Seafood Chowder 101: A Breakdown Of Recipes, Types, And History

Seafood chowder: you might think it a simple, hearty seafood stew—but it’s a little more wacky (and delicious!) than that. In fact, the chowder drama is so intense, the state of Maine once passed a law saying it’s *illegal* to add tomatoes to New England Chowder.

We’ll get into that funny piece of history and beyond in this 101 guide, like…

  • The 8 regional styles of chowder
  • Three exceptional New England approved chowder recipes
  • Fish vs clam vs lobster chowder… and how to pick

By the end, you’ll be a bit of a chowder connoisseur. Aye aye, captain?

creamy clam chowder recipe

Firstly, What Exactly Is Chowder?

Let’s all get on the same page here.

Chowder is a type of seafood stew thickened with cream or milk. From there, the definitely opens up wildly, which explains why there are so many regional variations of seafood chowder.

Generally, there are four core components to chowder:

  • Seafood — The core ingredient (clam, lobster, fish).
  • Seasoning — Typically happens through whole ingredients, like diced onions, celery, bacon, and herbs.
  • Liquid — Milk or cream is essential to the recipe, though many variations also include the use of vegetable stock to thin the stew.
  • Thickener — Most recipes use some sort of ingredient to thicken the stew like cornstarch, flour, or potatos.

Some recipes call for a roux to be made—a thick butter and flour mixture—rather than cream, though these recipes are far and few between. Most chefs agree that milk or cream is standard and expected.

What’s the Best Seafood to Add in Chowder?

The undisputed king of chowder is the clam. Clams are a perfect match for the creamy soup and savory flavors. Visit a seafood restaurant, and you’re more likely to see clam chowder than any other kind. However, other types of chowder do exist.

We’re big fans of lobster chowder, the more hearty and less smooth version of lobster bisque. We also enjoy a good scallop or shrimp chowder, though these pairing are fairly rare.

When it comes to other types of fish chowders, it’s hard to go wrong. Just about any white fish will do.Here are a few we suggest trying out:

  • Salmon
  • Atlantic cod
  • Haddock
  • Hake
  • Halibut
  • Flounder
  • Snapper

Absolutely try a fresh fish chowder, but if you’re going to try one chowder—get the clam.Best Boston Chowder!We first had your fabulous clam chowda when we visited Boston 9 years ago. After sampling chowders throughout Boston for lunches and dinners during the week we were there, yours was decidedly the best. So long to our old family recipe, yours was decidedly better than ours. We’ve been ordering for Christmas dinner since and your eagerly awaited fabulous chowda arrives on time, in perfect condition, and is greatly appreciated.M. Zeigler Clio, CA Order New Engand Clam Chowder

The Most Common Clams Used in Chowder

The clams featured in most recipes are slow-growing types of bivalves and of diverse sizes as per their age during harvesting. 

Live clams that can be used in chowder include top-necks, littlenecks, count-necks, cherrystones and quahogs. Most chowders use quahogs as the main recipe; they are quite meaty while the smaller cherrystones and littlenecks are left for use in baking and raw bars.

Salt Pork, Bacon, Aromatics, and Oyster Crackers

Classic chowders almost always use either salt pork or bacon. While you can go without, why would you? Slab bacon can be used and is a better option than its sliced counterpart, especially for those who love meaty chunks in their broth. Salt pork is cured and salted with the meat and fat unsmoked. 

In any of the types of pork used, it is important to ensure they are cooked low and slow to render out the fat fully without burning the pork completely. 

For aromatics, the traditional flavorings include bay leaf, celery, and onions. While they might be distracting, other aromatics and vegetables can be used such as garlic, leeks, thyme and carrots.

Lastly, don’t you dare forget the oyster crackers.Oyster crackers are a non-negotiable in clam chowder. No oyster crackers? It’s not chowder then…

Also Read: Lobster Prices: How Much Does Lobster Really Cost?

A Brief History of Chowder in the Americas

Seafood chowder history goes back to the early 18th century, with the earliest references of the dish found in Brittany, France and the Cornwall region of England—the two areas on either side of the English Channel. 

At the beginning, early chowders were not made with clams, but all kinds of seafood—lobster, cod, anything that could be caught in the ocean. In case of limited or zero seafood, chowders were sometimes made using plain vegetables. Biscuits and salt pork were two ingredients that made it into the popular delicacy that chowder’s known for today; a very fulfilling and heartier meal.

The Shipwreck Legend: Clam Chowder’s Humble Origins

Legend has it that clam chowder was first created by a group of shipwrecked French soldiers off the coast of Maine. As the ship sank, the men grabbed what provisions they could carry and swam to shore. They made camp there—soaked in salt water, with almost no possessions to their names. 

Seafood Chowder History and the Creamy New England Kind 3

They gathered some clams and threw them into a large pot they called a Chaudière. The men cooked the clams in water with the potatoes, crackers, and pork that they had salvaged, and managed to create quite a tasty dish, which became the precursor for future “chowders” derived from the word Chaudière.

Early Chowder History: Pilgrims to the 1850s

The Pilgrims are also believed to have brought the Chowder tradition with them to America. Since it’s one of the easiest dishes to prepare and uses readily available ingredients, the new settlers likely relied on the dish as a reliable go-to. 

While we don’t have recorded recipes for chowder going back that far, we do have documents indicating that by the 1750s, chowder recipes were widespread. The first known chowder recipe was published in the Boston Evening Post in 1751. It was a layered dish made using fish, salt pork, onions, hardtack, spices, pepper, water, red wine and herbs.

chowder history in America

As North America opened up, chowder also expanded and recipes started reflecting regional differences, personal tastes, and variations. Clams usage in chowders gained in the second half of the 19th century. This was the time when hardtack went out of favor, replaced with potatoes as bacon was phased out by salt pork. 

Moby Dick, an 1851 book by Herman Melville who lived between 1819 and 1891 describes clam and cod chowders served in the Try Pots Nantucket chowder houses in Massachusetts

“But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt…..we dispatched it with great expedition.”

As early as 1800, there were a number of clear regional chowders in existence, including the Manhattan and famous New England chowder varieties—let’s talk about those next! 

The 8 Seafood Chowder Types: New England, Manhattan, and Beyond

Modern chowder lovers know there’s not just chowder, but many types, inspired by regional cuisines and tastes—each worthy of savoring at least once in your life. 

Let’s quickly explore each of these eight chowder styles.

New England Chowder

This is indisputably the most popular of all chowders in North America. When you think of chowder, you almost certainly think of New England chowder. And don’t ever say otherwise, because true chowder fans are quite defensive about this stuff—especially in Maine!

This chowder soup is a hearty and creamy delight. The traditional recipe for New England style Clam Chowder includes chopped clams, potatoes, onions, and salt pork in a milk or cream-based broth.

Some New England states like New York added tomatoes, but people of Maine were so incensed by this barbaric act, they actually passed a bill through the legislature in 1939 making the act of adding tomatoes to New England Clam Chowder illegal

Told you they take this stuff seriously!

More recently, some chefs have started to use a butter roux and flour to make the soup thick. If you’re cooking the dish with milk, the roux is vital to ensure no curdling takes place when boiled. 

The New England clam chowder is thicker than others and mostly made using clams, onions and potatoes with the use of tomatoes frowned upon. Oyster crackers are usually an accompaniment of the New England unique clam chowder. Those using crackers usually crush them before mixing with the soup to thicken the broth or to garnish the delicacy.

You can order New England chowder straight from Maine here.

Manhattan Clam Chowder

Manhattan chowder started as an offshoot of New England chowder, until the 1939 law that made it illegal to add tomatoes. From that point on, Manhattan chowder was its own distinct recipe, because one of the core differences of Manhattan Clam Chowder is the addition of juicy tomatoes in place of milk or cream.

The addition of tomatoes was hugely influenced by the clam soups and fish with tomato recipes of the fishing communities of the Mediterranean. In 1894, New York, a Delmonico Steakhouse chef published a clam chowder recipe in a cookbook that was largely tomato-based, believed to have grounded the recipe in Manhattan. Since most purists and believers of the New England chowder were not happy, thus, the 1939 legislation prohibiting tomato usage in clam chowders in the state of Maine.

Yes, we’re a company based in Maine, but we still love a good Manhattan Chowder! We’ll forgive those city folk for adding tomatoes because, well, it tastes pretty good after all.

The traditional Manhattan clam chowder is characteristically a red broth using tomato for color and flavor. The use of tomatoes rather than milk is believed to have been influenced by Portuguese immigrants who had arrived in Rhode Island; stews made of tomatoes were a staple in traditional Portuguese cuisine.

Rhode Island Clam Chowder

Despite being believed to be one of the earliest forms of the clam chowder, the Rhode Island version is not as common as the rest. 

It is called a “clear” chowder, since the primary liquid is the clam broth. This type of chowder doesn’t use milk, cream, or tomatoes.

Rhode Island Chowder contains bacon, onions, potatoes, broth, and quahogs (clams). In other versions of this chowder, a red one is usually served and contains a broth base made with potatoes and tomatoes. However, it differs from Manhattan’s red clam chowder by the fact that it lacks tomato chunks or vegetables.

You’ll likely find this chowder served in hotels and restaurants where New England chowder can also be ordered. Tourists often gravitate toward the class New England chowder, but Rhode Islanders prefer the clear version.

Also Read: New England Steamer Clams Recipe

New Jersey Clam Chowder

New Jersey Chowder is a unique version usually made with ingredients like sliced tomatoes, light cream, asparagus, parsley, celery powder, pepper, potato, chowder clams, onion and bacon.

Like most things that come from New Jersey, it’s an odd blend of the Manhattan and New England styles—but don’t say that out loud when you visit the state.

Hatteras Clam Chowder

On the banks of North Carolina you’ll find a clam-forward, minimalist version of chowder. 

Hatteras Chowder is usually made with a clear broth of long-steeped clam, giving it an extra clammy flavor. 

Some recipes lean into this bold clam flavor, suggesting only to add salt and pepper. Most, however, tend to also add onions, potatoes, bacon and thickened with flour. Black or white pepper is sometimes used to season it, and the dish includes infrequent use of hot pepper sauces or chopped green onions.

Minorcan Clam Chowder

St. Augustin, Florida is home to a southern style of chowder called Minorcan Clam Chowder. 

Similar to the Manhattan sylte, the Minorcan clam chowder contains a broth tomato base and the datil Spanish hot chilli pepper.

The datil pepper is native to Cuba and was brought to Florida’s coasts hundreds of years ago. It has a sweet, tart, and spicy flavor (wow! complex!) and gives the soup an interesting and unmistakable flavor.

The name “Minorcan” refers to settlers who were originally from Minorca, Spain. It’s believed these early settlers of the region created this hearty soup.

Also Read: A Maine Homemade Lobster Bisque Recipe

Delaware Clam Chowder

The Delaware Chowder variety is typically made of salt pork cubes that are pre-fried. Recipes typically include pepper, salt water, salt, potatoes, quahogs, and diced onions. 

Delaware clam chowders were very common in the early 20th century up to around the middle of that century. It shares many common traits with the New England variation.

Long Island Clam Chowder

The clam chowder served in Long Island is a combination of the traditional cream based clam chowder served in New England and the tomato-based chowder of Manhattan. Frankly, it’s something most New Englanders are not really concerned about.

As a result, the Long Island version is a cream tomato blend referred to as such since, just like the Island, it is right at the Middle of Manhattan and New England.

Where to Buy *Good* Seafood for Chowder (3 Rules To Follow)

Here’s the thing: chowder isn’t exactly the kind of food you cook if you want to taste the most nuanced and exotic seafood flavors. The aromatic and creamy ingredients help tone down the fishiness.

Best Boston Chowder!
We first had your fabulous clam chowda when we visited Boston 9 years ago. After sampling chowders throughout Boston for lunches and dinners during the week we were there, yours was decidedly the best. So long to our old family recipe, yours was decidedly better than ours. We’ve been ordering for Christmas dinner since and your eagerly awaited fabulous chowda arrives on time, in perfect condition, and is greatly appreciated.
M. Zeigler Clio, CA
Order New Engand Clam Chowder

However, if you cut corners on seafood quality, you will taste it. And it’s no small difference. Here’s what to do when looking for *good* seafood to go in your chowder:

  • Don’t buy canned anything. Canned chowder, canned clam, canned fish—just don’t. Canned seafood is poorly preserved, the fresh flavors decay into a mess of confusing aromas, and it’s just all-around bad.
  • Frozen pre-made chowder is actually pretty great! Chowder freezes surprisingly well, so don’t sidestep frozen options. Just make sure it was made from scratch beforehandlike this one—and not simply repackaged canned chowder (yuck).
  • Lobster chowder? Don’t buy old lobster.Nothing beats quality, fresh lobster that’s carefully packaged and shipped, but it’s hard to know if you can trust lobster companies to deliver high-quality lobster. This is what you should look for.

If you follow these simple rules, you’ll never end up with a stale or ultra-fishy tasting chowder.

The easiest way to enjoy chowder at home: get it chef-made, then shipped fresh!

The 3 Chowder Recipes We Can’t Get Enough Of

Want to make chowder yourself? Here are three traditional recipes that we Maine folk (read: chowder snobs) find ourselves going back to over and over again.

Recipes: Classic Red Bliss Potato and Clam Chowder

This go-to New England clam chowder recipe is perfect if you’re looking to make a classic hearty chowder. Featuring the traditional array of vegetables and rich steamer clams, it’s the obvious choice if you want straight up, no-funny-business chowder.

Recipe: Boston Seafood Chowder

My father brought this family-favorite Boston Seafood Chowder recipe from Islesboro, Maine long ago. The use of milk, rather than cream, allows the delicate flavors of the cod or haddock fish to shine through just the right amount.

Recipe: Lobster Chowder

Don’t throw your lobster shells away! They’re the perfect addition to chowder, infusing that smooth, tender lobster flavor (even if you’ve stripped away all the meat!). This recipe doesn’t use clams or fish—the lobster shells imbue enough flavor all on their own for a fantastic, warm soup.

Pro Tip: Always start with hyper-fresh, carefully shipped seafood. This is the kind of shipping you want to see.

Ready for Wicked Fresh Chowdah?! 

Here at Lobster Anywhere, we’re a bunch of chowder maniacs. 

That’s why our chef-made clam chowder is prepared by expert New England chefs—using only fresh native clams—then carefully frozen and packaged for rapid, reliable shipping.

It’s the easiest way to enjoy classic New England Chowder, made by real live New Englanders.

Grab your next bowl of hearty chowder here.

Comments

  1. I was , at age 63, thought that there was only two clam chowders. New England & Manhattan.
    However, hanging out in Weasterly, RI , today,was served Rhode Island chowder. A clear base for the clam chowder was quite weird to me
    My favorite is the New England ——yikes

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