This Fish Chowder is my Dad’s recipe, and the real deal creamy New England version, made simply with cod (or another whitefish), potatoes, and onions, and a base of clam juice, milk, and cream. The key to perfect fish chowder is poaching the fish gently so it perfectly flakes apart. This recipe enhances the flavor by scalding the milk with onion, to infuse the onion flavor throughout, with a wonderful blend of herbs and spices. You’re going to love this easy fish soup recipe!
My dad came to visit last week, and lucky for me, he made his famous fish chowder! I was able to snap some photos and work with him to document his secrets, which I’m sharing with you in this post.
This New England Fish Chowder is the REAL DEAL. Creamy, rich, and quite simple. At its base are just fish, potatoes, and onions. But this fish chowder is made extra delicious with a few secrets:
- The addition of choice herbs and spices (bay leaves, thyme, nutmeg, and chives)
- Using onion-infused scalded milk (way easier to make than it sounds, I promise)
- A simple technique of gently poaching the fish so the flakes stay intact and meaty, meltingly tender, and not overcooked.
I can’t wait to share this family recipe with you, and hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and as much as I have since childhood!
Ingredients in Fish Chowder (and Substitutions)
- Cod – or another whitefish such as tilapia, haddock, snapper, monkfish, etc. See FAQs below for more on this.
- Potatoes – any will do. I used red.
- Onions – yellow is best. White will also work.
- Clam juice – you can omit this and just add extra water or milk (and salt) instead.
- Whole milk – this will be scalded – you can use half the amount of evaporated milk as a substitute.
- Heavy Cream – half and half will work in a pinch but heavy cream is best
- Spices: Thyme, bay leaves, ground nutmeg, and fresh chives – any of these can be omitted if you like, but the flavor combination is really amazing!
- Butter and olive oil
- Salt and pepper
How to make New England Fish Chowder
First, sauté the onion in butter and olive oil. Be careful not to brown them – just sweat them over medium or medium-low heat. Add water, bay leaves, thyme, salt, and pepper to the pot, and bring to a boil. Gently place the fish in the boiling water.
Poach the fish until it is just flaked apart – keep an eye on it, as this will happen quickly! Use a slotted spoon to transfer fish to a rimmed baking sheet or plate with lip. As soon as it’s cool to the touch, flake it apart with your hands (but don’t over-flake it!). Set aside.
Add the clam juice and potatoes to the pot and bring back to a boil. Cover and simmer on low until potatoes are tender. While the potatoes cook, scald the milk with an onion that’s been quartered. Bring the milk to a boil in a small pot, then immediately turn the heat down to low and simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes. Keep an eye on it, as boiling milk has a tendency to overflow (as my dad said, “no texting while scalding!” lol!). Strain the milk into the pot once the potatoes are done cooking.
Now for the finishing touches. Add chives and ground nutmeg to the pot (I like to grate nutmeg whole on a microplane zester). Add the flaked fish back into the pot and stir very gently so as not to break apart the fish too much. Bring it back up to a boil, and turn off the heat. Finally, stir in the heavy cream.
To serve, ladle into bowls and garnish with a little more nutmeg, chives, black pepper, and a few very small pats of cold butter, which will melt on the surface for a gorgeous, rich, tasty sheen on top.
Please scroll to the bottom of the post for the full recipe including ingredient amounts and detailed instructions.
You can use whitefish such as cod, haddock, tilapia, sea bass, barramundi, monkfish, or snapper. Salmon also works for this recipe. Stay away from fish that is very lean (like tuna or swordfish) as it won’t flake nicely, and very delicate fish (like sole and flounder) as it will fall apart in the soup and practically disintegrate. However, if you have some delicate fish you need to use up, go ahead and throw it in – even if it doesn’t hold its shape, it will add flavor and texture!
Sure! Shrimp, lobster, or other shellfish can be added. If it’s cooked already, add it at the end with the poached, flaked fish. If it’s uncooked, add it with the fish in the beginning and remove it when you remove the fish.
Unfortunately, this is a soup that is best eaten within a few days and not frozen. Freezing will affect the texture of the fish and it won’t be as good. It will last for 2-3 days in an airtight container in the fridge.
If you like, you can stir in a cornstarch slurry before adding the flaked poached fish back into the soup and thicken to your liking. Keep in mind, it will thin slightly when you add the heavy cream, so thicken it more than you normally would.
The leftovers are great, but be careful not to bring to a rolling boil, as the heavy cream will separate. Heat it until it’s hot, but not boiling.
Time saving tips
- Leave the potatoes unpeeled to save time. My dad insisted they be peeled (*insert obligatory daughter eye roll here*), but you can leave them unpeeled (I truly despise peeling potatoes, so I’ll just give them a good scrub with a brush next time I make it!).
- You can also cut the fish into cubes about 1.5 inches big and add the cubes to poach at the end, after the potatoes are done but before adding the heavy cream. This won’t result in as many meaty large flakes, but will work if you’re in a hurry and don’t feel like removing the fish to flake it! I do this in my Instant Pot Mediterranean Fish Stew recipe and it works great.
- You can skip scalding the milk and just use half the amount of evaporated milk, if you prefer.
- If you want the fish to cool faster so you can flake it apart sooner, just stick the tray it’s on in the freezer for a couple of minutes. Alternatively, you can pop the rimmed baking sheet or plate in the freezer for 10-15 minutes before placing the fish on it – the cold surface will cool it faster. This will also result in slightly more tender fish, as it will stop it from overcooking from any residual heat.
What to serve with fish chowder
A fish spatula makes easy work of removing the poached fish without removing the liquid. A slotted spoon will also work. I love using a Dutch Oven for this because it will stay hot, covered, for a half hour or so after you make it, so there’s no rush to get to the dinner table. A quarter sheet pan is perfect for flaking apart the poached fish without any liquid escaping. Here are the products I used:
Other classic New England recipes
Creamy New England Fish Chowder
- Large Pot or Dutch Oven
- Sheet pan or plate with lip on edge
- Fish Spatula
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 large yellow onions 2 chopped (for approximately 2 cups), one quartered and the layers flaked apart
- 2-3 cups water
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 pinch dried thyme leaves or 1/4 teaspoon fresh
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt more if needed
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper more if needed
- 1.5 – 2 lbs. cod or other fish (see notes)
- 8 oz. clam juice
- 2 lbs. potatoes scrubbed clean or peeled if you want, diced into 1/2-inch to 1-inch pieces
- 1 cup whole milk
- small pinch ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tablespoon minced chives
- 1 cup heavy cream
- more chives, fresh ground black pepper, extra butter, and nutmeg for garnish (optional)
- In a large heavy pot such as a dutch oven, melt the butter (1 tablespoon) with the olive oil (1 tablespoon) over medium heat. Add the 2 chopped onions, stir to coat in the oil and butter, and sauté until translucent and softened, but not browned, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. (If the onions are browning, turn heat down to medium-low and add a little water, or cover to keep the steam in.)
- Add 2 cups of water to the pot, as well as the pinch of thyme, two bay leaves, kosher salt (1 teaspoon) and black pepper (1/4 teaspoon). Bring to a boil.
- Add the cod (2 pounds) to the pot. Place the pieces so they are flat and in one layer (or if your filets are very thin, stacking them is fine). The water should come up to the top of the pieces, but not submerge them. If the water seems too low, you can add 1/2 cup to 1 cup more. Bring it up to a low simmer, cover, and cook on low for 4-5 minutes until the fish flakes apart (if your burner is hot, you can just turn off the heat and cover).
- Using a fish spatula or slotted spoon, remove the fish to a large plate or rimmed baking sheet (I used a quarter sheet pan). Place the plate in the fridge or freezer, if you have room, for a couple of minutes so it cools faster and doesn't continue to cook. When the fish is cool enough to handle, gently flake it apart with your hands. You want the flakes to remain intact – don't over-flake it!
- Add the clam juice (8 oz.) to the pot, as well as the cubed potatoes. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer on low for about 15 minutes, or until potatoes are cooked (pierce one with the tines of a fork to check if it's soft enough).
- While the potatoes are cooking, scald the milk. Place the milk (1 cup) and the quartered onion layers into a small saucepan. Bring it to a boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 5-7 minutes. Watch it carefully, as boiling milk will bubble up and might boil over!
- When the potatoes are finished cooking, strain the scalded milk through a mesh sieve into the pot. Add the flaked fish, as well as the chives (1/2 tablespoon) and the small pinch of nutmeg (we used fresh nutmeg; just a couple of grates on a microplane zester will do it).
- Bring the chowder back to a simmer. Turn off the heat. Stir in the heavy cream (1 cup), being careful to stir very gently so as not to break apart the fish too much. Season with salt and pepper to taste, if necessary.
- Serve. If you like, garnish each bowl with a small pat of butter, some more nutmeg and chives, and fresh grated black pepper.
- Cod is the best to use for fish chowder. But if you can’t find it, or it’s too expensive, here are some alternatives.
- Good fish to use – other whitefish, such as snapper, tilapia, monkfish, barramundi or other sea bass, or salmon.
- Bad fish to use – lean fish such as tuna and swordfish (because they don’t flake apart well), and delicate like flounder and sole because they flake too much and fall apart (however, they do add flavor so if you have some you need to use up, throw it in!).
- Time saving tips: to save time, you can skip peeling the potatoes, cube the fish and add at the end instead of poaching and removing to flake, and/or use half the amount of evaporated milk instead of scalded whole milk.
- To cool the fish faster to flake, place the plate or rimmed baking sheet of fish in the freezer for a couple of minutes, then flake apart with your hands, or freeze the tray itself for 10-15 minutes before placing fish on it.
- You can add other seafood like lobster, crab, shrimp, etc., to make a seafood chowder. If it’s uncooked, add it when you poach the fish. If it’s already cooked, add it when you add the flaked, cooked fish back into the pot.
- If you reheat this chowder, be sure not to bring it to a boil after you’ve added the heavy cream, as it may curdle/separate.
- You can omit the clam juice if you like. Just add 1 cup more water or milk, and a little more salt to taste.
- If you like a thicker texture, you can add a cornstarch slurry to the soup just before adding the fish back into the pot. Mix 1/4 cup of milk with 2 tablespoons cornstarch until smooth, then pour into the pot and stir, heating until thickened (use more or less cornstarch according to preference). Then, add the fish and heavy cream (the cream will also thin it out a bit so make sure it’s a bit thicker than your preference beforehand).
Nutrition Information Disclaimer
The provided nutrition information is my best estimate and does not include any added sodium from seasoning to taste, any optional ingredients, and it does not take brands into account. I use an automatic API to calculate this information. Feel free to calculate it yourself using one of these tools: