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Mar 20, 2002 08:26 AM

Clam Chowders--thick or thin??

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Having grown up on the West Coast, my idea of clam chowder is that it is a very thick, creamy soup--definitely thicker than a standard cream soup. Some varieties can be so thick I have have jokingly called them clam gravy. In Oregon, the old seafood house (now unfortunately a small chain) called Mo's served a chowder so thick that it always came (comes?) with a pat of butter on top, as if you'd need a knife to cut it without the butter. Maybe only two or three times have I had west coast chowder that wasn't very thick. And a tomato based, Manhattan style chowder is even rarer and would have to be identified as such on a menu, or a riot would ensue. But a recent visitor to a California location identified what I had always considered at most a moderately thick chowder as "thick-and-gloppy" which leads me to believe that some places in the U.S. they must serve thin and runny chowders. Is this true?

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  1. Not in New England! IT's creamy and thick here! And I believe the correct term is "chowdah"... ;)

    5 Replies
    1. re: Jaylea

      Not in my New England mom's kitchen! Flour was never added. Up here in Maine, if you see the word "Chowdah" on a menu, you should probably run away. I've had chowder with flour that still tasted pretty good, but I've never had chowdah that didn't taste like paste.

      1. re: Albie

        I don't mean with flour added. I mean the white, creamy, milky chowder... I thought the first poster was asking about the brothy (sometimes tomato based)chowders vs. the milky white?

        And the "chowdah" was a joke. I'm from Maine too - I know what true chowder is...

        1. re: Jaylea

          >>And the "chowdah" was a joke. <<

          Ah, I see. I guess I was being thicker than chowdah.

      2. re: Jaylea

        In my trips to Boston, I ask for the clam chowdah and when I start dumping in the entire salt and pepper shaker, due to total lack of any flavor, of anykind, they tell me that a New England Chowdah is judged by, "If you can stand a spoon in the middle of the chowdah, with out it tipping over, THAT'S a good chowdah."

        I have my doubts.

        1. re: Ralph Elliot

          Where do you go in Boston for Chowder? A lot of places get it wrong... and try to be too "authentic" and miss the whole point. Creamy is key - not unnaturally thick!

      3. You bet. Old timers in Maine never thicken their chowders.

        Thickened chowder is "restaurant-style" chowder, they taught me in cooking school many years ago. They can't keep an unthickened milk-based chowder hot for service without it curdling. Not thinning a thickened chowder down to the normal consistency of a soup is just laziness, tho. Either it's soup, or it's wallpaper paste. Why would anyone want to make an imitation of undiluted condensed soup and serve it in a restaurant is beyond me.

        Of course, in so many parts of the country, chowder is not traditional, and there are no local recipes, so everybody thinks what they get in a restaurant is the "real thing". For these people, it has become the real article.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ironmom

          I totally agree with you. Those super-thick versions taste only of the flour and dairy used to thicken them. In many restaurants, cheap and salty bottled clam juice is used, so the flour and cream probably don't do much harm. But, when you have a real clam chowder made with freshly shucked clams and the resulting liquor, it's a sin to thicken it with flour - it hides the wonderful essence of the clam, which is broth (read "thin"), though I'll admit to adding a touch of cream.

        2. I am a DC native who grew up eating a creamy clam chowder (more or less thick, depending on the chef), but as an adult I traveled to the Outer Banks of NC and discovered their wonderful clam chowder. It is clams and potatoes in a clear broth the is like essence of clam. Wonderful and very elemental. I still love a cream soup (the perfect comfort food), but this NC clam chowder is now my favorite!

          2 Replies
          1. re: Kim Shook

            There used to be a Rhode Island variety of clam chowder that was what your North Carolina strain sounds like. Neither tomato nor cream, just clear broth, potatoes, clams, maybe celery. I don't know how many places still make it that way. Like any other soup, it could be watery or full of flavor. In either case it was preferable to the awful gloppy chowders thickened with flour or cornstarch.

            1. re: pete wells

              "Used to be"?

              It hasn't gone away. It's a very common style in New England, favored by many here. A number of restaurants in Boston also use it as a reference point.

              But many places feel obliged to cater to the thick-as-paste tourist crowd because that's what they expect and get very vocal about if they don't get it (and I've seen it happen).

              There are three traditional variations on New England chowders: broth-based, milk-based, and cream-based, and they are not strictly separated. I myself prefer a good broth base with some milk and a touch of cream. It is smooth but does not obliterate the essence of the ocean.

          2. I think that a chowder should never be artificially thickened with flour, cornstarch, etc. unless it is a dark style chowder and you use a roux, of course this style is more like a stew or gumbo. Good chowder should only have the consistency that the ingredients supply such as the potatoes, cream, etc. If a chowder is too thick it is hard to taste the flavors as they are covered up with floury glop. A good chowder is a fast cooked one. The potatoes cook first and the clams / seafood is added last so that the flavors stay clean and bright.

            1. I was born and raised on Cape Cod (beginning in 1931) and ironmom has it right -- both as to the traditional method of making it and the commercial motivation for thickening it. I never encountered a single flour-thickened clam chowder until I tasted it at an off-Cape restaurant.

              The only thickening traditionally allowed was crumbled pilot crackers. You'll find an excellent scholarly dissertation on clam chowder in John Thorne's, _Serious Pig_, pp. 187-195. The essential ingredients are clams, salt pork, onion, potatoes, whole milk, butter, salt & pepper, and either pilot crackers or small oyster crackers -- my own experience differs slightly from Thorne's on this ingredient.