This North Carolina clam chowder has a light broth that lets the clamminess of the soup come through. It comes together easily with fresh, frozen, or canned clams along with bacon drippings, potatoes, and clam juice. Here’s how to make it at home.
No, not Maine clam chowder. North Carolina clam chowder. All along our Outer Banks and southern Outer Banks is home to this style of chowder. Somewhat akin to the chowders of Rhode Island, this style is more about the clams than the thick, cream-based chowders of New England. “It’s a type of chowder,” says Fred Thompson, a cookbook author, resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, and publisher of Edible Piedmont, “that you’ll find at a local’s home.”–The Lodge Company
How do I make sure my clam chowder is as good as possible?
The folks at The Lodge Company—you know, that place that does cast-iron cookery of all sorts—came up with a list of essentials when it comes to how to make darn good North Carolina Clam Chowder. Here’s what they have to say on the topic:
1. The key to a good chowder is timing. Wait until the potatoes are fork-tender before adding the clams in the shell, because they don’t take long to cook.
2. Be careful not to overcook the clams. They will be completely cooked when their shells open wide (about 10 minutes). Discard any shells that remain closed.
3.To thicken this chowder like the locals do, place a slice of white bread in the bottom of each serving bowl before ladling the chowder into the bowl.
North Carolina Clam Chowder
- Cast-iron Dutch oven (optional)
- 1 tablespoon bacon drippings or 1/4 pound (113 g) salt pork or bacon
- 1/2 to 1 cup chopped onion
- 3 cups bottled clam juice
- 3 cups cold water
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups coarsely chopped frozen or canned clams
- 4 cups potatoes scrubbed or peeled and cut into 1/2-inch (12-mm) dice
- 2 dozen small clams in the shell (such as littlenecks), scrubbed
- Milk, half-and-half, light cream, or heavy cream to taste (optional)
- 1 teaspoon salt (optional)
- 8 slices white bread (optional)
- Chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves for garnish
- Oyster crackers or saltines (optional)
- If using bacon drippings, heat them in a cast-iron Dutch oven or large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. If using salt pork or bacon, cook it in a cast-iron Dutch oven or large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove the pork or bacon and reserve for another use. Reserve the rendered fat in the pot. (You should have about 1 tablespoon drippings. A little more or a little less is fine.)
- Add the onion to the Dutch oven or skillet and cook, stirring on occasion, until tender, about 5 minutes. Don’t let the onions take on any color. Pour in the clam juice and water, then add the pepper and bring to a boil. Add the chopped clams (if using canned clams, also add the liquid from the can to the chowder), reduce the heat to low, and gently simmer, uncovered, until the chowder clams are tender, about 1 hour.
- Add the potatoes, increase the heat to medium, and simmer until the potatoes are just barely fork tender, about 10 minutes.
- Add the clams in the shell, cover the pot, and cook for 10 minutes more, or until the potatoes are tender throughout and the shells have opened. Remove and discard any shells that remain closed.
- If desired, add anywhere from a splash to 2 cups milk, half-and-half, or cream and let the chowder cook for a couple minutes more to warm through. Taste and, if necessary, season with salt. If you like, place a slice of bread each in 8 large, shallow serving bowls, then ladle in the chowder, making sure to get a couple shell clams in each bowl. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve with the crackers, if desired.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
Wow, was this recipe for North Carolina clam chowder a beautiful change of pace from the heavy clam chowder that I’ve been accustomed to all these years. If you like clams, you’re going to love this chowder. It definitely makes you feel like you’re eating fresh clam chowder along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Its flavors are rustic and comforting and even a bit elegant with the addition of the clams in the shell and the cream. The chowder is chucked full of tender clams—lots of clams in every spoonful—and the broth is very flavorful.
I followed the recipe ingredients and directions pretty much as written. It’s pretty straightforward. My 1/4 pound salt pork rendered about 2 teaspoons, which was just perfect. Any more would have been too much grease. I used 1 bottle (which was 1 cup) clam juice along with 3 cups water. I used 1 1/2 pounds frozen chopped clams that I bought from my local fishmonger. They were relatively inexpensive at just $6 a pound and were very good. I added 2 cups heavy cream to thicken the broth just a bit. This was the perfect lunch on a cold and rainy day.
This is a delicious North Carolina clam chowder, or rather, broth-based soup. I found the soup to be incredibly light, and I think it’s a winner not only in my home, but at any potluck and at any time of the year.
I used canned chopped clams in liquid. I used 4 cups chopped clams and all of the liquid they came in, which was about 2 1/4 cups. I added 2 cups water plus 2 cups clam juice and at the end I had the most flavorful, light, dairy-free clam chowder. Please taste the broth before adding the salt, as there is salt in the broth that the clams come in. Add the fresh clams as soon as your potatoes are fork-tender and this way you won’t overcook the clams. You don’t have to add milk or cream, which is a surprise, as the flavor is there without either one.
I served the soup with a slice of fresh bread in the bowl, as suggested, and a sprinkle of chopped parsley. I think one could add fresh thyme and fresh veggies, too. It’s well worth the effort.
This North Carolina clam chowder was so good. It’s more like a stew than a chowder because there are so many clams in it. I loved the overabundance of clams because I love clams.
I used 2 tablespoons bacon drippings, as I always have bacon drippings because I save them anytime I cook bacon. (Someone who wants to make this recipe healthier could substitute olive oil or some other oil to sauté the onions.) I emptied the clam juice from the container of clams into the measuring cup, and I used clam juice and water to make up the remaining liquid. My significant other, who grew up in New England, would have liked more liquid. I cooked the potatoes for 10 minutes and then added the clams for another 10 minutes. This worked perfectly.
I couldn’t find those little oyster crackers at the store, and we didn’t have any bread. However, I did find some little mini melba toasts in the cheese section of our grocery store, and we floated some of those crackers in our soup. They were perfect.
I really enjoyed the flavor of the clams accentuated by the salt pork in this North Carolina clam chowder. I added the bread but not the cream. It worked well, and I think the recipe could easily be adapted for mussels or oysters. The recipe is similar to a French seafood dish called à la nage, but the French don’t add potatoes.
I’ve made a recipe for Boston Fish Chowder that’s quite similar, but in the Boston recipe, I used a blend of clam juice and fish stock, and heavy cream is added.
Originally published July 07, 2020