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The Food Lab: How to Make Real New England Clam Chowder

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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If you've spent any amount of time in coastal New England, you've probably noticed how generously awards are bestowed upon clam chowders. Now I've never met the folks who run these award factories, but I take issue with any organization that passes out praise like flyers.

Having spent my entire life traveling through New England, I've grown accustomed to the fact that nine out of ten "award-winning!" or "#1 voted!" clam chowders are going to arrive at the table either thick as paste, bereft of clams, or packed with clams so rubbery they make your jaws bounce, and unfortunately, most home recipes don't turn up results that are much better. And if finding great chowder in its birthplace is difficult, you can imagine what it's like outside of New England.

When done right, clam chowder should be rich and filling, but not sludgy or stew-like. Its texture should be creamy without feeling leaden, like you're sipping on gravy. Tender chunks of potato should barely hold their shape, dissolving on your tongue, their soft texture contrasting with tender bites of salty pork and briny clam; god help the clam shack that dare serves rubbery clams in their chowder!

The flavor of a clam chowder should be delicate and mild, the sweetness of the pork complementing the faint bitterness of the clams, accented by bits of celery and onion that have all but dissolved into the broth, fading completely into the background. A good grind of black pepper and a bay leaf or two are the only other seasonings you need, unless you count the requisite oyster crackers as seasoning. I know some Yankees who do.

The Precedents

Chowders have a long, complex, and relatively apocryphal history that can be traced back to the fish and seafood stews eaten in coastal England and France. Like many old dishes, the name of the food stems from the word for its cooking vessel, a large cooking pot or "cauldron," known in French as a chaudiere. Or perhaps it comes from the old English term for a fishmonger jowter, which had been in use in Cornwall since at least the 16th century.

Whatever the etymology, its history can be traced across the Atlantic to the fishing towns of New England—Boston, Mystic, Nantucket, New Bedford—where the European dish was adapted to work with sea journey-friendly staples like onions, potatoes, and salt pork or beef, along with local ingredients like cod, oysters, and clams.

About a decade ago, I had a job as a cook at B&G Oysters in Boston's South End, a fancy-pants seafood shack run by Barbara Lynch. It was there that I first started taking a serious interest in chowder-making, there that I realized that chowder is not just the sludgy stuff I'd been raised to believe it was. We made our chowder in the manner of a fancy restaurant—cooking and seasoning each element individually, combining, pureeing, straining, adding, mixing, until our broth was intensely flavored and light, our clams were perfectly tender, and every vegetable cooked just so.

It was delicious, but It's decidedly not the way a traditional chowder is made; a poor man's food meant to take few ingredients and even less effort. I remember thumbing through a copy of 50 Chowders, by Jasper White, in which he unearths New England's oldest-known printed recipe for chowder, from the September 23rd, 1751 edition of the Boston Evening Post

Because in Chouder there can be not turning;

Then lay some Pork in slices very thing,

Thus you in Chouder always must begin.

Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice

Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;

Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,

Then Biscuit next which must be soak'd some Time.

Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able

To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;

For by repeating o'er the Same again,

You may make a Chouder for a thousand men.

Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother 'em,

You'll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather 'em.

Aside from the interesting technique of layering ingredients in a post to stew them and the very Victorian use of spices, the recipe essentially reads "put things in a pot and cook them." One thing you'll immediately notice is that dairy is conspicuously absent from the recipe. Instead, the chowder got its thickness and richness from soaked biscuits. (Note that in this usage, biscuits most likely refer to tough, cracker-like hardtack, not the fluffy leavened biscuits of the American south).

Slowly, as dairy became cheaper and more readily available in the region, it began making larger and larger appearances in chowder, at first simply being used to moisten the biscuit, before eventually completely replacing it as the primary ingredient outside of clams, pork, and aromatics. These days, the biscuits live on in the form of oyster crackers, which as any true chowder-head can tell you, should be added liberally to your bowl and allowed to soften slightly before consuming.

So which is the best way to cook chowder? Can the dump-and-simmer method be improved upon by some modern technique, or is there something to the classic that gets lost when fiddled with too much?

I decided to break it down element by element and really figure out what it is that makes clam chowder tick.

Building a Base

Most basic recipes for clam chowder call for rendering down some form of salted pork (bacon or salt pork usually), sweating onions and celery in the rendered fat, a touch of flour, followed by milk, potatoes, chopped, and occasionally bottled clam juice. It all gets simmered together with a bay leaf or two until the potatoes are cooked and the broth is thickened. It gets finished with a bit of cream, or perhaps some half and half.

Right off the bat, there are some issues I have with this process—flour-based roux can be pasty, and cooking the clams as long as the potatoes is a surefire path to rubbery clams. These issues would all need to be addressed. But first things first.

The Pork

There are a few salted pork options at the supermarket: