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What is Chowder?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Chowder is a type of rich soup, usually made with seafood, vegetables, and cream. Traditionally, it includes a base of bacon and is thickened with broken up crackers, although variations of the dish with slightly different ingredients are made in many seafaring communities. Often likened to a stew, this soup is thick with chunks of ingredients, and has a very hearty, warming flavor. In the United States, chowder is frequently made with clams, and two varieties are very popular: New England style, which uses cream, and Manhattan style, which uses a base of pureed tomatoes.

In many seafaring communities, fishers would throw samples of the catch into a large cauldron and boil the chunks of fish with an assortment of vegetables such as potatoes. In France, this dish was called chaudiere, after the pot it was cooked in. The French also added broken biscuits or crackers to make the dish thicker. It is probable that Americans adopted chowder from French settlers in the Northern areas of the colonies, because of the name, although the British have a long tradition of seafood stews as well.

The word first appeared in English within a recipe header in 1751, although there is evidence that the dish was popular well before then. This recipe included onions, bacon, fish, an assortment of spices, biscuits, claret, and water. In the 1800s, American cooks began to make the transition to clams, because of the abundance of shellfish in the new colony. Cooks also began to add cream to the soup, and to differentiate unique types depending on the ingredients.

Technically, chowder does not have to include seafood. Corn chowder is another popular type, usually made with bacon, onions, potatoes, corn, and milk. A wide variety of vegetable-only chowders can be made, especially when cooks keep in mind that the original soups were probably made from whatever the cook had lying around the kitchen, thrown into a pot to simmer in wine and water with chunks of fish. Cooks might also want to experiment with seafood stews from other parts of the world that have a spicier flavor thanks to the addition of hot ingredients such as chilies.

To make a creamy chowder, chefs can start by frying pieces of bacon and onions in a stock pot. They can add spices, such as marjoram, thyme, parsley, salt, and pepper, to taste and stir in chicken or fish stock along with cream and a small amount of flour or breadcrumbs to thicken the mixture. The soup should be allowed to simmer for approximately 20 minutes before adding presteamed fish and/or canned clams, along with peeled and diced boiled potatoes. The ingredients should be warmed through and then served immediately; if clams are included, the chef should be careful not to cook the soup too long, or the clams will turn rubbery. The dish can be dressed up with a sprinkling of fresh parsley and pepper, and served with thick crusty bread on the side.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By chivebasil — On Nov 07, 2012

Which do you guys prefer, Manhattan clam chowder or Boston clam chowder? I like both, but if you twisted my arm I would probably pick Manhattan as my favorite. I think clams and tomatoes go really well together.

Has anyone ever tried any cool variations or stellar recipes?

By backdraft — On Nov 06, 2012

I think corn chowder is probably my favorite. The sweet corn combined with the rich chowder is perfect when it is contrasted with some hot sauce and a sprinkle of crisp bacon bits.

By honeybees — On Oct 20, 2012

I don't like seafood so a bowl of clam chowder is not something I would ever order or make. Corn chowder, on the other hand, is one of my favorites.

I make this with fresh corn right off the cob and it is hard to stop with just one bowel. The corn combined with bacon, onions, cream and the right seasonings is hard to beat. I also like to add some green chilies to my chowder and stir in just a little bit of cornmeal. This helps to thicken the base and complements the corn flavor.

By LisaLou — On Oct 19, 2012

The only complaint I have with eating a bowl of chowder is it isn't light on calories. A big bowl of this tastes absolutely wonderful, but isn't very good if you are counting calories.

I have experimented with ways to make chowder that doesn't have as many calories. I feel a lot better about helping myself to a second bowl when I go to the effort to make this for myself.

I also see chowder as kind of a comfort food and it is hard to get the taste you are craving without a lot of calories. While my scaled down version isn't quite as rich or creamy, I still think it is a good alternative.

By julies — On Oct 19, 2012

If I have a choice between New England style clam chowder and Manhattan clam chowder, I would chose the New England version every time. I love the thick cream base of a New England chowder and can pass on the tomato base.

I grew up in the New England area so chowder is almost like a staple in our house. Shrimp chowder is one thing that my whole family will eat and I serve it often once the weather starts to turn cooler.

By myharley — On Oct 18, 2012

On a cold winter day there is nothing that sounds better than a bowl of piping hot chowder along with a thick piece of bread. This never fails to hit the spot when I want some warm, comfort food.

By gravois — On Oct 17, 2012

My college cafeteria made a surprisingly good potato chowder. It seemed like it was on the soup line every other say, probably because it is so cheap to make. It became a staple of my diet while I was there. It was great during cold Wisconsin winters, and it didn't gross me out as much as 95% of the other food there.

By truman12 — On Oct 17, 2012

I love a good corn chowder. I think when it is done right there is nothing more decadent and delicious in the world.

The key is to get the sweetness of the corn, the rich creaminess of the cream and butter, and to contrast these with sharp flavors and textures like chilies or bacon.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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