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The Scoop on Different Types of Clam Chowder

How many types of clam chowder are there, and how are they different? The answer is more complicated than it seems.

types of clam chowder

Lucky for us, there are many types of clam chowder to choose from here in the Northeast, from a rich, creamy bowl of New England clam chowder to a hearty, red-colored concoction often known as Manhattan clam chowder.

But just how many types of clam chowder are there, and how are they different? I went on a investigative journey, and what I found was that the answer is much, much more complicated than it seems.

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Types of Clam Chowder: The Great Debate

I started by consulting the world’s leading authority on words, Mr. Webster, who defines “chowder as a soup or stew of seafood (as clams or fish) usually made with milk or tomatoes, salt pork, onions and other vegetables (as potatoes).” This seemed broad, yet simple enough. But, how do clam chowder types gain local characteristics? Why is New England stereotypically creamy, while Rhode Island clear, and so on? What contributes to the creation of many types of clam chowder?

I found out that this discrepancy wasn’t a new thing. Chowder is a historically evolving dish, having been served in the Northeast recorded back into the 1700s.  While the different types of clam chowder often blend, intersect and influence each other, each region often vehemently maintains that their version is the correct one and the most delicious. Whether or not the soup actually hails from that region is another story.

In fact, chef Louis P. De Gouy, author of the 1949 “The Soup Book,” noted, “Clam chowder is one of those subjects, like politics and religion, that can never be discussed lightly. Bring it up even incidentally, and all the innumerable factions of the clambake regions raise their heads and begin to yammer.”

But culinary political correctness aside, I think everyone can agree on one thing: they’re all delicious! Read on to find out about each area’s classic chowder and for some great recipes.  Enjoy!

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New England Clam Chowder

This clam chowder is markedly different from other types of clam chowder. It’s distinguished by the presence of a thick dairy base that gives the soup a creamy white color and a hearty texture. According to “The Yankee Cookbook,” the recipe calls for salt pork, onions, potatoes, milk and butter – and of course, clams. Although individual recipes vary, the distinguishing milk or cream element is omnipresent.

The soup generally doesn’t contain any vegetables other than onions and potatoes, also a differentiating characteristics from other types of clam chowder. It’s most commonly served in the northern New England states.

Click here for a classic New England clam chowder recipe!

types of clam chowder

Rhode Island Clam Chowder

Rhode Island clam chowder is classically known for its absence of milk or cream. But, as it turns out, this individual characteristic setting it apart from other types of clam chowder isn’t as clear as it may seem.

Some Rhode Island chowders are made in the same style as New England chowder. They simply omit the dairy product, resulting in a clear soup. Others are red. This is due to the addition of stewed tomatoes, an element attributed to the abundance of Portuguese settlers. The Yankee Cookbook weighs in on just how intense – and confusing – the controversy can get:

“The raging clam chowder controversy that has continued almost uninterruptedly in New England for generations centers on the use of tomatoes as an ingredient in its preparation. Rhode Island and Connecticut housewives uphold the tomato. The rest of New England scorn it. A Maine politician claims the addition of the tomato to clam chowder is the ‘work of the reds’ who seek to undermine ‘our most hallowed tradition,’ and suggests that all housewives and chefs adding tomato be forced to ‘dig a barrel of clams at high tide’ as a penalty.”

Regardless, one important thing about Rhode Island chowder remains the same: the use of quahogs. What are quahogs, you ask? Why, they are none other than Rhode Island’s official state shell. As a Rhode Islander, I can tell you, they’re kind of a big deal around here. Plentiful in the Rhode Island and nearby Cape Cod areas, the clams are easily harvested at low tide. They are definitely the key ingredient in any delicious Rhode Island chowder.

Click here for a classic Rhode Island clam chowder recipe!

Manhattan Clam Chowder

It seems that south of New England, the hostility surrounding the clam chowder controversy eases up a little. Everyone seems to be OK with tomatoes in their chowder, as they serve as defining characteristics of the Manhattan variety. The tomatoes are used instead of milk or cream. And oftentimes more vegetables, such as peppers, celery and carrots, are added to the recipe without protest.

The result is a tasty, vegetable-style, hearty soup enjoyed by many, both in New York City and beyond. There is little evidence linking the recipe to Manhattan, though.

Like other types of clam chowder, however, the emergence of this variety didn’t go off without a hitch. It even downright angered many traditionalists, including Eleanor Early, a mid-1900s food writer, who passionately stated, “Some people make a vegetable soup with a [clam] drawn through it and have the audacity to call it clam chowder.” She adds, “Tomatoes and clams have no more affinity than ice cream and horseradish.”

Click here for a classic Manhattan clam chowder recipe!

Long Island Clam Chowder

As if things weren’t confusing enough, this type of clam chowder is emerging as a popular blend. It combines two types of clam chowder: New England and Manhattan.

The result is a creamy, tomato-based clam chowder that’s served all over the country. It’s also named for the obvious pun, Long Island being between New England and Manhattan. The half-and-half variety is catching on in restaurants, thanks to patron requests. Perhaps the best place to try the mixture is Popei’s Clam Bar on Long Island. After all, it claims to have invented the concoction.

So what is the real and the best of all the clam chowder types? Well, that all depends on what you’re looking for and if you’re willing to be flexible.

Jasper White, author of “50 Chowders,” encourages soup lovers to keep an open mind.

“By insisting that only a certain type of clam, fish, dairy product or vegetables makes the ‘true’ or ‘best’ chowder, the same people who carry on the legacy of chowder have also limited its scope. The reality is that cooks have improvised chowders continuously for about 300 years, and there was never one true chowder.

“All the rivalry, history and speculation are good fun,” he said, “but what really matters is what’s in the pot.”

Click here for a Long Island chowder recipe!

Looking for some clam chowder near you? AAA members can save on gift certificates for thousands of restaurants at Restaurant.com. Learn more.

What’s your favorite type or types of clam chowder? Tell us in the comments! 

Comments
  • My dad would have loved this article on chowder, but not the New England clam chowder recipe. He’d ask in restaurants – “Is your clam chowder nice and thick?” If they responded with things like, “Oh yes, your spoon will almost stand up in it,” he’d pass on the chowder. Old New Englanders, we would never put flour in our chowder, the potatoes should do the thickening. I was also surprised your recipe included bacon instead of salt pork. I frequently cheat that way, but your article was so explicit! Thanks for a fun article.

    Reply
    • PAUL M.

      New England Clam Chowder is not only the best of these, it’s the only “chowder” in the lot. Chowders are milk or cream based. The others are not and should be called “soup”!

      Reply
    • We used cooked clams with necks, cooked with an onion and a small piece of salt pork, and saved the broth then we ground the clams in an old fashion meat grinder. We cooked our potatoes separate because if you could in the clam broth they would stay hard, and then we added evaporated milk for white, and tomato soup for red. No vegetables. Cape Cod Clam Chowder – enjoy –June

      Reply
  • RICHARD K.

    So, where is the Recipe for the Long Island Clam Chowder, thats the one that sounds interesting and would like to try??????

    Reply
    • GEORGE A.

      Best of BEST IS THE CAUSEWAY RESTURANT IN GLOUCESTER , MASS FULL OF TENDER SWEET CLAM AND VERY VERY LITTLE POTATOES’ . CHECK OUT THE REVIEWS

      Reply
  • DONALD M.

    New England Clam Chowder is the only real clam chowder. Manhattan is tomato soup with clams. And NY trying and failing to co-opt a New England tradition.

    Reply
  • KATHERINE V.

    In the 1960’s I made my first trip to San Francisco. While in a fisherman’s Wharf restaurant I ordered Clam chowder asking if it was New England or Manhattan. The reply was “I dunno”. Chowder is chowder. I was served a bean base soup containing clams tomatoes and bacon. I later had a similar soup in Santa Cruz. I have come to call it simply “West Coast Clam Chowder” I Love it as Much as the others and also look forward to some of the Rhode Island and Long Island. Walt V.

    Reply
    • We agree! The sourdough bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf is a nice touch and makes it especially tasty!

      Reply
  • MARSHAL B.

    For better taste, I steam the quahogs and use the strained water for the chowder base. Red and yellow diced steamed onions with par-boiled diced potatoes. ground up large quahogs, the more the merrier. Place all these ingredients in a large simmering pot for (Do not allow to boil).20 minutes or so., add salt or pepper to taste—-Enjoy.

    Reply
  • DOUGLAS M.

    I have lived in RI all my life. I prefer “NewEngland style clam chowder”. No flour please. Since I enjoy ALL of the clam chowders, it boils down to which is the prefered

    Reply
  • KATHRYN P.

    I prefer RI chowda and sometimes I’ll splash some cream into my bowl.
    But PLEASE ……. STOP serving bowls of paste!!! (With all sorts of different herbs, I love herbs but not in clam chowder!!!!)
    It’s disgusting!!! Sorry, pet peeve!!
    Same with lobster bisque, please don’t make it with flour!!! Nothing worse than pasty bisque!!!!

    Reply
    • Maggie M.

      Hi Pamela! I like the simplistic approach of that recipe! Thanks for commenting, and please share this post for others to see! -MM

      Reply
  • I have never seen tomatoes in Rhode Island chowder. Though I have seem it offered with a small swirl of cream added as an option after it is in the bowl. Like adding creamer to coffee.

    Technically putting tomatoes in chowder is illegal in Massachusetts.

    Reply
  • Many years ago I made the best clam chowder and if anyone can find the recipe, please tell me. Dairy based with bacon and anchovies!

    Reply
  • As a Rhode Islander, I can attest that the addition of tomato is a rarity in RI clam chowder, though it’s always made sense to me that “Manhattan” clam chowder was originally a Portuguese concoction from the Fall River/New Bedford area. Good recipe though I’ve never heard of adding worcestershire sauce to chowder. Let the quahogs do the singing a cappella, and hold the tomatoes, cream, w-sauce, etc. This is why RI (clear) chowder is the best.

    Reply
  • Donald M.

    How about Connecticut? The best clear clam chowder is made at Abbot’s Clam Shack, also available at nearby Costello’s Clam Shack. Unfortunately, they’re only open May to October.

    Reply
  • Bradford G.

    Growing up in Boston and now living in ATL it is difficult to be served quality New England Clam Chowda. I prefer no flour and certainly no bacon and only white style CC.

    Reply
  • Consider myself a Manhattan Clam Chowder buff. Head down to Point Pleasant,NJ and sample Spikes, CoOp, and Broadway Bars MCC . 3 block radius and love them all. Thin tomato based and rich with clams.

    Reply
  • Just had both white and red at the FishMarket restaurant in San Diego and a spoon could stand in each ????Not my cup of tea.

    Reply
  • Robert C.

    When I moved to Philadelphia to attend college in the 1960s, the clam chowder there was to creamy or tomato-based a New England or Manhattan chowders were. Mostly available in old-line Philly restaurants. I preferred the snapper (turtle) soup in Philly, instead of the clam chowder.

    Reply
  • You failed to mention what type of clams are used. In the Buzzards Bay area of MA traditional clam chowder is actually quahog chowder. Quahogs are hard-shell clams that give the chowder a very distinctive taste over soft shell steamer clams or God-forbid canned minced clams.

    Reply
  • The best chowder i have ever had is from Legends in Mattituck on the east end of Long Island

    Reply
  • Yes Rhode Island Clear broth based is the best with Clams or Quahogs ..less sandy !

    Reply
  • There is no such thing as Manhattan”Clam Chowder “….it’s just Minestrone with clams!

    Reply
  • The answer to which chowder is best is easy. If dipping clam cakes, Rhode Island Clam Chowder is the best. If not dipping clam cakes, New England Clam Chowder is the best. That’s not too complicated.

    Reply
  • So I was stationed on Oahu, Hi while in the Navy. I went out with some friends to a restaurant and saw New England Style Clam Chowdah on the menu. Curiously, I ordered it. It was one of the best clam chowdah’s I have ever had! While I was eating it I could have sworn I was back home. Obviously, the chef was from New England and knew how to make REAL Clam Chowdah!

    Reply
  • I live on Long Island and have never heard of Long Island chowder. I would never consider eating it. I’m a New England chowder lover!

    Reply
  • pancake b.

    for decades the folks at the presb church in marlboro, ny, a small river town in the Hudson valley, would make their version of clam chowder every year on election day. you could vote, then stop in for a bowl of chowder and a slice of pie. they would pack it in quart canning jars to go. the chowder was similar to a RI style, but everything had a very fine dice, and my wife swears they used bread for a thickener. i thought it was fantastic and hope they can revive the tradition with fresh volunteers!

    Reply

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