20 June, 2011

Canned Clam Chowder: A Comprehensive Guide

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:

BAD 

Hanover Chunky (ready to serve) - I couldn't even pour this out when I opened it - I had to open both ends of the can and push the contents into my bowl. It was so thick that I double-checked the instructions to make sure it isn't a condensed soup - and it isn't; the label explicitly says not to add water.  There is absolutely nothing to like about this chowder. It smells like canned dog food (seriously) and it's made up almost entirely of grainy, dry-textured chunks of potatoes held together with a gluey beige sludge/broth. Tiny pieces of clams are sparsely distributed here and there throughout the vomitous mass - there are so few of them they should be listed as a "seasoning" rather than an "ingredient."  I suppose that's just as well. I'd hate to think that large amounts of tasty bivalves were being wasted in this crap, which didn't even taste like clam chowder. It had an overpoweringly salty, artificial "bouillon" taste and reminded me of the cheap "chicken" soup that used to be sold by the cup in coffee vending machines. Thoroughly nasty, unredeemable shit. Final score: 0/10

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

MEDIOCRE

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

ACCEPTABLE

 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

Healthy Choice (ready to serve) - Although the broth was a little "slippery" (there's that xanthan gum again!) the flavor is decent, with plenty of nice waxy potatoes and lots of clams. Slightly underseasoned, but I took care of that with some black pepper. Overall, my opinion of Healthy Choice New England Clam Chowder hasn't changed since I wrote 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.
GOOD

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


Olde Cape Cod (condensed) - Lots of clams and chunks of potato, and a rich creamy broth that's just the right consistency.  This is a very high-quality chowder, but I had to take points off for underseasoning. Add a little thyme, just a hint of salt, and some black pepper when you're heating it up, and it's top-notch. 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


Trader Joe's "Pilgrim Joe's" (condensed) - Excellent ratio of potatoes to clams, with a relatively smooth clam base that needs quite a bit of stirring as it heats to blend well with the milk. Very good clam flavor, but exceptionally under-seasoned - I needed to add a moderate amount of salt and pepper to bring it up to my standards. Like so many other Trader Joe's products, this is better than average and I would buy it again. Final score: 8/10
Price Chopper (ready to serve) - Rich clam flavor with a hint of butter, big chunks of waxy potatoes, and plenty of clams (though most of them are in tiny pieces.) Definitely better than other store brands, and don't be fooled by the "golden" color of the chowder on the label picture; the actual product is a very traditional "clam broth" shade of white. Price Chopper's house brand holds its own quite respectably against any of the "name brands" in this category. 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

Progresso Rich & Hearty (ready to serve) - Extremely similar to Progresso's "Traditional" New England clam chowder - same consistency, with lots of clams and potatoes - but with a slightly different taste profile. For the Rich & Hearty version, they've taken out the various fish and shellfish powders and instead seasoned the chowder with chablis wine and brandy. The result is no less delicious, and still gluten-free.  Final score: 8/10

Snow's (ready to serve) - The difference between this and Snow's condensed is like night and day.  Delicious broth, just the right consistency, luscious with cream and butter. Plenty of clams (mostly small pieces, but there are some fairly good chunks in there too) and lots of chunky potatoes.This is good enough to buy again! Final score: 8/10

Campbell's Select Harvest (ready to serve) - Chunky potatoes and loads of clams in a well-seasoned broth of nearly ideal consistency. Although lacking the buttery flavor of a true New England clam chowder (no surprise - there's no butter in it) the rich clamminess helps make up for it. And look! Those are real slices of celery in there! Top notch, and this is another canned variety I would buy again. Final score: 8+/10
 EXCELLENT

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

17 comments:

Alan said...

Once again, very educational and informative, Dave. I love clam chowder, having been raised along the shoreline of New England. Even canned brands I find good, most of the time. Now I am armed with these ratings to help me along. Thanks for the research.

Michelle said...

Awesome, awesome post!!
I'm passing this on to my mom, she'll love it - such a time-saver :)

J. Astro said...

The only thing I could really think of while reading this tasty post was that line from The Simpsons, where Mayor Quimby's jerkwad son berates the butler: "It's CHOW-DAH! Say it right, Frenchie!!"

bboyer66 said...

Great post Dave, your #1 is supposed to be at our stores in Pittsburgh soon.
My favorite used to be this Clam Chowder in the seafood Dept that they kept hot, called Abbots Clam Chowder. Had a real nice tang to it. Have not seen it in ages and I am not sure they even make it anymore.

Anonymous said...

I try to stay away from eating at the The Big Y, you just never know...

volvoov said...

I bought 2 cans of hanover new england clam chowder. It looks terrible and has the most disgusting smell when trying to eat it.
I threw it and the unopened can in the garbage.

dona9568 said...

I love the reviews - my husband is a big time N.E. Clam Chowder lover. Years ago when we lived in Kittery, Maine we used to purchase a canned clam chowder that was actually in 2 separate cans. Clams in the top can and the broth in the bottom. You would just mix the two and viola, the best clam chowder. I've searched and searched over the years to find this product around various New England states but have come up empty. Have you ever heard of such a product? That being said, I'll try some of your recommendations. Thank you!

Diane said...

This is the post that brought me to your blog. A very good friend of mine is from Maine and raves about Snow's clam chowder, which is how I got to reading this entry and the other one you mentioned. I see now that he's probably referencing the non-condensed variety of Snow's when he rhapsodizes about it and I'll have to figure out where online to purchase that variety so I can give that a taste.

I've seen the Bar Harbor line of soups available at a local health food store chain. I'm rather surprised it has a "bland" taste and even more surprised that it has the same score as the only kind of clam chowder I've ever had, which is the Progresso rich & hearty variety you reviewed. That kind is available at the regular supermarket and is really affordable at about $1.65 per can (or occasionally 2 for $3). I just had that for dinner tonight along with some saltines, and it's interesting how you also add black pepper to the chowder. I appreciate that all I have to do is pour the chowder into a microwave-safe soup bowl, nuke it for about four minutes, and eat it.

Anyway, thanks for clarifying what variety of Snow's I should look out for. Oh, and just as a heads up, Wolfgang Puck's organic line of soups includes clam chowder, so you might want to look into reviewing that.

Arianne said...

Good morning Dave!
On behalf of New England Country Soup family, we would like to thank you for your kind comments and 9+/10 rating for our New England Clam Chowder.

It truly warms our hearts to hear you say our Clam Chowder is "just about as close to homemade as I have ever had." We attribute it to the fact, like all our soups, our New England Clam Chowder is made with the same all-natural ingredients one might find in their kitchen, mixed with a lot of love, a dash of passion and sprinkling of family history.

Thank you again for sharing your review. We hope you won't mind if we share it on our "Fan Page" (http://newenglandcountrysoup.com/fan-comments.php) too.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe nobody mentioned adding a few drops of Tabasco to their chowder. This was an excellent review Dave. Thank you! I certainly was hoping to try the chowder from New England Country Soup but I'm on the left coast, and with 4 chowder heads in the family the $2.00 per bag just for shipping would certainly be a concern. I'm afraid if it's too good we'd end up spending a small fortune on the shipping. We always use the Progresso Traditional and are very satisfied, although bigger clams would be nicer. Thanks to your review we will be trying the 8+ rated Campbell's Select Harvest. Wonder if a small bit of butter melted in when heating it would help the butter deficiency. Time to try. Thanks again Dave.

Anonymous said...

For a while, Progresso had a New England clam chowder that was labeled "Traditional" but also had a reddish label at the top that said "Our Best Tasting Clam Chowder". I bought this, along with several other clam chowders including Progresso's Traditional that did NOT have that label at the top. My wife and I both agreed that out of all, the Progresso with the "Best Tasting" label at the top was the best. Now, it is no longer available and the stores tell me that the regular "Traditional" without that label is the same. Anyone agree with that?

PS: Dave; Cambell's must be listening to you: they added Butter to their Select Chowder! Also, there's NEVER too many clams. I always buy some live and add to the chowder. It's a touch of class and taste that no one forgets. And yes, black pepper AND a little Cayenne, NOT Tabasco...

Justine said...

This post is what brought me to your blog which I am throughly enjoying.

I am constantly in search of the "best", most authentic, canned clam chowder as I went to college in Rhode Island and that's where my obsession began more than 20 years ago. (Now in Missouri)
I too agree with your statement that the Snows condensed has been changed. Every quest to New England I would bring back cans of it and somewhere along the way it's changed. Now I stick with Olde Cape Cod and most recently found as you did, Trader Joes, which too is excellent and half the price of Olde Cape Cod.

Love your blog and I especially enjoy reading of your New England cooking, dining, and products. I'm out today to get a can of Boston Brown Bread thanks to you. (although last time I bought it the can was dusty, lol)

Dave said...

Thanks for the comment. this post seems to be one of the more popular ones, so I try to keep it updated as I find new brands to add.

Steve Lent said...

Hi Dave. I would like to point out that the Kirkland Campbell's soup has a major difference from the Chunky. If you look at the ingredient list, the Kirkland soup uses cream, while the chunky replaces it with soybean oil. I can definitely tell the difference. Progresso uses soybean oil as well. Both the Chunky and Progresso have been fairly disappointing to me, but I do like the Kirkland version. I may try the Trader Joe's version since they're usually pretty good at not substituting ingredients.

Dave said...

Good catch on the difference between the Kirkland and the Campbell's Chunky, Steve. I rated Kirkland as better than Chunky because of the overall flavor, and I think the cream/oil difference was one of the reasons why, though the seasonings do differ as well.

shrineme said...

Thanks Dave for your research I've tasted alot of these brands & started making my own. I'm Suprised how easy it is (under an hour)and it's off the charts from the canned stuff.

greathornedlizard said...

I got to these reviews because Snow's is no longer to be found where I live (and I guess it's not what it used to be) and so I think I will try Trader Joes condensed, as I use it as a base for fish chowder (with a can of corn thrown in.)
Here's the trick: don't just add, SPILL the cayenne pepper in there!