What Is Shrimp Chowder?

Dale Marshall

Shrimp chowder is a hearty thick soup usually prepared with shrimp, potatoes and onions in a thickened broth of milk and cream. It’s one of a group of soups generically called chowders and generally characterized by a thick broth, potatoes and other vegetables. In America’s New England states, these soups predominantly feature a rich milk- or cream-based broth, usually flavored by some variety of shellfish. In some locations, especially Rhode Island and North Carolina, chowder is prepared with a clear broth; in others, tomatoes form the broth’s base. A famous variation on New England chowder, called Manhattan chowder, features a tomato based broth, with chunks of tomato replacing the potatoes.


Chowders often incorporate a number of additional ingredients. In addition to potatoes and onions, many chowders use corn, crumbled bacon and diced celery, and flour is often used as a thickening agent. Butter is frequently found in chowders, although in some recipes the grease produced by cooking the bacon is used to fry other ingredients. The further south one travels down the eastern seaboard of the US, the more one is apt to find chowders that incorporate greater quantities of black or white pepper. The so-called Minorcan chowders found in northeastern Florida are very spicy due to the inclusion of Minorcan peppers in the ingredients.

Bacon is often included in shrimp chowders.
Bacon is often included in shrimp chowders.

Shrimp can be made the featured ingredient in most of the chowders found in American cuisine. Manhattan clam chowder, for example, usually features clams and onions in a tomato-based broth. Substituting shrimp for the clams transforms the chowder to Manhattan shrimp chowder. The clear-broth chowders of Rhode Island easily accommodate the use of shrimp as the featured ingredient, as do the other chowders served along America’s eastern seaboard.

One variety of chowder found in American cuisine, called Southern Illinois chowder, is inappropriate for shrimp. A hearty soup that’s often prepared in huge kettles many gallons at a time, it generally requires four or more hours to cook. Chicken, beef, potatoes, cabbage and beans are the main ingredients of Southern Illinois chowder.

Peeling and de-veining shrimp is absolutely necessary when making shrimp chowder. Some recipes call for adding them whole to shrimp chowder, while others recommend chopping them into small pieces reminiscent of the chopped clams found in clam chowders. In either case, shrimp should be added to chowder for only a few moments before serving because they cook very quickly and become tough and rubbery when overcooked.

Many diners prefer just a cup of shrimp chowder before a full dinner. Some restaurants serve it in a bowl crafted of sourdough or other very crusty bread. Especially when served this way, a bowl of shrimp chowder is often eaten as a meal in itself.

Shrimp chowder includes potatoes as one of its main ingredients.
Shrimp chowder includes potatoes as one of its main ingredients.

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