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Best Clam Chowder Ever

I found a good clam chowder recipe in Bon Appétit a couple of years ago. Though it’s not a creamy chowder, it’s the best clam chowder recipe that we’ve been able to find. The ingredients produce a rich, hearty clam chowder with a complex mingling of flavors. I’m making myself hungry just writing about it.

Skipjack’s Clam Chowder
from November 2000 Bon Appétit
with modifications by J.D. Roth

  • Three 8-oz bottles of clam juice
  • One pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks (resist the urge to use Yukon Gold potatoes)
  • Two tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
  • Three slices bacon, finely chopped (I use thick, hammy deli bacon — use six slices of bacon if you’re using the thin, pre-packaged stuff)
  • Two cups chopped onions (about one large yellow onion)
  • Three stalks (about 1-1/4 cups) of celery with leaves, chopped
  • Five garlic cloves, minced
  • One bay leaf
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • Six 6-1/2 oz cans minced clams, drained, juices reserved (chopped clams are fine — I use minced because Kris doesn’t like large, rubbery clam chunks)
  • 1-1/2 cups half-and-half
  • One teaspoon hot pepper sauce (we use Tapatío, but you might prefer Tabasco)
  • Optional: 1/2 teaspoon hickory smoke salt (hard-to-find, but great flavor!)

At the top of my recipe card I’ve written, in bold: NOTE: Prepare ingredients before starting! Experienced, or quick, cooks can ignore this advice. I’m neither experienced nor quick. If I don’t prepare the ingredients before starting the chowder, it’s a disaster.

  1. Bring the bottled clam juice and potatoes to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender (about ten minutes). Remove from heat.
  2. Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add bacon and cook until bacon begins to brown (about 8-10 minutes). Add onions, celery, garlic, and bay leaf. Sauté until vegetables soften, about six minutes.
  3. Stir in flour and cook two minutes. Do not allow flour to brown.
  4. Gradually whisk in reserved juices from clams. Add potato mixture, calms, half-and-half, hickory smoke salt, and hot pepper sauce. Simmer chowder to blend flavors, stirring frequently.
  5. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  6. Chowder can be served after as few as ten minutes of simmering, or it can sit on the stove contentedly for hours.

This is a damn good clam chowder, and it re-heats well. I made a double batch yesterday, so we’ll be eating it for a week or two, but with no complaints.

I sometimes make biscuits to go with the meal.

Cracked Pepper Biscuits
from November 1998 Bon Appétit

  • Two tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Two tablespoons chopped fresh thyme (or, if you’re forgetful like me, you might use rosemary instead)
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper (this might stand increasing)
  • 1/2 cup chilled whole milk (I used half-and-half leftover from the chowder)
  • One large egg
  • Two cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • One tablespoon baking powder
  • One teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preparation is straight-forward, though it does require a food processor.

  1. Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.
  2. Melt two tablespoons butter in heavy small skillet over medium heat. Add thyme (or rosemary) and cracked black pepper. Sauté until fragrant (about two minutes).
  3. Transfer thyme mixture to small bowl. Whisk in milk, then egg. Cover and chill until mixture is cold.
  4. Blend flour, baking powder, and salt in food processor.
  5. Add 3/4 cup butter. Using on/off pulses, process until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
  6. Add cold milk mixture. Using on/off pulses, process until moist clumps begin to form.
  7. Transfer dough to a floured work surface. Knead until the dough holds together (about six turns).
  8. Roll out dough to 1/2-inch thickness. Using two-inch diameter biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out biscuits. Reroll dough scraps and cut out additional biscuits, making sixteen biscuits total.
  9. Transfer biscuits to large baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, about twelve minutes. Serve biscuits warm.

You might think, looking at these two recipes, that I’m a huge fan of Bon Appétit, which isn’t the case. I subscribed for a couple of years, and clipped interesting recipes, but generally I find the magazine to ad-centric for my tastes. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m now partial to Cook’s Illustrated.


On 04 January 2004 (12:30 PM),
J.D. Roth said:

Over the past several months, I’ve made some refinements to the clam chowder recipe. Here are the most important:

  • The recipe calls for one pound of potatoes. Two cups of potatoes (or about three medium russets) is close enough.
  • I use more bacon than the recipe calls for. I like five slices of thick bacon instead of three.
  • I’ve increased the amount of half-and-half from 1-1/4 cups to 2 cups, but this may actually decrease the intensity of the flavors, so be careful.
  • Note that when you fry the bacon in the butter, the bacon fat will become gummy and stick to the bottom of the pan. Do not be alarmed. When you add the veggies in the next step, their juices will wash the bottom of the pan clean.
  • I’m not sure why you’re not supposed to let the flour brown. Anyone know?
  • Try not to let the chowder boil.

I still make this chowder all the time, and can never get enough of it.

On 24 January 2005 (06:38 PM),
J.D. said:

Here’s an important note: the beginning of step four is the key to transforming this chowder from simple excellence to the status of Best Ever. I only just learned this technique a few weeks ago, when Kris read the recipe for the first time. She guided my hand and showed me how to develop a roux.

If, in step four, one adds the reserved juices just a bit at a time, whisking vigorously between additions, the stuff in the pot thickens and develops into a sort of paste. This is the roux (pronounced “rue”). And a thick, gooey roux will yield a thick, delicious chowder.

Actually, the taste is left unchanged; the chowder is just as good without attention to this step. But the texture is much more appealing, and worth the minimal effort to achieve.

More insights a year or two from now.

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  1. Sea Hag restaurant Clam Chowder they give the receipe out
    In Depot Bay Oregon this is great clam chowder.
    They also have a appetizer platter that is just full of batter dipped and cooked different types of fish, clams, shrimp, halibet etc. two much for two people we have always taken some home. Comes with a shrimp cocktail for each of you. A bowl of their clam chowder and this platter is a lot. YUM YUM

  2. “I’m not sure why you’re not supposed to let the flour brown. Anyone know?”

    The flavor and color of a roux are determined by the length of time it spends over heat. The longer the roux stays over heat, the darker the color becomes, which is the basis of categorization. A roux that’s only been on the stove over medium/medium-high heat for about 5-10 minutes is usually a white or blonde roux. 15 minutes or more will yeild a dark roux. Darker rouxs have more intense flavors and often times are coupled with animal fats such as beef or pork for additional flavor. If you spend about 45 mins or so cooking your roux at M/M-H heat, you’ll make a very dark roux. The flavor tends to be nutty at this point.

    Why should you know use a dark roux for clam chowder? The flavor will be richer if it is darker, but traditional new england clam chowder is very white. A darker roux might hurt the presentation aspect of it.

  3. I find adding the actual clams in time for them to heat through to the temperature of the soup just before serving keeps them from getting even the slightest bit chewy or tough. It also gave the clams a better texture throughout the reheating for leftovers. Also I found that the bacon essence was getting lost in this when I prepared it the first couple of times so now I cook the bacon and remove the cooked pieces from the pan before adding the vegetables. I later add the bacon pieces back in when I add the clams.