What is clam chowder base made of?

Clam chowder base is typically made up of clams, potatoes, onion, celery, carrots, milk or cream, butter, and seasonings like thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper. The base ingredients can vary slightly depending on the type of clam chowder being made – New England, Manhattan, Rhode Island, etc. – but generally contains those core ingredients.


Clams are of course the star ingredient in clam chowder. The most common types used are quahogs, cherrystones, and littlenecks. Quahogs are the largest variety and have a firm texture and briny flavor. Cherrystones are medium-sized and have a tender bite and sweet taste. Littlenecks are the smallest clams and have the most delicate texture and mild flavor. Using a combination of clam sizes can provide an optimal texture and flavor.

Fresh, live clams are ideal but more expensive and difficult to source for many home cooks. Canned minced clams are much more convenient to find and work well too. About 2-3 cans of minced clams for a large pot of chowder provides plenty of clam flavor.


Potatoes are the main thickening agent in clam chowder. Traditional New England clam chowder uses russet or Yukon Gold potatoes. They have a fluffy, starchy texture when cooked that creates the signature creamy, thick chowder consistency. The potatoes are diced into 1/2-inch or smaller pieces so they break down and thicken the broth as the chowder simmers.

Some newer modernized clam chowder recipes call for using red potatoes instead. They hold their shape better than starchy russets and provide texture and bite to balance the creaminess. Especially for chunkier Rhode Island-style chowder, red potatoes are a popular alternative.


Onions are another fundamental aromatics and flavor base for clam chowder. Yellow or white onions are most commonly used. They are diced small and cooked down early in the recipe to infuse the broth with savory onion flavor. Onions also provide texture, moisture, and body to the chowder along with the potatoes.


Celery is part of the classic trio of onions, carrots, and celery that make up a traditional mirepoix flavor base. It adds freshness, crunch, subtle sweetness, and another layer of aromatic depth to clam chowder. A few stalks of celery are typically chopped and cooked with the onions and carrots.


Carrots round out the aromatic mirepoix vegetables in clam chowder with their sweet, earthy notes. One or two carrots peeled and diced small give the broth more complex flavor. The carrots also add color to the pot along with the clams and potatoes.

Milk or Cream

Milk or cream is responsible for the signature creamy broth in clam chowder. Traditional New England clam chowder uses heavy cream or half and half. This gives it a rich, indulgent, and velvety texture. Light or low-fat milk can also be used for a lighter chowder with a thin, silky body.

Non-dairy milks like coconut milk, almond milk, or oat milk work as cream substitutes for plant-based clam chowders. Just note the flavor and consistency will be a bit different than chowder made with traditional dairy.


Butter is important for achieving the right creamy consistency and mouthfeel in clam chowder. It also adds unbeatable rich, savory flavor. A few tablespoons of butter are typically whisked in after the chowder has finished cooking. This helps emulsify the broth for a smooth, glossy texture.

Herbs and Seasonings

Traditional clam chowder seasoning includes thyme, parsley, and bay leaves. Thyme adds an earthy aroma and flavor that pairs well with the sweet clams and potatoes. Parsley brightens things up with fresh herbaceous notes. Bay leaves simmer in the broth and impart their distinctive subtle woodsy spice.

Salt and pepper are also essential for seasoning. The salt helps draw out moisture from the clams and vegetables to infuse the broth. Fresh cracked black pepper gives another layer of flavor and aromatics.

Some chefs also add paprika, oregano, or other dried herbs and spices to complement the thyme and bay leaf.

Bacon or Salt Pork

Many clam chowder recipes call for cooked chopped bacon or salt pork. The smoked and salted pork adds incredibly savory, meaty flavor to the broth. Small diced pieces distribute throughout the chowder and provide delicious bites of smoky bacon. Traditional salt pork provides similar flavoring but without the crispy texture of bacon.

Fish Stock

For more intensely flavored clam chowder, fish or clam stock can be used instead of or along with water or milk. The stock packs tons of rich seafood essence into the broth from the fish bones, shells, and aromatics used to make it. Cod, snapper, halibut, or shrimp shells work great for homemade clam chowder stock.


Water is usually needed as the primary cooking liquid for clam chowder unless using all milk/cream or fish stock as the base. The potatoes and other vegetables will absorb a lot of liquid as they simmer, so chowder generally needs 6-8 cups or more of water. Using part water allows the broth to have good clam flavor but still be affordably creamy.

Thickening Agents

Beyond starchy potatoes, some clam chowder recipes call for a thickener like flour or cornstarch to give the broth extra body. A roux of butter and flour can be cooked before adding the milk to prevent curdling. Or a slurry of cornstarch and water can be stirred in at the end for thickening power without changing the taste.


While clam chowder ingredients can vary a bit based on regional styles, the classic base contains clams, potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, butter, milk or cream, and seasonings like thyme, parsley, and bay leaves. Combining the sweet clams and vegetables with cream and savory pork or bacon gives clam chowder its signature rich, hearty, and comforting flavor profile that makes it a beloved soup.

FAQ about Clam Chowder Base Ingredients

What makes clam chowder so thick and creamy?

The combination of potatoes and dairy is what gives clam chowder its thick, creamy texture. Potatoes lend starchiness that thickens the broth as they break down during simmering. Heavy cream or whole milk contributes fat and liquid creaminess. Butter also helps emulsify the soup for a smooth, lush mouthfeel.

Is flour needed for clam chowder?

Flour is not a required ingredient for clam chowder, but it can help thicken the broth even further. Some recipes use a roux with butter and flour cooked before adding the milk or cream to prevent curdling and create a thicker consistency.

What is a good substitute for bacon in clam chowder?

For vegetarian clam chowder, the bacon or salt pork can be omitted or substituted with mushrooms, soy sauce, miso paste, liquid smoke, or smoked paprika to mimic the smoky umami flavor.

Can you use almond milk for clam chowder?

Yes, unsweetened almond milk can be substituted for regular dairy milk in clam chowder. Just keep in mind it may thin out the chowder more than whole milk would. Can use less water or thickeners to compensate.

Do you need onions for clam chowder?

Onions are a very traditional component of clam chowder that provide aromatic flavor and texture to the broth. However, they can be omitted or substituted with fennel, leeks, or shallots for a slightly different but still delicious chowder.

What can I use if I don’t have fresh clams?

Canned minced clams are an easy substitute for fresh clams in chowder. About 2-3 cans will provide plenty of clam flavor for a pot of chowder if fresh clams are not available.

Clam Chowder Base Recipe

Here is a basic recipe for clam chowder base to get you started:


  • 3 cans minced clams, juice reserved
  • 5 cups potatoes, peeled and diced (russet or Yukon Gold)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 4 cups chicken or fish stock
  • 2 cups heavy cream or whole milk
  • 4 slices bacon, chopped (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. In a large pot, cook the bacon over medium heat until crispy, about 8-10 minutes. Remove bacon bits to a paper towel-lined plate.
  2. Add the onion, carrot, and celery to the bacon fat. Cook for 5 minutes until softened.
  3. Stir in the potatoes, clam juice, stock, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes, until potatoes are very soft.
  5. Discard bay leaves. Using immersion blender, puree soup until slightly chunky.
  6. Stir in cream and butter. Season with salt and pepper.
  7. Add drained minced clams and cooked bacon pieces. Heat through before serving.

This basic clam chowder base is creamy, full of vegetables and clam flavor, and ready to be tweaked with additional seasonings or garnishes. Enjoy this hearty, comforting soup!

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