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Clam Chowders--thick or thin??

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  • e.d. Mar 20, 2002 08:26 AM
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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.

              1. Here's my 2 cents worth, hopefully not irrelevant--I spent 2 years on the Eastern Shore of VA, where the local chowder is clear--just clam liquor, a few potatoes, and LOTS of minced chowder clams. Delicious and didn't leave you feeling sluggish. There's a half-marathon there in Dec where cups of the stuff are handed out after the finish--very revitalizing!

                1. My mother, a New Hampshire seacoast native, makes clam chowder using steamed clams (whole, but out of the shell), the clam broth from the steamed clams process, and half and half. First she sautees some chopped onions in salt pork. Diced potatoes are added at some point. Chopped parsley, black pepper, and salt, if necessary. No flour! The consistency is that of half and half. She learned from her mother, and the recipe has never been written down. It is really good. All you need is oyster crackers.

                  We always ate clam chowder as leftovers. My mother made it with the clams that weren't eaten from the night before. I also grew up thinking that Lobster Newburg and Lobster Bisque were leftovers, since they were always a result of the previous night's lobster feed!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Pat Darnell
                    l
                    Lynne Hodgman

                    Clam chowder etc. as leftovers? WOW!

                    I grew up in NH and there must not be flour in a true clam chowder.

                    I make mine with onions sauteed in butter; then add diced potatoes with just enough clam liquid to cover; add clams and heat; add half&half, salt, pepper.

                    Hubby insists on finely diced celery too. I could do without it.

                    A very simple soup and I never would order it without seeing/tasting it. Thick and gloppy, ugh. Rosemary or any other extraneous herb, no thank you!

                    Guess I am a purist!

                  2. I doubt there is any "authentic" clam chowder. It all depends on the particular cook or locale. Boston or New England is white with milk or cream, ranging from thin to very thick (flour or bread or crackers). Manhattan red with tomatoes, mostly thin but sometimes with a slight thickner (usually flour), In Virginia and North Carolina, Hatteras style is thin, no milk or cream, no tomatoes (although I have seen it with diced tomato bits). In some part of New England, I understand they have a clear clam chowder like Hatteras. No one has mentioned it, but there is also clam gumbo...not a shabby dish. I think the real secret lies in putting the clams in at the very last moment before serving...not letting them cook very much. I'm hungry, now.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Jim H.

                      "I doubt there is any "authentic" clam chowder."

                      Up to a point. I draw the line at any variations, such as the massivly flour-thickened, which are merely a restaurant-induced method of enabling mass production, long storage and instant reheating.

                      1. re: John Whiting

                        Not so. My cousin, who had a sucessful seafood restaurant in Viginia Beach, had very thick clam chowder and she-crab soup. Like pudding. I suggested a much thinner type (which I prefer) and he indignantly said that his customers like it thick, and the customer is always right. By the way, the best clam chowder I recall was at McCrory's in Pioneer Square, Seattle. About 30% clams.

                        1. re: Jim H.

                          This isn't a personal attack, but, in the interests of logic, may I point out that, by these standards, the McDonald's customer is also always right.

                          1. re: John Whiting

                            Logically and pragmatically, if the McDonald's customers want "special sauce" on their "Big Mac", only a fool vendor will switch to ketchup.

                            1. re: Jim H.

                              They don't even know what "special sauce" is until McDonald's has sold it to them.

                              There's not much point in pursuing this, so you may now have the last word. :-)

                    2. As of this writing, I seem to be one of the few who is willing to praise "Manhattan Clam Chowder." Not that it is better, or more "authentic" -- just that if well-made (lots and lots of clams, fresh onion, tomatoes, potatoes, a tiny bit of celery, and a healthy portion of thyme), it can be awfully tasty. A creamy thick "New England" version (as I learned it) can be great, too. So can a milk-based one, or just clam-broth-based. Once again, I just want to say, "If it tastes good, it IS good."

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: CTer

                        Proper Manhattan clam chowder, made with tomatoes, is a respectable variation and shouldn't be lumped together with chowhouse glop. The latter, artificially thickened with modified starches, might as well be bought in cans and heated in the microwave.

                        1. re: CTer

                          Don't get me wrong, I love Manhattan chowders also. And when I lived on the coast of Washington state, the seafood stews I would make were always closer to Manhattan chowder (or cioppino) than to New England style chowders. In fact, until I fairly recently discovered the joys of salt pork I was never much good at making home-made Milk/cream based chowders.

                        2. Thanks to all for the fascinating posts. I just wanted to add that at least part of the West Coast does have an authentic chowder tradition. While I can't speak for California (who can?), Oregon, where I grew up, owes a lot to early New England settlers who named many of its cities (Portland, Medford, Newport, Salem) and began making chowders from the abundant local clams. I suspect that restaurants have thickened the basic recipe, and they also do tend to add a flavoring element (I have tasted celery, thyme, rosemary, and green pepper, for example) as a way to distinguish their chowder from the one down the street. But if you come visit the Northwest, you will almost never see the chowders called Boston or New England style, as the locals view the cream/milk variety as their own.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: e.d.

                            well, as you can imagine, he says A LOT, all of it quite interesting. About clam and corn chowders, but mostly about fish chowders. Surprisingly enough (to me, anyway), he says that milk in chowder is fairly recent, and hardly even mentions cream. It's the POTATOES that are supposed to be the thickener (if not using crushed crackers). Check out the chapter in "Serious Pig" by him and Matt Lewis Thorne.

                            1. re: CTer

                              John's a New Englander. By "fairly recent" he no doubt means "only in the last 100 years or so".