New England Clam Chowder

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Serves

    8

Appears in

From Scratch: 10 Meals, 175 Recipes, and Dozens of Techniques You Will Use Over and Over

From Scratch

By Michael Ruhlman

Published 2019

  • About

If there’s a better soup to serve on a cold November night, I don’t know what it is. This centuries-old dish was born on the New England coast, where clams are abundant. Like many traditional dishes, it’s named for the vessel it was cooked in, a chaudière, a cauldron-shaped pot that could be suspended above a fire. Its ingredients are, also, true to traditional regional dishes, simple, abundant, and inexpensive: salt pork, potatoes, clams, and milk. I like to serve it with oyster crackers.

Use quahogs for this if they’re available; if not use the biggest clams available. Use 1 to 1½ big clams per person (use your common sense—generally, the more clams, the better).

Contemporary chowders usually contain bacon, but salt pork is what would have been used in colonial days. When Tim Ryan, now president of the Culinary Institute of America, commented on my book The Making of a Chef, he sounded incredulous that one of the instructors had told my class to use bacon in the chowder. “He should know better than that,” Ryan said, incredulous. “Salt pork is what is used in chowder.”

Salt pork is essentially salted fatback, with very little meat. I recommend that you make your own salt pork, using uncured, unsmoked salted pork belly—and then you’ll really have a taste of ye olde chowder.

Ingredients

  • 12 quahogs or other large clams
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • ½ cup/120 milliliters water
  • 8 ounces/240 grams salt pork, salted pork belly, or bacon, diced small or pureed in a food processor, or ground
  • 1 Spanish onion, cut into medium dice
  • ½ cup/60 grams all-purpose flour
  • 1 to 1½ quarts/1 to 1.5 liters cold milk, or as needed
  • 4 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into medium dice
  • 1 cup/240 milliliters heavy cream
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)

Method

Put the quahogs, thyme, and ¼ cup of the water in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the clams open, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on their size. Transfer them to a bowl as they open. Strain the cooking liquid through cheesecloth or, better, through a coffee filter. Measure the amount and make a note of it. You should have 3 to 4 cups/710 to 950 milliliters.

In the pot you will cook the chowder in, combine the pork and the remaining ¼ cup water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. When the water cooks off, lower the heat and cook until the pork is cooked and the fat has completely rendered out. Add the onion and cook it in the fat till tender.

While the pork is cooking, remove the clams from their shells and chop them coarsely; if you wish, remove any of the brown stuff in the clam’s stomach, mainly plankton and other digested food (some people like the flavor it adds and include it, but I usually discard any that is easily scraped away).

Add the flour to the pork fat to make a roux and cook until it smells like cooked pie crust and is evenly coated with fat.

Whisk 1 quart/1 liter of the cold milk into the roux and onion. Bring the mixture to a simmer, dragging a flat-edged spoon across the bottom to prevent the flour from sticking. When the milk is simmering and thickened, stir in 2 cups/480 milliliters of the quahog liquid and taste. If you fear the mixture will be too salty, hold back on adding more. Add another 2 cups/480 milliliters of quahog liquid and/or milk to taste, for a total of 2 quarts/2 liters. The idea is to add as much quahog liquid as possible without making the chowder too salty (it’s a forgiving dish, so don’t be obsessive about the exact quantity of liquid; evaluate and adjust according to the taste and texture that pleases you).

Add the potatoes and quahogs and simmer gently until the potatoes are tender, 10 minutes or so. Add the cream and continue to cook until it’s simmering again. Taste the potatoes and continue cooking until they’re tender. If the chowder becomes too thick, add more milk or quahog liquid. Add plenty of cracked black pepper if you like. Serve.