By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America
Chowder may be the quintessential quick meal, originally cobbled together by fishermen at the end of a hard day at sea. Trace the evolution of chowder from this beginning and see the many variations that have emerged over the years.
Today, chowder still makes a cozy meal for a cold evening, and as we’ll see, it can also be dressed up to serve as a sauce for fish or chicken when you have guests. Knowing a few basic chowder recipes will allow you to help carry on the tradition of adapting it into new flavors and variations.
The Story of Chowder
The original chowder was made on board fishing boats from a meager pantry: the fish that had been caught during the day, fresh water, salted pork, and ship’s biscuits, or hardtack. The fishermen would render the pork for its fat, layer in hardtack and fish steaks, and add fresh water and some salt water for seasoning. The mixture would then be simmered until it became a gruel.
Back on shore, this dish could take on a little more sophistication. The fish could be filleted and cut into cubes, and the cook could make a fish stock. The hardtack, which was often moldy or infested with insects—or both—could be replaced with potatoes to thicken the soup. Celery, onions, and a little bit of cream and butter could be added. At some point, clams were added, and clam chowder was born.
With the advent of the automobile, people who lived in cities could travel to the shore for rest and recreation. There, they ate all kinds of seafood—lobster, sword fish, and chowder—and when they went back home, they asked for the dishes by name. Chowder became so popular that Italian restaurateurs who had been making what they called “clam soup” for years rechristened the dish Manhattan chowder.
A Modern-Day Chowder Variation
Eventually, the idea of chowder made its way west; the clams were dropped because they weren’t available, and cooks made farmstead chowder from corn or chicken.
In the Midwest today, you can find chowder made with ground beef and cheese—cheeseburger chowder—and in the Southwest, it’s made with smoked chicken and green chiles.
When you reach the West Coast, clam chowder reappears on the wharves of San Francisco, served inside a hollowed-out loaf of sourdough bread.
The story of chowder doesn’t end in the United States. If you travel to Spain, you’ll discover that clams are often combined with chorizo. In Spain, this dish is often served with a garlic mayonnaise—aioli. You can make this with commercial mayonnaise, thinned out with some broth from the soup. The idea here is to get a sensuous, pourable consistency. Add a little bit of garlic and lemon zest. When you add the chorizo to the clam chowder, you serve it almost like a sauce or a bed for the fish.
Learn more about how to transform simple items into multilayered, complete meals
Make a Quick and Easy Farmhouse Corn Chowder
- 4 oz salt pork, pancetta, or bacon
- 4 ears corn
- 1 oz oil
- 8 oz onions, cut to ¼ -inch dice
- 2 celery stalks, cut to ¼ -inch dice
- 10 oz potatoes, cut to ¼ -inch dice Yukon Gold or Kennebec
- 1 qt chicken stock
- water as needed
- 2-3 tbs flour optional
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp thyme
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2-3 cups milk or cream
- 1 tbs Italian parsley, chopped
- 1 tbs chives, minced
- 2 tbs butter
Render bacon in a pot, remove the bacon and set aside, and then add onions, celery, a sprig of thyme, and a couple of bay leaves.
If you like a thicker, more robust soup, you could add some flour and make a roux. This strategy will allow you to use a low-fat dairy product, such as half-and-half, in place of cream or even milk, which tends to break. Mix the flour with the flavorful fat in the pot.
Instead of clam liquor for the soup, use chicken broth. As it comes to a boil, the flour will thicken.
Every starch thickens at a different temperature, but all of them are completely thickened at a boil.
Break up any lumps and add more broth. With each progressive addition of liquid, the flour will become looser. Don’t evaluate consistency until the mixture comes to a boil.
This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Making Great Meals in Less Time. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
After you stir in the rest of the chicken stock, add the potatoes. Again, it’s best if these are cut a little unevenly so that the smaller pieces give body to the soup and the thicker pieces remain.
Learn more about how to cook with what’s on hand in your house and elevate it
The next ingredient is corn, which provides starch that will also thicken the soup. White corn is usually more tender and sweeter than yellow, but yellow corn offers a full, rich flavor.
To cut corn off the cob, place a small bowl upside down in a larger bowl. Rest the cob on the smaller bowl as you cut off the kernels with a knife. Scrape the back of your knife over the cob to get all the corn milk off the cob. You can even put the whole cob into your soup to get more flavor and remove it before serving. Bring the soup to a boil, then simmer until the potatoes and corn are cooked. Reduce the heat and enrich with cream or milk.
If you decide that the soup is still not thick enough, stir some flour and water together in a small bowl to create a slurry.
Adding starch in this way keeps the soup more robust and helps prevent the milk or half-and-half from breaking.
Break up the bacon and add it back to the soup for textural interest. Add some salt, cracked pepper, and chives and serve the soup in rustic bowls.
Learn more about how to turn out restaurant-quality food without all the stress
Because this chowder is thickened with flour, it holds up well from one day to the next. On the second day, you can even treat it as more of a sauce than a soup. Serve it on a chicken breast, alongside green beans and sautéed mushrooms.
Common Questions About Chowder
A chowder is generally a thick cream-based soup, usually thickened with roux and filled with chunky vegetables, seafood, or both.
Red potatoes are ideal for chowder as they contain less starch to alter the texture of the chowder.
Clam chowder is not considered a healthy dish as it contains a large amount of calories from fats and starches, and the protein from the clams is not substantial. However, if one were an extremely physically active person working a physically demanding job such as construction or someone who rarely ate due to economic circumstances, clam chowder might be ideal.
There is a difference between a bisque and a chowder. Bisque is often far less chunky than chowder and with fewer ingredients, although both are very thick, generally cream based soups.