Make Clam Chowder Properly–As They Do On Cape Cod

Lobsterfest 2015 (1)

Cape Cod Clam Chowder

In “Chowder” the title of chapter fifteen of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick or The Whale, we find Ishmael and Queequeg on Nantucket when they stop in at the Try Pots, an inn where Hosea Hussey was known for his famous chowders. Arriving tired and hungry, they expressed their desire for chowder and when asked by Mrs. Hussey “Clam or Cod?” They ordered clam. When they heard her yell to the kitchen “clam,” they believed that they would have to share a single clam for dinner, but were soon surprised “when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh sweet friends! Hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship’s biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.” Some commentators fail to mention that as soon as they finished their clam chowder they then ordered a fish chowder and ate that too. The Try Pots had great chowder, as Captain Ahab said “chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes.”

In a paraphrase of one writer, a properly made New England clam chowder is a dish to preach about, a dish to sing hymns for, to fight for. I too feel very strongly about clam chowder. If one doesn’t feel strongly, if one doesn’t defend a particular way of cooking something, I believe one is not really interested in food and therefore can ignore my ranting and raving to come. Many fine cooks make many different fine chowders from coastal Maine down to Virginia, but a clam chowder wouldn’t be worth writing about if I didn’t dogmatically claim that this recipe, this recipe right here, is the only true one. Let those who disagree with me argue for their alternative, in the meantime don’t bother me–I’m eating chowda.

This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder is made on Cape Cod. Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, nor cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and god forbid a tomato. A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy “white mud.” Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). Adding a tomato means you’re from below the chowder Mason-Dixon line for New England chowderheads. A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor. A clam chowder is made only one way (oh, pipe down, wait until you taste this), and you are more likely to find it well made on Cape Cod than in Boston, where chefs from other parts of the country work, and where they bulk up their chowders with flour. A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs with their liquor (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.), and never canned clams, and with diced lean salt pork (not bacon–too smoky; I don’t buy Chef Jasper White’s speculation that the smokiness resembled the original), onion, potatoes, butter, salt, white pepper (not black pepper, so the kids won’t try to pick them out), and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early twentieth century Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s proper to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream to approximate that old time taste. Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served with common crackers and hot, but not piping hot. Clam chowder is always “aged.” That is, it is best when it sits on a warm turned-off stove for some hours or if it is reheated.

What about shucked clams versus steamed clams? Well, normally one doesn’t need to shuck quahogs because they’re only used for chowder, whereas littlenecks and cherrystones are usually eaten raw. When I was a kid growing up on the North Shore of Long Island cherrystones were also used for baked clams: the clams were shucked and chopped and mixed with bread crumbs and oregano.

Chowder has a history. Chowder appears to derive from the French word chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder. Each fisherman would add a little to the cauldron along with biscuits and some other condiments and then he would be doled out his portion. It seems that these Breton fishermen were responsible for bringing their chaudière to Newfoundland where it was made with fish or clams. From here it spread to Nova Scotia and New England probably via fishermen who fished the Grand Banks and would regularly put into local ports when severe storms arose. In John R. Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms published in 1848 a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or champagne. Lobsterfest 2011 (45)

The earliest chowders were fish chowders and they were always made in a clear broth. There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-nineteenth century, although the first written mention of clams being used in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Marie Child’s The Frugal Housewife. But we know that the clam was thriving along the New England shore when the Pilgrims arrived in the early seventeenth century and we know from their letters that clams and mussels were foods described as “at our doors.” So it’s possible they made clam chowder. The first mention of a chowder in print–and it was a fish chowder–was in 1732. In 1751, the Boston Evening Post published a recipe for chowder containing onions, salt pork, marjoram, savory, thyme, ship’s biscuit (hardtack), and fish, to which was added a bottle of red wine. All of the chowders mentioned before the mid-nineteenth century were made with water and not with milk, although they did contain salt pork. By 1880, clam chowder had become a regional dish from Maine to Virginia. The dividing line between chowder made with milk and chowder made with tomatoes was also starting to form about this time and the dividing line seems to be southwestern Connecticut and south where they use tomatoes and Cape Cod and north where they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.

There are other chowders. There are fish chowders, corn chowders, lobster chowders, parsnip chowders, and many others. But for me my favorite chowder is the one I would make every summer in Wellfleet on Cape Cod either at my own stove or had at PJ’s Dari-burger in Wellfleet with quahogs.

Now, let me talk a little about ingredients and techniques. Every ingredient is important in chowder. First, the quahogs (pronounced KOhog) used are large clams that are also called hard clams, and when they’re smaller, littlenecks and cherrystones. They should be live. A quahog is too big and tough to be eaten raw that’s why they are used for chowder. Some cooks use littlenecks, razor shell, or soft-shell clams, but if you do that’s a different chowder. On Cape Ann, and on Cape Cod, soft-shell clams are used for fried clams, not chowder. In Maine, though, they’ll used any kind of clam. Surf clams (Spisula (Hemimactra) solidissima Dillwyn) are large deep water clams that get washed up with the surf on the ocean side of Cape Cod. They can be used in chowders too, although my then 4-year old son Seri believed they had another purpose: he would find their half-shell on the beach and yell out to my buddy who still smoked cigarettes in those days, “Boyd, I found another ashtray,” as we cringed in embarrassment.

Second, the milk is important. It should be rich fresh creamery milk, preferably raw. Since that’s hard to find for most people, it’s permissible to use whole pasteurized milk with the addition of half-and-half and/or heavy cream. Third, the potatoes should be waxy boiling potatoes such as Yukon Gold or Red Rose that can handle boiling and still retain their shape. Don’t use baking potatoes otherwise they will disintegrate and make your chowder too potatoey. For the onion, I like to use any large yellow onion. I always use salt pork rather than bacon in chowders because I think bacon is too strong a flavor.

Many cooks have many secrets to a good clam chowder and one of them is to cook the onions very gently so they caramelize a bit and disappear into the chowder. Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color”. Just remember: chowda don’t need no color–it’s already got one–white. One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle.
20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones
2 quarts water
½ pound lean salt pork, diced
1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
2 pounds boiling potatoes (such as Yukon Gold), peeled and diced
Salt, if necessary
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
½ teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups whole milk
3 cups half-and-half
1 cup heavy cream
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
Oyster crackers
1. Prepare the clams by letting them soak in cold, clean seawater (preferably) or tap water for 1 hour with a tablespoon of baking soda. Remove the clams and rinse then place them in a large stockpot filled with the water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, about 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through a chinois, a conical strainer, into a smaller stew pot. Strain again through a cheesecloth-lined strainer if necessary. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
2. Add all the collected clam juice to the water you steamed the clams in. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
3. Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil, then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
4. Meanwhile, in a skillet, cook the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes, stirring. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary (it shouldn’t be necessary if you’ve used quahogs from Wellfleet) and the pepper and thyme. Let the chowder age in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
5. Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half, and or cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 degrees F. The broth should never even come close to a boil though, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.
Makes 10 servings


  1. Don’t know that I would be up to this large a batch! But it does sound like a noble recipe. Still, I’m loyal to my own version, which you may find by Googling “Any claim to present an ‘authentic’ New England clam chowder”

    Some time I’ll try steaming the clams first as called for in your recipe. Meanwhile, let me suggest that you bring the milk or milk-cream mixture to a boil (or close) in a separate saucepan before adding it to the chowder. On the question of the milk that should be used: Though I didn’t specify any special kind in my recipe, it would be a great idea to search out something better than usual commercial whole milk. But the piece of technology that makes the difference isn’t pasteurization, it’s homogenization — the worst, dumbest thing that’s done to milk by the American diary industry. Of course all raw milk is unhomogenized (the homogenization process instantly turns it rancid). But not all unhomogenized milk is raw. There’s a little improvement on the milk front in recent years, and many small dairies are now producing whole milk pasteurized at a relatively low temperature by the old-fashioned batch method and not subjected to homogenization. It’s much, much better than standardized commercial whole milk, and would be my recommendation nowadays.

    • You’re quite right, Anne, that any claim to “authentic” clam chowder will start a fight and although I don’t use the word “authentic” I do use the word “proper.” That’s the whole point: if you don’t feel strongly about clam chowder you’re not a chowdahead and you would probably eat any slop served forth. One reason I steam the clams first is because there are just too many to shuck and furthermore the extra cooking through steaming helps tenderize the otherwise pretty chewy quahogs one is likely to use. I find the ratio of milks I use to work perfectly, but it is an attempt to overcome the unsatisfactory commercial milks. There are a good number of fish and clam chowders ranging from Newfoundland to Connecticut and the best, I find, are made within a 1/2 mile of the coast.

  2. Leslie J Brunson says

    growing up on cape ,my mother said she was making original choder. Very similiar to your recipe except for serving. It was always served clear or naked . there would be a pitcher of warm cream and butter to add as much as you wanted..

  3. where can i this dish in the market place with all the ingrients described

  4. I think I’m gonna like your blog. I’m from coastal New England and I grew up eating chowdah all my life. For the past 20 years I have been living and now seem likely to stay in Georgia. Although I have mixed emotions about that, bringing the foods of my youth back eases the strain.

    I found your site while searching for authentic Mediterranean tapas. I really appreciate the thoroughness, accuracy, and the desire to strive for the “true recipe”. For those of us who like to cook, let’s start with an appreciation for the original and we can dumb it down, substitute ingredients, and make it a 30 minute recipe on our own time if that’s what floats the boat. In my humble opinion, there’s too much of that already

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