I'm not sure when I became a clam chowder lover, but whenever it was the transformation came with OPINIONS. Creamy without being gloopy, plenty of clam flavor without overpowering the potato, and yes please to the crispy bacon on top. Unfortunately, a lot of recipes are just too...something. And often that "something" is bland. Yes, there are potatoes, yes there are clams, but everything in between is just kind of blah. This recipe, on the other hand, has a broth with plenty of clam and potato flavor, but a secret ingredient creates not only a silky texture, but it adds a little bit of quiet, cozy depth to this classic New England (gluten-free!) clam chowder.
I've recently been enthralled by the (relatively) new cookbook Masa (by Jorge Gaviria). On page 238, Gaviria talks about the way chef Daniela Soto-Innes uses masa as a thickener and emulsifier both at home and in her restaurant work. The accompanying recipe is for a seafood soup (chilpachole) that he describes as having a silky, almost bisque-like texture. I immediately thought of clam chowder, since it's one of my favorite seafood soups.
I do have to say, as clever as I felt making this connection...Nothing is new in the food world! Recently Instagram, in its ever-growing pushiness, insisted that I look at old stories that I posted at the end of 2022. One of them was a re-share of...a restaurant's masa harina-thickened clam chowder! I didn't remember seeing the post, but I clearly I did because I shared it, so there you go. I'm still pleased at my creative brainwaves, but like I said: nothing is new!
Clams: Canned is okay for clam chowder!
I don't know if you need to hear this, but I certainly did: it's okay to use canned clams and bottled clam juice. Sometimes we're in a hurry or just stinkin' tired. They're shelf-stable, and they are quick. While it's true that anything processed is going to cost more than the raw ingredient, canned clams are still pretty budget-friendly. On the other hand, if you're prioritizing cost, a bag or two of fresh clams is technically more affordable than canned. Plus, you can save the liquor from steaming, saving you the cost of buying clam juice.
Don't forget, you will need to scrub and purge live clams. It's a straightforward process, but when added with the extra dishes created from steaming them... It can sometimes be enough extra work to dissuade even my most robust craving. I say choose based on your available resources, and remember that "resources" also includes physical and emotional bandwidth, not just finances. I generally recommend Bar Harbor, but as long as you like the flavors then use what you have available.
Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes
I use yukon gold or some type of yellow potato for nearly everything in my day-to-day. They get nice and creamy, but they don't fall apart. They also taste like potato, which most russets just don't! If you're trying to use up what you have in your pantry, then just use what you've got. But if you're buying specifically for clam chowder, go yukon gold.
Masa Harina for easy, gluten-free clam chowder thickening
Some New England clam chowder recipes don't call for any thickening. Most of the time that is going to lead to watery milk soup (yech) or a broken soup. Milk, even whole milk, is prone to splitting when cooked too hard. You can be pure and precious about not using thickeners, but I say: to what end? A thickener not only adds body, it acts as an emulsifier that protects against splitting. Win-win.
Masa harina is a nixtamalized corn dough (masa) that has then been dried. It's main raison d'etre is to make "instant" masa dough--all you have to do is re-hydrate it with water. It's also a fabulous thickener, as mentioned in Gaviria's book Masa. (If you'd like to know more about masa definitely grab a copy of the cookbook. So, so good, and excellent recipes.) The flavor is distinctly "corn," but in a nutty-toasty-cozy savory way. It adds a bit of extra flavor to the broth without being too assertive.
Getting your ideal clam chowder texture:
My ideal thickness for chowder is thick enough to coat a spoon, but not so thick that the spoon stands up on its own. For this recipe, that's 2 teaspoons of masa harina per serving. I've also tried it with a full tablespoon per serving. That's also quite good, but it does begin to look gloopy, even though the actual texture is still quite silky.
I've seen plenty of recipes that call for heavy cream, but I always find that to create too much of a dairy flavor. It hides the potato creaminess and clam character. It also tends to create a bit of an oily mouthfeel, which is why I use a combo of whole milk and half-and-half.
"Where can I buy masa harina?"
Most large grocery chains sell a brand called Maseca. You'll find it in the baking aisle with other flours. If you can find it in a local shop, or if you don't mind ordering directly from their website, I highly recommend Masienda. It's fresher and so much more flavorful. That's great for this soup, but it's also great for any other projects you might make with the rest of the bag!! This recipe was developed with Masienda's white corn masa harina.
"I want to increase the recipe to serve more than 1. How do I do that?"
This recipe doubles, triples, quadruples, etc so easily! Just use the "servings" adjuster on the recipe card below. The only thing to be aware of is pot size. One serving makes just shy of 2 cups, so use a pot size that can accommodate your larger volume.
"I can't have corn. What can I use instead of masa harina?"
You can always go the traditional route of using regular flour to thicken. Add it at the same time, but give it a minute or so longer to toast in the pan, otherwise you risk an icky raw flour flavor. Masa harina also thickens more than flour, so if you know you like a creamier broth start with 1 tablespoon flour per serving. If you can't have corn and are gluten-free, you can experiment with potato flour, but I'm afraid I don't have specific instructions for that (yet?).
"I'm pescatarian. Can I skip the bacon?"
Absolutely! I suggest subbing about 1 tablespoon of butter for the rendered bacon fat. You can use any oil, but I think butter is ideal with the other dairy elements. I personally like the subtle richness that comes from the smoked bacon, so you might enjoy using a smoked sea salt to replicate that little bit of extra depth.
Looking for more soup recipes? Take a peek at these:
Easy New England Clam Chowder (Gluten Free)
- 1 strip thick-cut bacon, chopped, About 1 ounce
- 1 medium shallot, chopped, or ¼ medium onion
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 2 teaspoons (6 grams) masa harina
- ½ cup clam liquor, clam broth, bottled clam juice, or a combo
- ½ cup whole milk
- ½ cup (3 ounces) peeled and diced yukon gold potatoes, About 1 small potato
- 1 6.5-ounce can chopped clams or hand-chopped whole clams, drained, About ½ cup
- ¼ cup half and half
- ½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, plus more for garnish
- Step 1In a medium pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat, cook the bacon until the fat has rendered and the pork is crispy, about 5 minutes. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and transfer to a paper towel-lined bowl or plate. Set aside for serving.
- Step 2Add the shallot and a pinch of salt to the pot with the rendered bacon fat. Cook, stirring often, until beginning to soften, about 3 to 5 minutes. If your pan has a lot of very dark fond, do a quick deglaze: add 1 tablespoon water and stir/scrape to loosen the cooked on bits.
- Step 3Add the masa harina and stir until evenly distributed and aromatic, just 30 seconds.While stirring constantly, pour in the clam juice and milk a few sloshes at a time, mixing well between each addition. Continue stirring until smooth. Add the potatoes, increase heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the potatoes are soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir often and adjust heat as-needed to prevent a hard boil.
- Step 4When the potatoes are soft, add the clams, half and half, and thyme. Return to a simmer and continue to cook until slightly thickened, another 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve sprinkled with extra thyme and crispy bacon bits.
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