Creamy and spiked with dill, this salmon chowder is a cinch to make and comes together in about a half-hour. Cream, potatoes, fennel, and just a splash of white wine bring big flavor to a simple, nourishing dish.
What is it?
Salmon chowder is a traditional seafood soup made with aromatics, potatoes, fish stock, and cream. Unlike many recipes, this version is naturally gluten-free and doesn't rely on thickeners which can make chowders thick as gravy. Instead, we take an older approach that skips the thickeners in favor of a thinner chowder where the flavor of fresh salmon, vibrant aromatics, and good cream really shines.
The result is a deeply nourishing recipe that's both easy to make and delicious. Everything cooks in a single pot, with little fuss. It's substantial enough to serve on its own as a meal, perhaps with a side salad and a good hunk of sourdough bread. Everything comes together quickly, in about 30 minutes. So it's both easy and fast enough to make for a simple weeknight meal when you're otherwise feeling stressed and pushed for time.
What makes this soup a chowder?
Chowder is a traditional seafood stew that's popular in North America, particularly New England. Recorded recipes date back to some of America's earliest cookbooks, and typically call for layering aromatics such as onions with breadcrumbs and fish, and then covering it all with milk before allowing it to simmer together as it bakes. The result is a substantial and hearty fish stew.
While chowder is a foundational element of traditional American cookery, it's rooted in French seaside cooking in which fishermen would cook layers of fish, aromatics, and a starch such as bread or potatoes in a chaudière (or cauldron), giving us the English word chowder.
Like traditional chowders, this version contains fish in the way of fresh salmon pieces, aromatics, potatoes as the starch, and plenty of cream.
What's in it?
This salmon chowder recipe combines four key elements: aromatics, liquids, potatoes, and salmon. In addition to that, you'll find a little bit of butter, salt, and fresh dill which rounds out the dish. To these basic elements, you can add more herbs or aromatics as you see fit.
- Leeks and fennel are aromatics that give the chowder the foundational flavor of both alliums and herbs. They lend a sort of vegetal sweetness to the recipe, with fennel giving a bright, anise-like touch that balances well with both salmon and dill.
- White wine gives the chowder a touch of acidity which brings balance to the naturally creamy, sweet flavors in the dish. Look for an herbaceous dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc or vinho verde.
- Fish stock provides the bulk of the liquid cooking base. You can make your own if you have access to fish bones or carcasses; however, Bar Harbor makes an excellent version which is available online as well as at most well-stocked grocery stores.
- Potatoes are a central element to most chowder recipes. They make up the bulk of the recipe, providing various nutrients such as carbohydrates, fiber, and trace minerals such as potassium, copper and magnesium (1).
- Wild-caught salmon is the heart of the chowder. It is rich in protein and exceptionally good source of omega-3 fatty acids as well as B vitamins, particularly niacin and B6. It's also rich in minerals such as magnesium and selenium (2). Further, people who eat fish like salmon regularly tend to enjoy better heart health than those who don't (3).
- Cream finishes the chowder, as most chowders include a dairy element. Cream brings all the ingredients together. It's a perfect vehicle to envelop the pieces of fresh salmon, chopped potatoes, aromatics and herbs.
- Dill provides an element of brightness. It's an herb that's traditionally used
How to make salmon chowder
Making this salmon chowder is easy. All the ingredients go into a single pot, and follow five basic steps from prepping your ingredients, to finishing the soup.
- Prep your ingredients. This means slicing your aromatics, quartering your potatoes, and chopping your salmon into bite-sized pieces.
- Sweat the aromatics in butter with a little salt. You're not looking for color here; rather, you'll cook the leeks and fennel until meltingly tender and deeply flavorful.
- Simmer. A glug of wine and plenty of fish stock will help soften and simmer the potatoes until tender.
- Add the salmon. Once the potatoes are tender, then add the salmon. That way it won't overcook.
- Finish the chowder. The fresh salmon pieces only need a few minutes to cook through. When they're done, you'll finish the chowder with a swirl of cream and a few tablespoons of chopped fresh dill.
More chowder making tips
As with most soups and stews, making salmon chowder is straightforward with a lot of room for both invention and error. It's easy to swap one ingredient for the next and to add a little extra (or a little less) of another. That said, there are a few things you'll want to keep in mind when making the recipe.
- Sweat the leeks and fennel, don't sauté them. Sautéing, which is done in an open pan over medium to medium-high heat, cooks aromatics quickly and browns them. In this recipe, you want their sweetness to shine without any of the color that sautéing conveys, so you need to sweat them. Sweating cooks aromatics low and slow, releasing flavor without adding color.
- Keep the skin on the potatoes for color. If you prefer to peel your potatoes, that's fine, too.
- Add the salmon pieces toward the end of cooking. Salmon is a delicate fish and you can easily overcook it. Adding it at the very end, allowing only about 5 minutes of cooking time, means that it has enough time to cook through without becoming tough.
- Add the cream at the end. When you boil cream, its butterfat can separate causing the the cream to curdle and the chowder to take on an oily appearance. Adding the cream at the very end, just before serving ensures that its flavor and texture stay pleasant.
- Add the dill at the end. Dill, like other leafy green herbs, can lose its lively, vibrant color and aroma the longer it cooks. Adding it at the very end of cooking just prior to serving the soup gives the chowder a freshness that's hard to beat.
Salmon Chowder Recipe
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- 2 medium leeks (white and light-green parts only, sliced thin)
- 1 bulb fennel (cored and sliced thin)
- 1 teaspoon finely ground real salt
- ½ cup white wine
- 30 ounces fish stock
- 1 pound red potatoes (quartered)
- 1 ½ pounds wild-caught salmon fillets (skin removed and chopped into pieces)
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
- Warm the butter in the bottom of a Dutch oven set over medium-low heat. When the butter releases its foam, toss in the sliced leek and fennel. Sprinkle the aromatics with salt, and let them sweat, covered and stirring occasionally, until soft and tender - about 8 minutes.
- Uncover the pot, pour in the wine and fish stock, and then add the potatoes. Turn up the heat to medium-high and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Drop the salmon into the pot, cover, and allow it to continue simmering until the fish is opaque and cooked through, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the cream and dill. Salt the chowder as it suits you, and then ladle into soup bowls.
Make a smoked salmon chowder by substituting ½ pound smoked salmon for the 1 ½ pounds fresh salmon. Smoked salmon is denser and stronger in flavor than fresh salmon pieces, so you need less of it.
Make it dairy-free by substituting shallots for the leeks, full-fat coconut milk for the heavy cream, and a tablespoon of Thai red curry paste for the dill.
Add bacon. An ounce or two of crisped bacon is a nice addition to salmon chowder, and it lends a smoky-salty flavor that's hard to beat.
Swap tarragon for the dill. You can easily swap chopped fresh tarragon for the fresh dill. Tarragon has a sweet, anise-like flavor that works well. It also pairs nicely with fennel.
Substitute chopped celery for the fennel. Fennel's sweet, herbal notes are the perfect companion for fresh salmon; however, if you can't find fennel, celery makes a good substitute in this chowder recipe.
Add cayenne pepper and smoked paprika to give the chowder a little kick. Cayenne's heat can bring a nice balance to chowder, while smoked paprika lends a pleasant smoky flavor.
Make a fish chowder instead, substituting cod or other fish for salmon.
Place any leftover salmon chowder in a container with a tight-fitting lid and store it in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Neither cream nor potatoes freeze well, so make this chowder fresh and skip the freezer.
Properly refrigerated, salmon chowder will keep for about 3 days.
Fish chowders, like this version that uses salmon, are made significantly better by using fish stock. You can typically find it at most grocery stores if you don't make it yourself; however, you can substitute chicken broth or vegetable stock in a pinch.
If you don't consume alcohol or don't have a dry white wine available, you can substitute additional fish stock for the wine.
Use ⅓ the amount of dried dill if you don't have fresh. This means using 2 teaspoons dried dill rather than 2 tablespoons fresh as called for in the recipe.
If your salmon is cut into skinless fillets, simply chop them into 1-inch pieces. If your salmon comes with the skin on, partially freeze the fillets and then carefully slice away the skin before chopping the meat into 1-inch pieces.
To thicken the chowder, you'll need to mix a slurry of either cornstarch and milk (or water) and then whisk it into the chowder as it bowls. Alternatively, you could make a roux of butter and flour, which will similarly thicken the chowder.
Instead of fresh salmon, you can use 2 (14.75 oz) cans salmon instead.
Try these recipes next
- Potato Nutrition Facts. Nutritiondata.org. (2022)
- Salmon Nutrition Facts. Nutritiondata.org. (2022)
- Djoussé, Luc et al. “Fish consumption, omega-3 fatty acids and risk of heart failure: a meta-analysis.” Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland) vol. 31,6 (2012): 846-53.