How to Make the Best Chowders

A bowl of chowder is the perfect way to warm up when the weather turns chilly, but it's also versatile enough to be enjoyed throughout the year. If you haven't tasted this ultra-comforting soup before, it's a delicious way to elevate fresh seafood, chicken, or seasonal vegetables. And whether you like your chowder with clams, corn, or shrimp, you might not have realized just how easy this soup is to make at home. It doesn't need slow simmering for hours on end—nor does it require endless amounts of prep work either.

Using just a few high-quality ingredients, you can pull together a delicious chowder in no time. This soup is easy enough to cook on a weeknight, but it's also special enough to serve to dinner guests. This helpful guide is packed with tips and tricks for how to make the best chowders at home, and you'll also find plenty of easy recipes to try.

Clam Chowder
Photo by Meredith.

What is Chowder?

A chowder is a rich, hearty soup with seafood or chicken that starts with a base of salt pork or bacon and a mix of vegetables like onions, celery, and potatoes. Most chowders are creamy, but one in particular—Manhattan clam chowder—has a tomato base. There are many different types of chowders, from clam chowder to corn chowder to chicken chowder.

Regardless of the type of chowder you choose to make, the method you'll follow is pretty much the same. First, you saute bacon (omit this if you're vegetarian), sweat your veggies in the rendered bacon fat, add the potatoes and liquid (milk, cream, stock, or tomatoes), toss in your proteins like seafood or chicken, and simmer everything together until cooked through.

Keep in mind, all chowders are soups—but not all soups are chowders. Soup is a broad term, and it can mean any sort of hot or cold liquid meal that consists of vegetables, meat, stock, and other flavorings. A chowder, on the other hand, is a type of soup.

A Brief History of Chowder: The exact origin of the word "chowder" is unclear, but there are several theories. Some speculate that it comes from the Latin word calderia, which means a place for cooking warm food. Others attribute it to the French word for cauldron, chaudron.

The earliest chowders were cooked in large cauldrons by fishermen, who would make them on board their ships with a portion of the day's catch. According to A History of Chowder: Four Centuries of a New England Meal, the earliest recorded recipe for chowder dates back to 1751, when it appeared in The Boston Evening Post. The chowder described in this recipe was thick and contains as many layers of salt pork, onions, biscuit, and fish as a single cauldron could hold.

How to Make a Chowder Thick and Creamy:

How exactly does a chowder get its characteristic thick, creamy texture? There are several ways to thicken a chowder—roux, potatoes, and cornstarch—and the method you use is entirely up to you. Here's a breakdown of all three:

  • Roux: Some chowder recipes call for making a roux, a thickening agent made with equal parts flour and a type of fat like butter, bacon fat, or oil. You'll make the roux in the same pot you're using to make the chowder, and you'll cook it just enough to lose its raw flour smell. If your chowder becomes too thick after you add the roux, you can always thin it out with a little milk or cream. To learn exactly how to make a roux, check out this helpful guide.
  • Potatoes: Potatoes, a key ingredient in chowder, can also serve as a thickener. For the best results, use naturally starchy Russet potatoes, and avoid waxier types like red potatoes and Yukon golds. As the potatoes cook, they release their starches into the chowder. If you're making a creamy chowder, cooking potatoes in milk may cause the fat to separate, but you can usually fix this by mixing in warmed heavy cream just before serving.
  • Cornstarch: If you want to use cornstarch to thicken your chowder, you'll need to make a slurry first. Simply mix the cornstarch with equal parts cold liquid (like water or stock), then add the mixture to your chowder. While cornstarch is the fastest way to thicken a chowder, it's also flavorless and won't do much to enhance it otherwise.

Types of Chowders

Some chowders are thick and creamy, while others are tomatoey and brothy. What's your favorite type of chowder? Here's a breakdown of eight popular versions, from clam chowder to corn chowder to fish chowder.

Clam Chowder

Clam chowder is one of the most popular types of chowders. Traditionally, clam chowder is made with fresh or canned clams, clam broth (or clam juice in some recipes), potatoes, onions, celery, and salt pork or bacon. The clams and their broth are the defining flavor of this soup. While the clean, briny flavor of fresh clams is superior, canned clams are a perfectly suitable substitute. We like Bar Harbor Chopped Clams, which contain no preservatives.

New England Clam Chowder I
New England Clam Chowder I | Photo by ishilux.

The two main types of clam chowder are New England clam chowder and Manhattan clam chowder—and the question of what's the better chowder is pretty hotly-debated. Here's how to tell the difference between the two soups.

New England Clam Chowder: Also called Boston Clam Chowder, this creamy chowder contains milk or cream. The flavor is rich, hearty, and satisfying, thanks to the bold combo of cream, bacon, and clams. It's most popular in the Northeast, but you can generally find New England clam chowder in restaurants all over the country. Try this foolproof recipe for New England Clam Chowder.

Manhattan Clam Chowder: Instead of cream, Manhattan clam chowder contains tomatoes. This chowder is much lighter and brothier than its richer, creamier counterpart. While some of the ingredients are the same as New England clam chowder, Manhattan chowder feels like a completely different animal. It's common to see other veggies like green bell peppers and flavorings like garlic and fresh thyme tossed into this soup as well. Here's an easy recipe for Manhattan Clam Chowder.

Corn Chowder

Corn chowder is a perfect way to capture sweet summer corn at its peak. If you don't have fresh corn, however, you can also use frozen corn or canned corn. This thick, creamy soup has many of the same ingredients as clam chowder—cream, salt pork or bacon, onions, celery, and potatoes—but the standout ingredient is corn instead of clams.

Recipes that use fresh corn may also call for simmering the husked cobs in water to create corn stock—this easy homemade stock adds big flavor to corn chowder.

Try these top recipes, which offer a mix of traditional and creative riffs, below:

summer corn chowder
Summer Corn Chowder | Photo by lutzflcat.

Chicken Chowder

If you're a fan of clam chowder or corn chowder, then you'll love chicken chowder. Again, the ingredients are virtually the same as any type of chowder, but the addition of chicken makes it extra-comforting. You can use diced chicken breast, but chicken thighs are less expensive, more flavorful, and become fall-apart tender if you simmer them in the soup. Give these delicious chicken chowder recipes a try:

Potato Chowder

Potato chowder is a delicious and budget-friendly way to enjoy chowder. If you're vegetarian, potato chowder (sans the bacon) is also a delicious options. Recipes vary, but the method for making potato chowder is much like any other type of cream-based chowder. Here are several easy corn chowder recipes to try—we especially love the Leek and Potato chowder, which substitutes mellow, earthy leeks for onions.

Seafood Chowder

Seafood chowder is a tasty way to showcase fresh seafood, whether it's fish, shrimp, scallops, lobster, or a mix. Don't worry so much about the type of seafood you're using. The best-tasting chowders use the freshest, highest-quality seafood available. Seafood chowders are typically creamy, but they can also be tomato-based.

Fish Chowder: While you can make a fish chowder with nearly any type of fish, you'll have the best results by using one with firmer meat that doesn't fall apart during cooking. A mild white fish like cod, haddock, halibut, or catfish works well, and a richer fish like salmon also pairs nicely.

Shrimp Chowder: Shrimp and cream are a heavenly match in chowder. You can cook the shrimp in the chowder whole or cut them into smaller pieces, which are easier to eat and fit perfectly on a spoon. Shrimp cook very quickly, so wait until the last minute to add them to your chowder, then serve immediately.

VIDEO: Chef John's Bay Scallop Chowder

Watch Chef John make a creamy chowder starring tender bay scallops, bacon, cubed potatoes, and spices.

What to Serve With Chowder

You've cooked your chowder—but what are you serving with it? The key is to keep the attention on the soup, so stick to sides that enhance the flavor, instead of ones that detract from it. If there's one essential chowder topper you should stock, however, it's oyster crackers. These small, round crackers transform into soft pillows when dropped into chowder, and they're a perfect vehicle for all the flavors.

Bread Bowl with Clam Chowder
Photo by Meredith.

At the bare minimum, serve your chowder with a loaf of crusty bread—but why not take it a step further by serving it in a bread bowl? You can easily make a bread bowl from-scratch (try this easy Italian Bread Bowls recipe), from frozen dough, or with a hollowed-out small Italian or French boule from the grocery store. Save the scooped-out bread—it's perfect for making homemade croutons. In addition to bread, a simple green salad pairs well with chowder. Dress your greens with a tangy vinaigrette to balance out the richness of the chowder.

Check out our collection of Chowder Recipes.

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