Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
Jan 24, 2004 08:16 PM

New England Clam Chowder...thick or thin???

  • d

This has probably been discussed before, but I am new to this board, and I don't know how to access the archives, or if there are archives. I sell at local San Diego Farmer's Markets. I want to bring clam chowder to sell, and I am wondering what the consensus is re: thick or thin clam chowder. Can you help me? Thanks!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. There are different styles of New England clam chowder. The best explanation of fish and clam chowder can be found in Serious Pig by John Thorne, IIRC. Well worth reading.

    There are degrees of thinness and thickness. In terms of authenticity, there should be no roux or cornstarch; the only starchy thickening should be that exuded from the potatoes. Ignore cookbooks that tell you otherwise.

    In terms of liquid, versions range from an emphasis on clam broth (more typical in southeastern New England), broth and milk, or broth and a touch of cream. The problem with milk is that it is less stable, especially if you try to hold it at high heat; there is by nature a difference between chowder made at home to be eaten immediately and the compromises that have been made in food service variations on the theme -- cream and rouxs are friendlier for food service, but more distant kin to the real thing that one can more easily serve at home. The addition of dairy to the broth does thicken the soup, but more in terms of velvetiness or silkeness of mouthfeel, not "thick" in the starchy sense. Just remember that, if a chowder is too rich with cream, the dairy fat starts to obscure, rather than carry, the clam flavor. (Hence, people who really don't like the flavor of clams tend to prefer a heavy hand with the cream....) Thick chowder is an utter abomination. (Shudder.) That, of course, does not prevent it from winning awards.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Karl S.

      Great reply, Karl. I second, except to say that thickened does have its fans. I prefer traditional thin, with some bacon fat.

      1. re: lucia

        I think saltpork gives a more "authentic" flavor than bacon. Your results may differ.

        1. re: e.d.

          The Thornes note this is particularly true if you can get the real deal, rather than what passes for salt pork in supermarkets these days.

          1. re: Karl S.

            Mr. Thorne and I had a lively correspondence (this was back when you had to use pens, paper and stamps to do that) concerning smoked pork versus salt pork in both beans and chowders, and agreed to disagree since we were talking about Southern vs. New England taste preferences. Out here in California one of our lightly smoked bacons would probably be preferred.

            As for thickening, I remember thinking that chowder was like a milkshake - the longer a spoon would stand up in it the better. I was a big fan of a place in Anchorage whose chowder was so thick the waitress would pour in heavy cream to thin it out! And then I got older and grew some taste buds. Bacon, potatoes, whole milk and clams, plus a bottle of clam juice, is what I like at home, though I'm thinking of trying evaporated milk, since I think the bacon and clams would kill that odd canned taste.

      2. re: Karl S.

        Amen to no thickening except potato starch. Many years ago I swore off any type of cream soup at any restaurant except very, very good ones, because I just could not take another bowl of gluey, corn starch mess. At times, I do break my own rule and order clam chowder because it sounds good, and I am almost always disappointed.

        The whole concept that creamy soups should be really thick, the thicker the better is a horror. But clearly there are a lot of people that like that thickness, so if you are making something to sell, not eat yourself...


      3. Strictly my opinion - from 40+ years of drinking the stuff.

        1) Fish chowder should always be thin (milk plus butter floating around) - nice chunks of firm white fish (monkfish), some flaky white fish (haddock)...

        2) Clam chowder can be either thin or thick - if thick, no roux/flour please, just cream and potatoes as thickener (also add potatoes later to have nice firm pieces). I think that clams matter - although you'll hear others say it makes no difference. Chopped up big clams (large ocean quahaugs) are not as tasty and too chewy - even when minced. I like little necks best. On the west coast, you may find that bean clams are better than chopped up geoducks. When making my own at home, I like to mix in the canned Japanese littlenecks whole (different from NE Atlantic little necks)-(also great broth in those cans).

        3) Fish chowder is better than clam almost anytime almost anywhere... but then you're no longer selling clam chowder...

        4) The only real, real abomination is "seafood" chowder, especially with false crab. Hey... just throw in the pollock without all that phony artificial flavoring and coloring. And shrimp and lobster belong in bisques.

        1 Reply
        1. re: applehome

          I might add to strengthen your excellent post that fish chowder is probably the mother of clam chowder, historically speaking. And it is vastly underappreciated.

        2. I would be curious to know, after your decision is made and you bring the chowder, how it sells. My gut instinct would be that thicker chowder would sell better. (Even though I hate thickened chowder and so do some others, apparently). I may be underestimating the California chowder-buying public, I don't know. Once you make your decision, and gauge the reaction, would you be willing to write a follow-up post about it?

          1. I like my chowder unthickened, but rich. When I make it at home, I use broth and cream, not milk, and I do use potatoes in the chowder. I think you get the best flavor this way, but frankly, it's a minority taste. Frequently, when I serve this chowder, people tell me they like it, but add that it's different from what they are used to. People expect thick chowder, I think, and though you will likely find that the majority of chowhounds despise it, the average person thinks it's great. Personally, I'll eat almost any chowder, and I probably prefer it unthickened as much because I grew up on Snow's with lots and lots of milk as for any more sophisticated culinary reason. I would definitely arrange taste tests in your area - the health conscious folks of California might be less inclined to the stand-your-spoon-up-straight school than the more devil-may-care eaters in the Northeast.

            And of course I've always believed that only the devil puts tomatoes in clam chowder, but that may just be my New England prejudices talking...

            6 Replies
            1. re: curiousbaker

              Read Serious Pig for the history of tomatoes in chowder. It's more nuanced than you might think.

              1. re: Karl S.

                Actually, I have (I love John Thorne). But some things are just too deeply ingrained to be susceptable to reason. When you're sick, you need Campbells tomato soup, a grilled cheese sandwich and ginger ale; sorbet may be lovely, but can not be substituted for blueberry ice cream when driving in Maine in the summer; hot dogs and bean are eaten on Saturdays; clam chowder with tomatoes is evil. In return for being allowed to hold these beliefs unquestioned, I don't argue with Southerners who shudder at Northern cornbread, Brits who like mushy peas, and New Yorkers who won't eat a bagel outside 20 mile radius of Times Square. I like to think of it as a form of religious tolerance.

                1. re: curiousbaker

                  I should clarify that I don't like tomatoes in my clam chowder, either. I think the acid and fruit interferes with the taste of the sea that should be the focus of the dish. I like broth and enough dairy fat to bring out that flavor, and ideally no more.

                  And don't forget the brown bread with the franks and beans.... (I always loved the leftover slices of brownbread toasted on Sunday morning, mit butter....)

                  1. re: Karl S.

                    I so agree about the tomatoes in chowder. I realize that it may have a rather long history, but the tomatoes just don't do justice to the delicate flavor of the shellfish. I figured that, aside from it's venerable roots, that it became favored by people who ate clams but didn't really like the "fishy" flavor of shellfish. My mother is one of these people. She has turned her nose up at absoluely beautiful dishes of linguine with clams in white wine sauce made at a restaurant she respects, just because the "fishiness" sent her over the edge (she is chowhoundly in other ways -- hey, we all have our problems -- I can't really eat raisins, for example, unless they are buried in something. Call me crazy). Anyway, I've always thought of tomato or "Manhattan" clam chowder as more of a tomato soup with clams than an actual clam chowder or shellfish-based soup. The clams only become an accent in that red brew.

                    Give me creamy, rich, but non-thickened dairy-based chowder every time, by the way. I'd rather have a small, very rich cup of it (with potatoes or without -- I like it both ways) than a big bowl of "liter" stuff. I am not the majority, though, and I'm sure that most people would like thickened. If you're planning to sell at the SF Farmer's Market Ferry Plaza, however, I imagine you'd run into a large portion of people who would like any good soup however you made it. People here don't seem to have such hidebound ideas about what chowder is or isn't. I imagine a good cream-based (but not flour thickened) potato-including-or-not clam chowder would go over well, as long as it was delicious! SF farmer's market patrons seem to have extremely varied and inclusive tastes, to their credit. But the people who stand in the rain at 7:45 just to buy organic mesclun mix and Rechiuti chocolates and Hoffman game birds and heirloom variety peaches are not your average eater/consumer. Almost all of them automatically qualify as chowhounds (especially the people who come early). And, alas, chowhounds are never the majority of eaters, anywhere.

                    Also, a side note on dairy-based chowders. I've read in certain places that clam chowder may be a relative or perhaps descendant of what is possibly an even older dish, oyster stew. Oyster stew, is, to my knowledge, always dairy based. Oyster stew being one of my all-time favorite foods, this just adds to my predjudice against any kind of tomato chowder..... :)

                  2. re: curiousbaker

                    Personally, I'd rather go without than eat Campbell's tomato soup.

                    On the thick vs thin chowder, if it's the creamy style, I like it really thick and fishy/clammy.
                    Maybe that's because I've never had the opportunity to try any that's home-made.

                    On the other hand, I do love Manhattan-style/tomatoey clam chowder too -- thin though.

                    I think of them ("New England" vs "Manhattan" clam chowders) as being completely different kinds of dishes.

                2. re: curiousbaker

                  So glad there are so many other people here who know that real chowder is not thick! I hate that that's what most people think clam chowder is. To quote my dad (and chowder-teacher), "I want to eat clam chowder, not library paste."

                3. There is a difference between thin and watery. The defenders of Neptune oyster will say the chowder there is traditionally thin, but I feel it is closer to water.