Enriched with bacon and cream and enlivened by fresh herbs, this clam chowder recipe is easy to make with either fresh clams or canned.
We live near the seashore. And when the tide is low, and the water cold, we gather our boots, buckets and shovels and head to the beach. It’s there, buried in the tidal flats’ gritty sand that we find fresh clams. Plump and perfect for chowder. While we typically make this chowder with fresh clams, you can always used canned if they’re easier to find.
A good chowder is delicate, flavored with onions and bacon, and dotted with sweet clams and tender potatoes. I favor the simple, humble style of a good Maine Clam Chowder. Flecks of bacon, fragrant bites of celery, onion and clams all swimming in a delicate, thin broth with just the right touch of cream.
When the chowder’s finished, swirl some fresh chopped herbs into the pot. Dill and tarragon partner beautifully with seafood.
What is chowder?
Chowder is typically a thick and rich seafood soup that contains onions, potatoes, cream and herbs. Some chowders, like this salmon chowder, contain fish, others will contain shellfish and others will feature a variety of seafoods. Clam chowder? It features clams.
As with other traditional foods, you’ll find several varieties. While they’ll all feature similar ingredients, like clams and potatoes, you’ll find distinct regional variations, too. Regional culture, climate, culinary heritage and access to ingredients will influence how recipes come together, develop and evolve over time.
What are the different types of clam chowder?
When you think of clam chowder, you probably think of New England Style chowder – white, creamy, thick like gravy and studded with clams and potatoes. But, there’s a lot more varieties to consider.
All have clams, most have salt pork or bacon, as well as onions, celery and potato. From there, some varieties include dairy, others tomato, and others yet have a fine, clear clam broth.
- New England (Boston) Clam Chowder combines onion, celery, potatoes with cream, clams and clam broth. Cooks also thicken the chowder’s broth with roux made from flour and butter to give it a thick, gravy-like texture.
- Manhattan Clam Chowder originated not in New York, but in Rhode Island where early 20th century Portuguese immigrants forwent the cream of a traditional chowder in favor of a fragrant tomato base and plenty of herbs.
- Rhode Island Clear Clam Chowder combines bacon, potatoes, onion, celery and herbs in a clear clam broth made without cream or thickeners.
- Maine Clam Chowder is similar to New England-style chowders. It features potatoes, celery, onions and cream, and it also has a delicate, thin broth. Since Maine Clam Chowder isn’t thickened with flour, it’s a good choice for gluten-free eaters.
Is clam chowder good for you?
Clams are a particularly nutrient-dense food, and are a good source of B vitamins and various minerals. They’re particularly rich in iron, vitamin B12 and selenium, which is a powerful antioxidant that supports detoxification and thyroid health.
Potatoes, onions, celery and various culinary herbs will also give chowder more nourishment in the way of dietary fiber and various antioxidants and phytonutrients. Using grass-fed cream in your chowder will also give it a boost of healthy fats, like conjugated linoleic acid, and fat-soluble vitamins.
How to Make Clam Chowder
If you’re cooking with fresh clams, you’ll need to steam them first. Give them a knock on the counter, and if they stay open toss them. Then put them in your kettle with water, steam them until they open. Throw out any that stay closed. Then reserve the broth and chop the clam meat.
To make your chowder, you’ll start by rendering bacon so that it crisps. Bacon pairs well with clams, and gives the broth a nice, subtle smokiness.
To the bacon, you’ll add your aromatic vegetables: onion and celery. Instead of sautéing them, allow them to sweat in a covered soup pot with a dash of sea salt. They’ll release their flavor and fragrance, without caramelizing.
Next, add your potatoes, chopped clams and broth. Simmer them together until the potatoes are fall-apart tender.
Lastly, swirl fresh cream into the pot to give the chowder its characteristic creaminess. Toss in the fresh herbs, and serve.
Clam Chowder with Fresh Clams (or Canned)
- 5 pounds clams scrubbed clean and purged
- 1 tablespoon rendered bacon fat
- 4 ounces chopped bacon
- 4 ribs celery diced
- 1 medium yellow onion diced
- 2 teaspoons finely ground sea salt
- 2 pounds Russet potatoes peeled and diced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Chopped fresh dill to serve
- Chopped fresh tarragon to serve
- Place the clams in a large stock pot, and pour in a quart of water. Cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Steam the clams until they open, about 10 minutes. Discard any clams that stay closed after 15 minutes.
- Strain the broth into a pitcher through a fine-mesh sieve, and allow the clams to cool until they’re comfortable enough to handle. Pluck the meat from each clam and place it onto a cutting board. Discard all the shells, and coarsely chop the clam meat.
- Melt the bacon fat in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Drop the chopped bacon into the pot, and allow it to crisp in the hot fat – about 5 minutes. Stir in the celery and onion, and then sprinkle them with sea salt. Cover the pot, allowing the vegetables to sweat in the pot about until they release their fragrance and soften.
- Add the potatoes and chopped clam meat to the pot, and then pour in the reserved clam broth. Pour in an additional 4 cups water, drop in the bay leaf, and then simmer the chowder until the potatoes soften and yield easily when pierced by a fork.
- Use a slotted spoon or a pair of kitchen tongs to pluck the bay leaf out of the chowder, and then stir in the heavy cream. Taste the soup, adjusting the seasoning as needed. And then ladle the chowder into bowls, topping it with chopped fresh herbs.
Where to Find Fresh Clams
Cultured clams are a sustainable seafood, and you can buy them online here as well as in many grocery stores, natural foods stores and super markets. You can also use canned clams to make this chowder (see recipe note).
How to Purge Fresh Clams
Clams suck the grit, sand and mud that surrounds them into their bellies. And that makes for gritty clams. Almost all clams you purchase at the store will already be clean and purged. But, if you’ve gone clamming at low tide and want to make chowder with your catch, you’ll need to purge them first.
When you go clamming, make sure to bring a bucket of clean seawater home with you. Strain the seawater and submerge the clams in the water at least an hour and up to a day so that they release their grit. If you don’t have seawater, you can store them in saltwater. You can read more about the specifics of purging clams here.
What to Serve with Your Chowder
Rich foods, like chowder, also benefit from lighter accompaniments. So, you might add a light spring salad dressed with a simple maple vinaigrette. Sliced ripe tomatoes dressed with celery seed, black pepper and sea salt also make a nice side. And you can always finish the meal with a fresh fruit salad or a strawberry mint sorbet to cleanse your palate.