It isn't easy to find a decent canned clam chowder. I've spent the past month or so of lunches evaluating every canned or prepared New England clam chowder I could find. Here they are, rated from worst to best. In case of tie scores, the brands are listed in alphabetical order:
Big Y Chunky (ready to serve) - One of the worst canned clam chowder I've ever had. Although there was an adequate amount of clams, it was very heavy on the potatoes and bizarrely thick - so thick and starchy a spoon could stand in it unassisted as though it was in a bowl of pudding. There was also an odd non-clam aftertaste that was vaguely brackish. I would not ever buy this one again. Final score: 2/10
Snow's (condensed) - As I noted in an earlier post dedicated to them, Snow's was once the benchmark against which all clam chowders were measured. Although I had noticed the quality slipping several years ago (after the company was moved out of New England to Cape May, New Jersey), it still surprised me just how bad Snow's has gotten. The chowder base is a thick, gummy gel that never really combines with added milk. Light on clams with a moderate amount of potatoes. This chowder is extremely bland - almost flavorless. I was able to partially rescue it by adding thyme, celery salt, paprika and lots of black pepper as I heated it up - as well as ladling the chowder over a pat of butter in every bowl when serving. Final score: 3/10
Valu Time (ready to serve; a "generic" brand produced by Topco) - Honestly, I wasn't expecting very much from this economy brand, but I have to give it credit for decent flavor, and an adequate amount of clams. Kind of heavy on the potatoes. The broth was a freakishly unnatural white, very thick, starchy, and gluey. It actually jiggles in the spoon. This is probably due to the modified food starch in the broth, although there are token amounts of cream and butter as well. Final Score: 5/10
Richfield Farms Savory Selections Healthy Chunky New England Style (ready to serve) - Good consistency though a little "slippery." Visible herbs in the broth (parsley and, I think, thyme) give it a pleasant herbiness that enhances the clam flavor. Nice chunks of potatoes and clams. Not sure what makes this "healthy," though - there is still plenty of sodium and fat in that little can. Broth has a strange white floaty component (see this full review for more info) which knocks the score down a bit. Richfield's chowder slides under the wire to barely score in the Acceptable category with 6+/10.
Bookbinder's (semi-condensed) - Flavorful, well-seasoned broth with a good consistency, Bookbinder's puts in plenty of big, meaty clam pieces and chunks of potatoes. Points off, however, for a "slippery" texture from xanthan gum and the high price for what is fundamentally an only-slightly-better-than-average condensed soup. Final score: 7/10
Campbell's (condensed) - Snow's could learn a thing or two from Campbell's, who manages to make an inexpensive condensed clam chowder which blends smoothly with milk to make an excellent broth. Perfect consistency and with a rich clam flavor, this chowder could have scored a lot higher than it did if only Campbell's weren't so stingy with the potatoes and clams. Final score: 7/10
Campbells Chunky (ready to serve)- Although excessively thick and starchy when it comes out of the can, it thins out as it is heated until it reaches nearly perfect consistency. Lots of clams and a fair amount of potato, but still somewhat bland and needs to be further seasoned - celery salt and pepper makes a big difference. Not bad, though. Final score: an acceptable 7/10
Campbell's Soup At Hand (ready to serve) - Very much like the other Campbell's selections here; excellent consistency and very good flavor marred only by a very slight plasticy aftertaste (perhaps from the cup.) The recipe uses tiny potatoes and bits of clams - a slight alteration for the "sippy-cup" format of the Soup at Hand line - but there are plenty of both. It's also quick to heat in the microwave, but keep an eye on it because the narrow, tall format makes it easy to overheat until it overflows (well, it made it easy for me, anyway.) Overall, a tasty New England clam chowder with the bonus of convenience - you don't even need a spoon. Final Score: 7/10
Chef's Cupboard (ready to serve, ALDI store brand) - This is so similar to Campbell's Chunky that I would not be surprised to find that Campbell's produces it for ALDI as a private label - I would not be able to tell the difference between them in a blind tasting. Like the Campbell's, it has lots of clams, decent amount of nice hearty potato chunks, and although it has a good flavor it is still somewhat bland and needs a seasoning boost. And like Campbell's Chunky, it scores a solid and acceptable 7/10
this review in September, 2010: it's not too bad. Final score: 7/10
Campbell's 100% Natural (ready to serve) - Plenty of potatoes and an adequate amount of (very tiny) clams. Thick broth with good flavor (Campbell's adds flavorings from pollack, clams, shrimp, and cod) but points off for using vegetable oil as a major ingredient and relegating cream and butter to the less-than-2% category. Thanks to all that oil, the broth also has a "slippery" mouthfeel that's less than idea. Can't give this one more than a 7/10.
Kirkland Label Campbell's Premium (ready to serve, made by Campbell's for Costco) - Not surprisingly, this is very similar to Campbell's Chunky. But they've done something differently with the seasonings for the Kirkland label, adding more parsley and black pepper. Quite decent when all is said and done. Final score: 7+/10
Campbell's 100% Natural Light (98% Fat Free) (ready to serve) - I bought this chowder expecting to be underwhelmed, but was totally surprised by how decent it was. There were lots of good waxy potatoes, a decent amount of clams (though mostly in tiny bits) and irregular chunks of roughly-chopped celery just like homemade. Although cream and butter were in the less-than-2% category of the ingredients, the broth had a slightly buttery taste as well as a depth of flavor provided by additional pollack and flavorings derived from shrimp, cod, and clams. Most surprising to me was the complete lack of any kind of gum as a thickener; Campbell's relied on good ol' cornstarch, just like you might do in your own kitchen. Final score: 8/10, believe it or not.
Bar Harbor Foods (condensed) - Very good, with an appropriate amount of potatoes and a generous amount of clams, yet surprisingly bland. The preparation instructions are rather vague and say to add milk or cream and butter to taste. I get the milk or cream part, but I usually add a pat of butter to a bowl of canned chowder if it's not that great and needs a flavor boost. Still, it's a better-than-average chowder and the clam base blends smoothly with the milk when prepared, so there are no disgusting little gooey balls. Final score: 8/10
Progresso (ready to serve) - I heated up this chowder in a microwave and interestingly, although it started out a little too thick, it thinned a little as it cooled to nearly a perfect consistency. Big hearty chunks of potatoes, with lots of clams (although the clams were in small pieces.) Although not necessarily richer than any of the other chowders, Progresso has a very deep flavor with complex shellfishy notes thanks to addition of lobster powder, shrimp, crab powder, and fish powder. Like many of the other chowders tasted, it was a tad underseasoned - I recommend a good shake of black pepper. Gluten-free for those of you who may be on a special diet. I found Progresso to be very good, and I would buy this brand again. Final score: 8/10
New England Country Soup (ready to serve) - Sold ready to heat and eat, in shelf-stable pouches. This chowder was outstanding, just about as close to homemade as I have ever had. The broth is a perfect consistency, lightly thickened without being pasty or gummy - it's made with real cream and butter, and it tastes it. Loads of clams and plenty of potatoes. I was surprised to taste a hint of dill and even more surprised that I liked it, because when not part of a pickle recipe, dill is my least favorite herb. Seriously, I would buy this again in a heartbeat. Made by New England Country Foods LLC, in Manchester Village, Vermont. You can check out their very informative website by clicking here. Final score: 9+/10