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What is the Difference Between Stew, Soup, and Chowder?

There are so many different terms for foods. Sometimes it can be hard to tell one from the other. For example, how many of you had families who made stew that was more like soup? Not everyone makes a thick stew. So, what is the real difference?

A stew is a dish made from two or more ingredients stewed in liquid. The liquid is usually thickened into a gravy, but not always. The ingredients are usually in chunks that may take more than a bite to eat. The meats in stews are often browned before being added to the mix. When browned in the pan the stew will be cooked in, all the little tasty bits get added to the stew.

There are many types of stews like Irish stew, Mulligan stew, burgoo, Brunswick stew, and bouillabaisse. While they may be very different, they still share certain qualities. Stews are usually cooked slowly to tenderize the ingredients. While most stews contain meat, it is possible to make vegetable stew, too. Stew can be made with any meat you have on hand, and at times have been made with squirrel, seafood, lamb, goat, beef and more. There is nothing like a heaping bowl of stew for dinner.

Soups have a lot more leeway. Basically, a soup is any mixture of foods cooked in a liquid. Soups can be clear like consommé or thick like a bisque. Some well known soups include borscht, which is made from beets, gazpacho, which is an uncooked soup made from pureed vegetables, and posole, which is a thick Mexican soup. Soups can have bite sized chunks in a broth or tiny grains in it like barley or rice. You cannot really heap soup in a bowl. The contents should always present a flat surface with the exception of an ingredient or more breaking the surface.

Chowder is a chunky soup, usually with a thick broth. Most people think of a seafood based chowder like clam chowder, but you can also find recipes for ham and corn chowder, potato chowder, and many others. Chowders are usually rich and may be milk based or tomato based. Many chowders use flour as a thickening agent.

Depending on your own cooking preferences, some of these qualities may be interchangeable. Some people make stews with soupy broths; others prefer really thick soups like potato, split pea and so on. Generally, what you call the contents of your cooking pot is up to you. One cook stated like this: “It’s not so much the thickness, like most people seem to think, but more that stews are more about the ingredients while soups are more about the broth.” That sums it up quite well, actually.

We will let you decide what you get in your own kitchen. Call it what you like. If it looks like stew, tell everyone it is a stew. If it looks like soup, call it a soup. We will not tell anyone.


While soups can be thin and light, a chowder is characterized by being rich and thick. Like stew, it contains large chunks of meat or seafood and vegetables, notably potatoes.

A dish can be categorized as a “stew” based mainly on the ratio of liquid to meat, poultry, or vegetables. As opposed to the contents of a soup, the ingredients in a stew are only slightly covered by a liquid like broth or tomato sauce.

Stews get their flavor from the liquids they’re cooked in (think beef burgundy) and when finished, there’s usually less liquid than in a soup and larger pieces of meat and vegetables. Bisques are typically shellfish cooked in a flavored liquid then puréed.

A chowder is a rich, hearty soup with seafood or chicken that starts with a base of salt pork or bacon and a mix of vegetables like onions, celery, and potatoes. Most chowders are creamy, but one in particular—Manhattan clam chowder—has a tomato base.

A New England Clam Chowder is creamy and thick like you’re sipping a gravy with tender chunks of potatoes that almost feel like it melts in your month. You’ll also love the contrasting flavor of the saltiness and smokiness of the bacon and the fading bitterness of fresh “oceany” clams.

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