Everything I Know About Seafood Chowder

Oct 26, 2018 | Cooking Tips, Fish and Seafood, Soups

When I was a kid, most years at Christmas we would go to my Dad’s work party at the Bedford Institue Of Oceanography. There’s really only two things I remember about those parties. I remember the touch tanks, and how weird sea cucumbers and starfish felt. And I remember the chowder. For whatever reason, every year, there was seafood chowder. It was loaded with seafood, potatoes, and onions, and it was so smooth and so creamy. I loved it. I honestly, even at a young age, looked forward to it all year.

I’m telling you this because this afternoon I’m competing in a chowder cook-off. It’s not high stakes by any means. It’s really just a fun thing to do and a way to get my name out there some more. However, last year at this same competition I won peoples choice. And so, I want to win again. If I don’t it’s not the end of the world, but I would really like too. Anyway, that’s all beside the point. What I really want to talk about today is all the things I have learned about making a really good seafood chowder over the years. From that little boy dreaming all year of a small bowl of chowder at a work Christmas party, to the man hoping to win a chowder cook-off for the second year in a row. Here is everything I know about making a kick-ass seafood chowder.

The Foundation of a good Seafood Chowder

Like anything in life, a good chowder starts with a good foundation. You can just throw everything in a pot and hope for the best, but there’s a better way to do things. Why not make the best chowder you can.

Start with onions and celery (carrots are optional). Sweat those in a bit of butter, oil, or bacon fat over a medium-low heat. You are trying to draw moisture out of the vegetables which will start to build the first level of your foundation. After ten or fifteen minutes or so of sweating the vegetables turn the heat up to medium add a bit of wine, brandy, or sherry. Cook this until the liquid has almost completely evaporated.

When I make seafood chowder I usually cook the mussels separately. Then I add the liquid to the chowder. If you were to do this, add the liquid after the booze has reduced. Now, reduce the mussel liquid until it has almost completely evaporated as well.  I also usually buy a bottle of clam juice which I add in the same way as the mussel liquid and then reduce it.

By reducing the liquid you are concentrating the flavour. The more times you do this, the more layers of concentrated flavour you have.

To roux or not to roux? 

A roux is equal parts flour and butter by weight, combined and added to liquids to act as a thickener. There are lots of great chowders that contain a roux, and there are a lot of great chowders that don’t have a roux in them. It comes down to the consistency of the chowder you want.

I find using a roux allows for a lighter, creamier chowder. What I mean is that if I wasn’t going to use a roux to thicken my chowder I would use 35% cream as my liquid. When using a roux I can get away with using whole milk. So, it’s a bit lighter than a chowder made completely of heavy cream.

If you are going to use a roux, add it after all of your initial liquids have been reduced.

Dairy

For the purpose of this post, we are talking solely about dairy based chowders. There are some absolutely delicious tomato-based chowders out there but we’re not going there today.

You really only have three choices when it comes to dairy for your chowder. You can use whole milk (homo milk), you can use heavy cream, or you can use a combination of the two. Any milk with a fat content lower than 3.25% is likely to split when heat, salt, acid, or even the seafood is added. I mean you can take the risk, but I prefer not to ruin my chowder with split milk.

Generally, I thicken my chowder with a roux and then use a combination of whole milk and cream. Usually a three to one ratio. I find that this gives me a nice richness, a creamy texture, and I don’t want to die afterwards.

Vegetables

Other than onions, celery, and carrots, I am of the opinion that potato is the only other vegetable that has any place in seafood chowder. That’s all I have to say about that.

Seafood

Arguably, this is the most important part of any chowder. What seafood should you use?

Really, this comes down to personal preference. For example, I don’t use shrimp, lobster, or crab in my chowder because I’m allergic to it, but I’m not going to begrudge you if you want to use it. I prefer not to add salmon to my chowder because I find the flavour and texture unappealing. I generally stay with white fish like haddock, cod, or halibut. To this, I generally, add mussels, scallops and clams. That’s really my go-to chowder mix.

When to add the seafood?

Oddly enough, the seafood is the last thing that should be added to seafood chowder. Seafood is delicate and overcooks quickly which gives it a shitty texture and flavour. Generally, I actually cook my seafood separately. I’ll cook the haddock either baked in the oven or poached in milk. I sear the scallops. Steam the mussels and clams. Really, what I’m trying to do is get the best out of my seafood. By just throwing it all in the pot and essentially boiling it, I’d be destroying those subtle flavours that make seafood so great.

Other flavourings

There are some surprising flavours that go really well with seafood. For example, I like adding a bit of tarragon to my chowder. Not too much. Just enough so you get a hint of tarragon flavour. I actually used tarragon in my winning chowder last year.

Obviously, parsley is always a good addition to seafood chowder, but thyme and dill can be as well. I also really like adding a mild smokey element. It could be bacon or smoked seafood. That little bit of smoke does something really magical to the chowder.

Really, just try thinking outside the box a bit. If you’re unsure whether or not an ingredient is going to work try it in a little sample portion of the chowder. Spoon a little out into a dish, add some of the mystery ingredient and taste. If it works, add it to the rest of the batch. If it doesn’t, don’t use it.

Conclusion

I can’t stress enough that you are the person eating your chowder. Do what you like. This post is really about what I like and what I’ve learned over the years. You may know something I don’t, or you may love your chowder the way it is. That’s perfectly okay. Taste is a completely subjective experience. Do what tastes good to you.

 

2 Comments

  1. Valerie S Warmington

    Gladly you are feeling up to writing and enlightening us this morning!
    Good cooking in you chowder competition later today.

    VW

  2. Chef Ben Kelly

    Thank you Valerie. I am feeling much better

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!