

    Arrowroot flour, potato starch, or even instant mashed potato flakes (gasp!) are fine gluten-free ways to thicken this delicious soup.

  17. Marion Olson

    Here in Maine so far this Fall, we’ve had a hint of that hurricane and a bit of a Nor’easter, so it’s really chowder season.

    I like my chowder milky, so I don’t use flour but basically it’s much the same. Corn season is over, so I didn’t put that in, but I added a piece of haddock and a good handful of bay scallops along with the clams and salt pork. I also always use “canned” [evaporated 2%] milk, just because that’s the way my grandmother always did it, and because it makes it creamy without cream. But I really do like the idea of adding mashed potato flakes to thicken it – flour just doesn’t work for me!

  18. Juliana Inman (@mizblueprint)

    Thank you so much for the link to the New England Chowder Compendium. This is a real treasure! There are many historical recipes and modern interpretations of chowder. It even has a link to the chowder chapter in Moby Dick.

  19. Lorna J

    I love this recipe! I too grew up in Massachusetts. My dad, the son of Portuguese immigrants, insisted on tomato based chow-dah. I remember my delight at a Yankee friend’s house to encounter cream based ambrosia. This one is even more flavorful, and not pasty like we find here out west. Thanks for my new favorite chowder.

  20. Anat

    This looks fabulous! As a lactose intolerant, I was wondering if it’s possible to substitute the cream with something else?
    Thank you!

  21. mark

    In my years of perfecting clam chowder I have found the only way to get the tang of clam juice is to at least steam some live clams and use that juice to ad to the chowdar.
    bottled juice or canned clams dont get that taste.
    1/2 dozen clams steamed water will provide the fresh taste and then add canned clams.
    Just a cheapo tip.
    love ya Elise.

  22. Claire

    This sounds so good. And I’ve got everything but the clams in the house! However, I’m living abroad now, and clams are a little hard to find. Do you think I could substitute some fish?

  23. mary

    My mother always threw in a tablespoon of cornmeal when the clams were soaking. Sort of like their last meal. I think it probably forced them to expel some of the unmentionables in their gut before they were eaten. I love your recipes, and your cheerful attitude toward food and everything.

  24. Christian Gehman

    Clam and Corn Chowder! … an old favorite. Thanks veyr much!

  25. Claire D

    Am starting to explore gluten-free recipes and was sad on how limited food selections there are. Then I saw your recipe and thought I will trade “thinness of soup” for great flavor any day. And I like your addition of corn too. Saw you speak at BlogHer in Seattle this past June – just love your site Elise!

    • Elise

      Thanks Claire! By the way, other suggestions for gluten-free approaches include arrow root or potato starch for thickening.

  26. Gary Z

    Tsk tsk tsk. This is a very busy recipe and not at all real clam chowder! I am from Massachusetts and grew up on Cape Cod and New England clam chowder. Authentic clam chowder is all about the thin broth and the clams! New Englanders are looking for just three things-clams, thin broth with a little creaminess, and some diced potato heartiness.
    For the past 25+ years out here in CA I’ve seen 99% clam STEW, as this recipe is, too. All of these ingredients produces glop that completely masks and overpowers the clam and fish flavor. Real clam chowder is not about standing your spoon up in it with 25 ingredients in it, as I have mostly encountered out here. There is no flour in authentic clam chowder, no corn (that’s for Crab Chowders), no bay leaf, no wine, no butter in the prep, no Old Bay Seasoning. If you want to know what real clam chowder is sautee up some salt pork or bacon, dice a few potatoes and some onions up and when the pork is rendered, add them to that. After a few minutes, add 3 or 4 cups of fish or clam broth. When the potatoes are softened add the clams and some, SOME, milk or cream, just to give a little creaminess. Fresh clams in the shell are not traditional. Use any chopped and cooked clam meat. Do not boil. Season with some salt and pepper, and serve with a little pat of butter on top and of course, oyster crackers–And NO BREAD BOWLS. If you like this recipe and thickness, then call it stew, and I am happy for you…..But real Clam Chowder is thin and simple!

    • Elise

      For the record Gary, this recipe is not a glop. There’s just a little flour for a little thickening. I too do not like the clam chowders that are so thick you can stand a spoon in it. Those recipes usually take a half a cup of flour, not a tablespoon. If you are really interested in “authentic” New England clam chowder, I urge you to look at the recipes from the 1700s and 1800s that are linked to from the Chowder Compendium I mention in the headnotes and in the links beneath the recipe. You’ll see much more variety than you would expect.

    • Protocol

      Gary, dude, mellow out. We’re just sharing here. If you have a different way of doing things, we’re happy to hear about it, but don’t shout down other people. Elise has a pretty solid track record with her site and I place a great deal of trust in what she recommends.

      Have a nice day.

  27. Judy @Savoring Today

    Mmm, a warm bowl of clam chowder is perfect for a cold day like today. Your recipe is similar to my own, yet the idea of adding corn (just a touch of sweetness) sounds like a worthwhile change-up. :)

  28. Pat

    I have made chowders, oyster stew, bisques, and other dairy-based soups very successfully with soymilk. Use the regular kind, not Lite or flavored versions. I also find that the dairy case soymilks have a more delicate flavor than the ones in aseptic packs on the shelves. Be very careful to gently heat the soymilk and not boil it, since boiling can lead to separation and a pronounced bean-y flavor.

  29. Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy

    I love clam chowder, and for once I have access to fresh clams so I can’t wait to try a version in Italy :)

  30. Amy

    Being from Texas, I did NOT grow up with clam chowder. However, my grandparents once took me on an epic summer-long voyage in their RV up the east coast all the way to Maine, then back down again. On that trip, I fell in love with clam chowder. It was so delicious – salty, creamy, briny, and warm. What’s not to love??

    I’ve never made clam chowder myself, though. For some reason, it’s one of those things that has always intimidated me. No longer! I can’t wait to try this recipe! Thanks, Elise. :)

  31. Melanie

    Very glad to see you are using the broth from steaming to add clam flavor. My family has always done the same thing. If I have more broth than I need I will often even simmer it to reduce and concentrate the flavors but allows the consistency to remain where I want it to be.
    My family always makes quahog chowder, so instead of the smaller clams you use a few large quahogs and chop them up. Lots of flavor and less shucking!

    • Elise

      Hi Melanie, question for you with the quahog chowder. Do you steam the quahogs first? and then chop? Or do you shuck the quahogs raw, and grind or chop? I’ve been told both ways.

  32. Paloma

    I’ve never had clam chowder, which is an embarrassing thing to admit for a foodie/food blogger! I want to attempt to make one … but first I’d like to try it from a good chef to make sure I can compare it to something! yours sounds (and looks) yummY!

  33. elston

    I was trying to replay to the first post looking for a non-dairy chowdah……but I had trouble posting my comment. I see that you took care of it with a reference to RI chowder. I love the New England Chowdah…..but also 2 versions of RI chowder. One is made with clam broth, salt pork onion and potato and chopped clams (I use canned)….and seasoned with garden herbs such as thyme, tarragon etc. It is delicious.

    The second starts the same but I smoosh up a can of whole tomatoes with my fingers and add the tomato and the juice(not puree) to the broth and add chopped up portuguese chorico (the hard sausage…not the soft mexican chorico) with the clams….to the chowder. Both have lots of black pepper also. In RI they are often served with RI version of clam cakes which are really a clam fritter, not a pan fried clam cake. They are so popular that for awhile even McDonald’s added clam cakes to some of their RI menu.

  34. Julie

    I give this one 5 stars! Not too thick, not too thin, and just enough cream to make it luscious without being too heavy, it was delicious! Didn’t have any white wine and it was Sunday so I added the 2T of cider vinegar even though I was nervous about it tasting off but it rounded out the flavors nicely. The corn was a nice addition too! The only thing I added was a little hot sauce at the end for a subtle kick.

  35. Marc Osten

    This is a great recipe…just the right thickness for me personally. Let me go out on a limb and share that I’ve made clam chow-dah and used whole clams from a can before and it was still great. Just sayin! Most of you/us do not have access to fresh clams so it is a substitute worth trying if necessary. One of the best chowders I ever tasted was on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.

  36. Marian

    I have always loved clam chowder, New England, not Manhatten, I guess it’s the tomatoes in it. This recipe sounds delish so I printed it out and will make it as soon as possible! BTW Elise, thanks for giving the printer more optrions, I like to have a photo when I print but I use to also print a text page. The best clam chowder(s) I ever had well it’s a tie betrween Sea Gally in Denver and Steamers Seafood Cafe here in Seattle.

  37. Mitchell Webster

    This makes me so hungry right now, it looks simply delicious ! I want to make this as soon as I can.

  38. Jen

    I have tried (and loved) many of the recipes on this web-site, but this is my first time commenting. I have to tell you that I LOVED this. So comforting- I ate 2 bowls! I did the version using potato flakes instead of flour and used low sodium chicken stock instead of water. Oh- and 2 bay leaves instead of 1. Served with crackers (for my husband) and sweet potato rolls for my daughter and I. yummmmm

  39. Lotte

    Two years ago I had clam chowder tasted in a restaurant while I am on vacation in Wyoming. Since then I loved it and I was searching for recipes. So I found your recipe.
    I have made this recipe for the 4th time today. It’s absolutely great! Thank you for that.
    Greatings from Germany

  40. Keri

    I would like to make this but don’t understand how adding a half inch of water during steaming allows you to end up with 1 to 2 cups of clam liquid….

  41. Desiree

    Just made this and it taste great… Will have for my lunch tomorrow. Sadly, I forgot the oyster crackers, I’ ll have to make do with the saltines!!! YUMMY!!!

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