Shell out!

The controversy is raging, and I need your help.

It all started when my friend Chef John, uncharacteristically, made a mistake.

John’s web site, Food Wishes, is a collection of extremely good recipes. They’re straightforward and easy to follow, familiar enough to be craveable, but with an interesting spin or variation. His videos are clear and helpful and he’s smart and funny. He’s classically trained, but he never lords it over you; he just helps you master whatever technique it is that he’s using. His food is really, really good.

The best thing about Food Wishes, though, is that it makes you want to cook. I’m a big fan.

So I was surprised when, back in January, Chef John made a mistake.

He posted a clam chowder recipe, and it looked wonderful. Creamy but not viscous, with a combination of fresh and canned clams. And no cornstarch! Cornstarch is my particular chowder peeve. (I also have a chowder recipe, with a different approach – I puree onions and potato to make the base.)

The things is, though, that John left the littlenecks in the shells. And that’s just wrong. You don’t want shells in your soup. I don’t even like them in things like Bouillabaisse, which are more stewy than soupy. It’s the cook’s job to take the clams out of the shells, thank you very much. I’m nobody’s idea of fastidious, but picking hot shellfish out of hot, soup-covered shells is simply not my idea of a dinner-table activity.

I registered my disapproval in his comments section, and he promised to give the issue a full airing at a later date.

Well, that later date has come, and I need to know what you think. Shells in soup, or no shells in soup? If enough of us weigh in, we might be able to convince John.

20 people are having a conversation about “Shell out!

  1. I’m wondering if his chowder would taste the same without the shells- maybe they add something to the taste, like making stock with shellfish shells. On the other hand, you don’t find shellfish shells in soup. I don’t think picking clam shells out of chowder would be all that fun. I would really like a bowl first, before I finally made up my mind though. Sorry I’m not being much help here.

    Thanks for the link though; I’ll check that out!

  2. And what say my dear SF friends, D & L about my Ciopinno example? Should that really be served with the clams and mussels removed from the shells? BTW, what the hell would Lenny know about New England Clam Chowder! 😉

  3. Everybody knows “Shells are for driveways!” There is no place for them in chowder.
    My thinking is, those who want the diner to be sure he is getting fresh shellfish leave them in to assure him. Around these parts, where all shellfish comes fresh out of the shell and not out of the can, there is no need to dress up your chowder with shells.

  4. You’re right, Tamar: no shells in clam chowder. You’ve got to steam open the “chowder” (code for oversized) clams, chop ’em up and put ’em in the stew. If you’re really using chowder clams, they’d be way to ginormous to even deal with in the soup. ‘Tis the cooks job: you’re right.


  5. I’m with you! Shells in soup, unless its pasta shaped like shells, is no fun. Shells in Paella and Cioppino no problem…not in the soup. I’ve never figured out how exactly you are supposed to fish the clams or mussels out of the soup and make it to your mouth with a spoon and a fork without burning yourself or wearing it. (It is slightly easier to contemplate if the soup is Asian and there are chopsticks involved.) I made a soup recently that involved clams and I wanted the clam juice as part of the soup base. I put the clams in a basket, put them in the soup and after they cooked pulled them out discarded the shells and put the clams back in. I suppose this might pass off as a bit anal, but the good news was I didn’t toss them back in till the soup was finished so I wound up with clam juice in the base, properly cooked soup, and clams that weren’t rubbery.


  6. I’m with you, Tamar. (Although the value of my opinion is probably tainted by our genetic similarity.) I suspect that the purpose of leaving the shells on seafood in stews and soups is to prevent overcooking. As Russ’s comment implies, clams can turn rubbery mighty quick. But that’s a problem that the cook, not the eater, should have to deal with.

  7. I’m with you too tamar..and I really love kevins comment about shells being for driveways!
    In the right foods shells are ok but usually a PITA from a polite ladylike eating perspective..since I am so ladylike…

    But all good cape cotters..washashores or not… know that there are not shells in the chowder..

  8. I’m neutral. Seems dangerous to have shells in a soup, as they could break off and you can’t easily see where the shell went. Then again, they add flavor, and the person eating the clams can tell that they were alive and cooked properly.

  9. Is there really an end all be all “right way”? I’ve had some reconstructed soups that I’ve gotta say were pretty damn good. That said, if the shells are merely for effect? eh… stop being lazy and just open the damn things:)

  10. I am with the author, it is the chef’s job to make the dining experience as enjoyable, and easy as possible.

    I hate shells in food. I even hate bones in anything that is bathed in thick sauces. If I make chicken curry, I debone the chicken after cooking. Bones add flavour during the cooking process but are a bloody nuisance on the plate. How many of us have endured an otherwise delightful fish dish only ruined because the experience was akin to gnawing on a porcupine? And seafood tagliatelli that rattles onto the plate? No thanks!

    The only shells I accept on a plate are oysters, the more the merrier. Besides, having gone to all the trouble to create an unctuous sauce, be it clams, chicken or any other product, you want them to soak up all that flavour and impart their own to the sauce.

  11. So far, that’s 9 shell-outs, one shell-in, and 3 agnostics. The shell-in is Chef John, so I’m not sure he counts, but among the shell-outs are my husband, mother, and sister-in-law, so maybe they shouldn’t count either.

    I’m still taking votes, particularly from total strangers!

    But I think I need to address the cioppino argument. I’m perfectly happy to have clams and mussels removed for me, but I understand why the crab and lobster stays in the shells. For starters, that kind of meat is much harder to extract, and would make cioppino prohibitively labor-intensive. But crab and lobster shells probably do add flavor, while clam shells abolutely, positively don’t. It’s like having rocks in your soup. Rocks that leave behind little particles of grit.

    The votes on Food Wishes seem to be running about 50/50, with a good number of readers siding with John. The thread is worth a visit:

  12. I wouldn’t cry for a second if some willing person (chef) was nice enough to pick the shells out of cioppino or paella for me. But I wouldn’t mind if it were still in there. I think for me this has to do with food temperature. I like soup piping hot, and I’d have to let it cool to a temperature that I would find gross in order to pick shells out. Cioppino and paella both can tolerate a lower serving temperature, nor do they taste nasty when served this way. But I would be disgusted to get a cup of lukewarm shell filled chowder.

  13. Tamar as usual, you are right. A stranger says….No Shells! Born a Wellfleetian and now reside in Maine. In either location shells are for pretty pictures, not eating. To reduce the rubbery texture of clams, use part light cream and part buttermilk in a slow and low cook , after you saute your onions. If you like a thin chowder, try PJ’s in Wellfleet and for a little thicker try Napi’s in Ptown, YUM!!!…..Good Luck.

  14. No shells in chowder. Period. No cream, either. Milk and clam juice, brought to a steam. Not a boil, not a simmer. A steam. That’s how my Ipswish mum makes it, and that’s how it is. End of story. I have spoken…


  15. As a longtime summer resident of the Cape, and current washashore on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, I say “no” to shells in my chowdah! In fact, “no” with a small side-dish of “eww.” Chowder should be decidedly on the thick-and-creamy side, imho, and would likely coat the shells, making them a somewhat of a challenge to remove (not only would you burn your fingers, but it’d make a mess, too). Plus, who needs ’em clanking around in one’s bowl, and possibly adding grit to the chowder? Spoils the whole essence of the thing. Leave the clams in the shells and I’m not sure what you’ve got, but it’s not chowdah…

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