Why It Works
- A rich seafood stock ensures this cioppino is full of flavor, not bland and watery.
- Carefully sequencing the poaching of each type of seafood in the broth leads to perfect results, not mushy, overcooked fish.
- A flavorful roasted red pepper salsa adds additional layers of flavor to the stew.
Cioppino is from San Francisco and the seafood found in a simmering pot there will usually come from the Pacific, but its roots are oceans away, up and down the coast of Italy and the South of France, where this style of tomatoey seafood stew is common.
The word "cioppino" most likely comes from "ciuppin," a Ligurian variant of these Mediterranean stews, which was brought to San Francisco by Genoese immigrants more than a century ago. In my copy of the Italian cookbook La Cucina Ligure by Alessando Molinari Pradelli, there are two versions of ciuppin. In one, which the book describes as "particolare" to convey its relative strangeness, the fish in the ciuppin is left whole; in the other, presented as the more traditional one, the fish is puréed to make a creamy broth, much like a French bouillabaisse. It's worth noting that both of the ciuppin recipes in that book only call for fin fish and not the shellfish that's required in a cioppino, although I've found other Italian recipes for ciuppin online that incorporate a wider variety of seafood. In any event, trying to pinpoint every last detail of cioppino's origin is a bit of a fool's errand since the fishermen and sailors of the Mediterranean have travelled up and down that coast for millennia, spreading cooking traditions all the while—that is, after all, why this type of soup has so many variants throughout the region.
To many American eyes, a bowl of cioppino may look a lot like what they think of as bouillabaisse, but that's a misconception. What often gets passed off as "bouillabaisse" over here is really just a saffron-inflected cioppino, sometimes with lobster tossed in. That Americanized "bouillabaisse" is without a doubt delicious, but it's also a pretty far cry from what bouillabaisse is supposed to be.
So what defines cioppino? Well, for starters, lots of Pacific seafood, if you're lucky enough to live there, including mussels and clams, shrimp, squid, fish, and crab like Dungeness, which at the prices Dungeness goes for these days is admittedly an extravagant touch. If you don't live near the Pacific, it's still easy enough to make cioppino, since most of those ingredients can be easily substituted with Atlantic varieties.
Beyond the seafood, cioppino is based on a rich seafood broth flavored with white wine and plenty of tomato. A slice of San Francisco sourdough toast (or any sourdough, really) is the proper finishing touch.
In developing this recipe, I had a few goals. First, while there are some very good renditions of cioppino out there, I have too often been the victim of thin and watery attempts at it. Priority number one was to ensure a broth so flavorful that it justifies the expense of making cioppino in the first place. I also wanted to land on a technique for cooking the stew that would ensure all the seafood in the bowl hits the table perfectly cooked, a difficult task given the variety of the seafood in the pot and how quickly some of it can overcook.
The last thing I was intent on figuring out was how to incorporate capsicum flavor. Peppers usually find their way into cioppino in one way or another, often as chile flakes to add heat and sometimes as bell pepper cooked into the broth's aromatic base, along with other classic aromatics like onion, garlic, and celery. I wanted to take those basic ideas but be more thoughtful about them, all with the goal of creating a more delicious final stew.
Building a Better Broth for Cioppino
It's disappointing to eat a cioppino that's loaded with seafood and weak on flavor, but it's an unfortunately common experience. Much of the seafood that's served in the bowl is cooked quickly and has little time to infuse the broth with any flavor. In my experience, it's not enough to build the stew in one pot from start to finish—you'll never capture the flavor the stew deserves. Instead, you have to make a rich seafood stock first, one where you can cook flavorful things like fish parts and crabs hard, extracting as much flavor as possible (and, from the fish heads, their natural gelatin, which will give the broth more more body).
Because cioppino is a more robust stew, I don't take the delicate approach of a traditional French fumet. Instead I sauté onion, fennel, celery, and garlic with tomato paste more aggressively, allowing the aromatics to brown a little.
Next, I toss in whatever affordable crustacean I can wrangle—here on the East Coast, that meant blue crab bodies and the reserved shells from the shrimp that'll end up in the final stew (if you can get head-on shrimp, even better, chuck those shrimp heads into the stockpot for even more flavor). I know live crabs can be difficult to find in some parts, so just do the best you can; if you can't get any, or if the crabs are too expensive to justify using in a stock, it's okay to skip them.
After that, I add dry white wine and fish bones and heads from any lean, white-fleshed variety, like snapper, bass, halibut, etc. You can almost always get those kinds of fish scraps at a good fishmonger—they're happy to sell what would likely otherwise be garbage for a low price. Just make sure they're fresh (ask to smell them if in doubt), because a fish stock made from old fish isn't going to make a broth anyone will want to eat.
To further develop a rich seafood flavor, I also dump a couple small bottles of clam juice into the pot. We'll be adding actual fresh clams and their juices later, but it's still a great ingredient for building a very flavorful stock.
Once the whole thing has simmered for an hour or so, it's ready to strain and be used in the actual cioppino.
The Capsicum Conundrum
Cioppino isn't a fiery stew, but it usually has at least a little heat from chile flakes. A lot of recipes also cook red or green bell pepper into the stew's aromatic base. That's a flavor I love in Cajun and Creole cooking, where green bell pepper is a crucial part of the "holy trinity" of aromatics that ground a wide range of dishes from jambalaya and gumbo to étouffée, but here I felt like it would get lost in the broth. I wanted to capture that pepper flavor, but in a more thoughtful way.
I went about that in two ways: First, I cook the stew itself with both red pepper flakes and a bit of chile paste, for a more complex chile heat. Which chile paste you use is up to you. I used a Calabrian chile paste that I had on hand, but sriracha, sambal oelek, or other chile pastes will work.
Second, I used the bell peppers as inspiration to create a condiment to serve alongside the stew, charring them and then puréeing the roasted pepper flesh with olive oil, lemon juice, more chile paste, and fresh herbs (I minced up some parsley and the fronds from the fennel that goes into the stock and stew). It's a more concentrated and dynamic expression of the pepper that's a delicious and easy upgrade to a classic cioppino.
The Seafood Sequence
The last key step to a great cioppino is not ruining the seafood. There's a lot that goes into the pot, and if you aren't careful, it can easily overcook. I ended up cooking the seafood in the following sequence:
- Mussels: Mussels are quick-cooking, but there are also a lot of them (they tend to be sold in two-pound bags), and if they're left as-is, there's no room in the stew for anything else. So I cook them first in the stew, just until they open, then fish them out and transfer them to a bowl to cool. Once they're cool, I shell most of them, leaving just a small group in-shell for presentation purposes. The mussels should all be re-warmed with a quick dip in the broth again before serving.
- Squid: Squid can either be cooked very briefly or for a longer period of about 25 minutes, both of which will deliver tender results; anything in the middle is likely to be rubbery. I love the flavor of long-stewed squid, and since this is a stew, it seemed like an obvious choice to go with that. It also makes things easier to manage, since the squid can just stay in the pot without fear of it overcooking.
- Clams: Next, I add the clams, and I pluck them out as soon as they pop open and reserve them (no need to shell these, there are only a dozen).
- Fish: I recommend portioning the fish into 2-ounce pieces, which are just the right size per serving. Using a mesh strainer, I lower the fish into the simmering broth, then pull it out as soon as it's just cooked through.
- Shrimp: Finishing up with the quickest-cooking of the raw proteins, I add the shrimp in using the same strainer technique.
- Crab: Since Dungeness is hard to come by where I live, I decided to add the crab to the stew in the form of pre-cooked crabmeat (lump blue crab or Jonah crab are common options), which is by far the easiest way to incorporate crab into the stew for most home cooks. Shelled crabmeat needs nothing more than a very brief dip in the broth before serving. Crab is an important ingredient in cioppino, but it's also the one that varies most from place to place, so what you end up using will influence how to need to prepare it. If you do use shell-on crabs, I recommend warming them first, either in the broth or another way, and then divvying them among the serving plates.
The process sounds fussier than it is, but even if it's fussier than others, it's worth it. It'd be a real shame to go to such lengths to make this fully-loaded seafood stew only to overcook the seafood. The small amount of effort you expend on getting it right pays big rewards at the table.
- For the Seafood Stock:
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, diced
- 1 medium (9-ounce, 255g) head fennel, trimmed of fronds and stalks (fronds reserved), then roughly diced
- 2 large celery ribs (about 3 1/2 ounces; 100g each), diced
- 4 medium cloves garlic (20g), smashed
- 1/4 cup (65g) tomato paste
- 6 blue crabs, rinsed (optional)
- Reserved shrimp shells (see below)
- 1 cup (235ml) dry white wine
- 2 1/2 pounds (1.1kg) non-oily white fish heads and/or bone cages, such as snapper, bass, or halibut, washed well
- Two 8-ounce (235ml) bottles clam juice
- 3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 10 whole black peppercorns
- For the Roasted Red Pepper Salsa:
- Two 6-ounce (170g) red bell peppers
- 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) chile paste, such as Calabrian chile paste, sambal oelek, or sriracha
- 1/4 cup (20g) minced fresh herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems and reserved fennel fronds
- Kosher salt
- For the Cioppino:
- 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- One medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, finely diced
- 1 medium (9-ounce, 255g) head fennel, trimmed of fronds and stalks (fronds reserved), finely diced
- 6 medium cloves garlic (30g), minced
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- Kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons (10g) chile paste, such as Calabrian chile paste, sambal oelek, or sriracha (optional)
- One 28-ounce (790g) can whole peeled tomatoes, tomatoes crushed well by hand or a potato masher
- 2 quarts (1.9L) seafood stock
- 2 pounds (900g) mussels, de-bearded and rinsed
- 3/4 pound (340g) cleaned squid bodies and tentacles, bodies cut crosswise into 1/2-inch rings
- One dozen littleneck clams, purged (see note)
- 8 ounces (225g) crabmeat, such as lump blue crab meat (optional; see note)
- 1 pound (450g) halibut or other firm white-fleshed fish, cut into 2-ounce portions
- 3/4 pound (340g) shrimp, shelled and deveined (shells reserved for seafood stock, above)
- Sourdough bread slices, toasted, rubbed with garlic, and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
For the Seafood Stock: In a large, 8- or 12-quart heavy-bottomed pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, fennel, celery, and garlic, and cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to brown, about 7 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook for 1 minute.
Add crabs, if using, and shrimp shells, and cook, stirring and scraping, until shells are cooked through and turning red, about 4 minutes.
Add white wine, bring to a boil, then cook until raw alcohol smell is gone, about 4 minutes. Add fish heads and bones along with the clam juice. Cover with water (at least 2 quarts). Add parsley, bay leaves, and black peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook for 1 hour. Strain seafood stock and reserve until ready to make cioppino. You should have about 2 quarts (1.9L); add enough water to bring total volume of the stock up to 2 1/2 quarts (2.4L), then set aside.
Meanwhile, for the Roasted Red Pepper Salsa: Working directly over the flame of a gas burner or under a broiler, cook the red bell peppers, turning occasionally, until deeply charred all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof bowl, cover with plastic, and let stand 5 minutes.
Using paper towels, rub charred skin off peppers. Stem and seed peppers, then roughly chop flesh and add to a blender jar or tall, narrow vessel compatible with an immersion blender.
Add olive oil, lemon juice, chile paste and minced fresh herbs and blend until fairly smooth. Season red pepper salsa with salt, then set aside or refrigerate until ready to use.
For the Cioppino: In a large 8- or 12-quart, heavy bottomed pot, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, fennel, garlic, red pepper flakes, and chile paste (if using). Season with salt, and cook, stirring often, until very soft but not browned, about 15 minutes; lower heat if necessary to prevent browning.
Add crushed tomatoes and their juices along with the 2 1/2 quarts (2.4L) seafood stock. Bring to a simmer, then add mussels and cook just until they pop open, about 4 minutes. Using tongs and a spider or slotted spoon, lift out and transfer mussels to a bowl. Set aside to cool slightly.
Add squid and cook at a gentle simmer for 25 minutes. While the squid cooks, shell all but 12 of the mussels, then transfer to a warmed platter; cover with foil and, optionally, a small amount of hot broth to keep warm.
Add clams and cook until they just begin to pop open, about 6 minutes. Using tongs and a spider or slotted spoon, lift out clams and add to platter with mussels.
Season halibut with salt, then place in a large strainer and lower into the simmering broth until fully submerged, then cook until halibut is just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Transfer halibut to platter with the clams to keep warm.
Season shrimp with salt, then place in the same strainer and lower into the simmering broth, then cook until just pink, about 1 minute. Transfer shrimp to the platter and keep warm.
In warmed serving bowls, arrange the mussels (both shell-on and off), clams, halibut, and shrimp. If using crabmeat, add to the strainer and lower into the simmering broth until just warmed through, about 30 seconds, then remove and arrange on the plate. If any of the seafood has cooled too much, you can place it in the strainer and dip it back into the simmering broth before plating. Using a ladle, spoon the broth and squid into each bowl. Garnish with toasted sourdough and serve, passing the red pepper condiment on the side.
To purge clams, set them in a large mixing bowl and cover with cold water. Add a generous amount of salt (about 2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt per 1 quart water) and let stand 30 minutes. Lift clams from water, discard water and rinse out bowl. Repeat this process until no sand is visible in the bottom of the bowl.
If you live in an area where Dungeness crabs are available and want to splurge, you could use cooked Dungeness in place of the lump crabmeat suggested here; divide the Dungeness crabs into manageable pieces and warm in the broth before serving.
Make-Ahead and Storage:
While an involved recipe, this cioppino can be made easier by breaking the tasks apart. You can cook the seafood stock up to 5 days in advance. After straining, we recommend chilling the stock rapidly in an ice-water bath, then refrigerating in an airtight container. Keep in mind that the stock calls for the shells of the shrimp, so if you do make the stock in advance you may need to freeze the shrimp until you're ready to cook the stew, or leave the shells out of the stock (if your shrimp are fresh you can safely hold them raw in the refrigerator for at least one day after shelling, in which case you could make the stock one day and finish the cioppino the next without any special consideration for the shrimp).
The red pepper salsa can be kept refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
The cioppino base can be prepared up to Step 8, but just before you start to cook the seafood in it, then chilled in an ice bath and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days if you made it on the same day as the stock, or up to 3 additional days if the stock had already been stored in the refrigerator.
To finish the cioppino before serving, simply reheat the broth base and begin the cooking sequence.