Clam chowder is not one of those dishes that most people associate with spices, but even the traditional versions can be well seasoned and may have complex flavor profiles. Some of the best spices for clam chowder are:
Clam chowder preparation begins with frying bacon along with the aromatics. The best kind of bacon for making clam chowder comes from the belly of the pig and offers almost as much fat as it does lean muscle. These days, you can use healthier substitutes that can provide many of the same flavor notes but won’t give you all of them.
The bacon flavor is essential for clam chowder and shows up in pretty much all variations of the dish. Bacon gives a smoky umami note that is just as important to the favor of the dish as the taste of clams. Its flavor melds just as well with other seasonings as it does with the taste of clams.
Old Bay seasoning
One of the iconic spice blends of American cuisine, Old Bay Seasoning is associated with Baltimore in Maryland and that city’s blue crabs. In other words, it is well known for its ability to season shellfish and works perfectly well with clams but is not necessarily a traditional ingredient in older clam chowder recipes.
Invented by A Jewish immigrant spice merchant, Old Bay Seasoning was formulated using extensive knowledge of spices. Its ingredients include cardamom, paprika, and bay leaf, along with many others. Mace, allspice, and cloves are also said to be present. Old Bay seasoning can give your clam chowder a deep and complex flavor that will make its flavor profile livelier than would be possible if you were following one of the older, more traditional recipes.
Old Bay Seasoning does have one major drawback due to its color, which is a deep rusty reddish-orange. Clam chowder seasoned with it will not have the milky whiteness of the old fashioned versions but will be a pale pink instead.
One of the essential aromatics that show up in all versions of clam chowder, onion is a key part of the clam chowder flavor. White or yellow onions are preferred to help maintain the milky paleness of traditional clam chowder, but green onions can work if you don’t have a problem with adding a little color.
The onions are usually fried in a little bacon fat or butter as one of the first steps in preparing the dish. Frying sweetens their flavor profile and mellows them out considerably. They bring a nutty and intensely savory flavor to what could otherwise be a somewhat bland dish.
Another important aromatic, celery doesn’t show up in all the traditional clam chowder recipes, but it is used in some of the more flavorful ones. It expands upon the herbaceous umami notes that you get from onions. You fry it with the bacon and onions at the start of the cooking process to lay down a base for a flavorful soup.
Celery is pale enough to not be too obtrusive in the light-colored soup, but it is flavorful enough to make its presence known even after several minutes of cooking.
The broth from steamed clams, clam juice is one of the most important seasonings for clam chowder. It offers a briny, oceanic flavor with a mild fishy aftertaste.