On a cold wintry day, nothing satisfies like a steaming bowl of chowder.
To say that chowders are popular and come in all varieties would be a gross understatement. Type “chowder recipes” into Google and in less than half a second, you’ll get more than a million results.
The term chowder generally connotes a soup containing seafood of some type or combination. Almost every nation with a coastline has developed a type of chowder or seafood stew that is unique to their locale. In the New World, Native Americans consumed many types of fish and seafood stews, particularly clams that were available in abundance, so much so that clams and mussels were often used to feed hogs.
The actual term has links to the Latin word caldera, a cooking vessel, which ultimately became the English word caldron. Some also claim that the word comes from the Old English word jowter, which means fish peddler.
The oldest printed recipe for fish chowder can be traced to 1751. In this preparation ingredients were layered in the cooking pot one on top of the other. For example, onions lined the bottom of the pot on top of which a layer of salt pork, a layer of fish, a layer of seasonings, and a layer of biscuits or crackers were added to thicken the chowder.
Types of Chowder
In this country, there are three primary types of chowder:
- Clear broth-based (Cape Hatteras-style, South Carolina)
- Tomato-based (Manhattan-style)
- Milk/cream-based (New England-style)
Despite the myriad variations and combinations of ingredients, the technique of making any kind of chowder can be broken down into several common steps that link all chowders together.
- Render, remove from pan, and drain some type of pork product, such as bacon, salt pork, or pork belly, or use melted butter or oil (such as olive, canola, or grape seed).
- Cook aromatic vegetables and seasonings in the rendered pork fat, butter, or oil.
- Add potatoes.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Depending on the type of chowder you are making:
- Add clam juice or seafood stock for a clear chowder, Hatteras-style.
- Add tomato paste, diced tomatoes, and seafood stock, Manhattan-style
- Add seafood stock and cream or milk, New England-style
All-Purpose Chowder Base Recipe
- 1/4 to 1/2 lb. bacon or salt pork, cut into medium-sized dice *
- 1 large sweet or Spanish yellow onion, cut into small dice
- 2 carrots, cut into medium dice (optional)
- 3 stalks celery, cut into medium dice
- 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
- 3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2-3 medium-sized bay leaves
- 6-8 peppercorns, whole
- 2-3 sprigs parsley, minced
- 4-6 cups seafood stock (chicken or vegetable stock may be substituted, or clam juice if making clam chowder)
- 2 (8 oz.) Lobel’s Wild-Caught Maine Lobster Tails cut into bite-sized chunks
- 10 oz. King Crab Merus Sections, meat removed from shell and chopped into bite-sized pieced
- 10-12 oz. Wild Caught Shrimp, tails removed and meat chopped into 3-4 pieces each.
- 1 lb. Scallops, cut into quarters
NOTE: The thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns, and parsley may be wrapped in a cheesecloth bundle to make a bouquet garni that can easily be removed before serving the chowder.
- Cut the bacon or salt pork into small dice or lardons. Cook in a frying pan for several minutes until the bacon is rendered and crisp. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and reserve in a bowl or plate.
- Remove all but 3 tablespoons of the rendered pork fat and add the onions, celery, carrot, garlic, thyme, and parsley.*
- Cook until the aromatics are tender and translucent. Add the diced potatoes and the seafood stock and simmer about 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are just tender.
- Add the seafood and simmer 5-7 minutes more.
*If making a vegetarian chowder, use 3 tablespoons of olive, canola, or grape seed oil and begin at Step 2.
Seafood Chowder Variations
Cape Hatteras variation: This is the base version that uses only stock for the liquid.
Manhattan variation: In Step 3, add tomato paste and diced tomatoes.
New England variation: In Step 3, add the seafood, cream or milk, and the reserved bacon to the pot and continue cooking 5-7 minutes more, stirring occasionally.
Controlling the Thickness
If you prefer a thicker chowder, melt 1/4 cup butter and, when foamy, add 1/4 cup flour and whisk briskly to make a roux. Add ½ of the roux to the soup and stir for 1-2 minutes. Add more roux 1 tablespoon at a time and stir until you reach the desired thickness.
Alternatively, add 1 tablespoon of cream cheese and stir until the cream cheese has melted and is incorporated. Add more cream cheese 1 tablespoon at a time until the desired thickness is reached.
Make It Your Own – Get Crazy
The above technique will give you an all-purpose chowder base. But from here you can customize the preparation to make any type of chowder that pleases your imagination and palate.
Think out of the box and get crazy. Ask yourself: “What if I did this, rather than that?”
Beyond the initial steps, what you add to your chowder is between you and your stock pot.
Chowders are very adaptable and can be made unique with some imagination and a perusal of what’s available in your pantry. For example:
- Instead of starting with the usual bacon or salt pork, render some chorizo, andouille, or linguica. Who says a chowder can’t be spicy?
- Add cream to a tomato-based chowder.
- Use one type of seafood—or use a mix and match of seafood.
- Add shredded or diced chicken
- Use various vegetables and combinations, such as potato and leeks; corn; roasted peppers; smoke-roasted Vidalia, Maui, or other sweet onions; roasted tomatoes, etc.
For example, here’s a suggestion for a spicy Southwestern-style chowder:
Add shredded roast chicken, white corn kernels, diced red peppers, black beans, pureed ancho or guajillo peppers, and diced avocado for a chowder with a Southwestern kick in any of the 3 varieties.
What is your favorite type of chowder? What unique ingredients do you add to your chowder pot?