What Are Oyster Crackers (And How Did They Get Their Name)?

published Jan 13, 2015
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(Image credit: Brent Hofacker)

Even though I didn’t grow up in New England and only lived there for about two years, I’m immediately suspicious of any clam chowder doesn’t come with a little packet of oyster crackers on the side. Is it still authentic if there aren’t any oyster crackers?

Also, these cute crackers got me thinking: What exactly IS an oyster cracker, and why does it have such a close connection with clam chowder?

The History of Oyster Crackers

Adam Exton is credited with creating the oyster cracker at Adam Exton Cracker Bakery in New Jersey in 1847, but New England’s Westminster Cracker Company claims that they have made them since 1828. Regardless of their origins, these bite-sized crackers probably got their name because they are vaguely oyster-shaped and were traditionally served in oyster stews.

Nowadays, oyster crackers are most commonly served with clam chowder, but are also served with other seafood stews, chowders, tomato soup, and even chili in Cincinnati. They also go by the names “water cracker,” “Philadelphia cracker,” and “Trenton cracker.”

(Image credit: Brent Hofacker)

How Oyster Crackers Are Made

Surprise! There are no oysters in oyster crackers — they are wheat flour-based crackers that have a flavor similar to saltine crackers but with less salt. Oyster crackers are docked (holes are made in the dough) and slow baked at low temperatures until crisp, and their flavors can range from bland to a little bit buttery.

Depending on the brand of oyster cracker, some are flaky in texture while others are tougher and denser.

Oyster Crackers in Soups and Stews

So why is it that oyster crackers have become such a popular topping for clam chowder and other soups and stews? It might be that these small crackers are sturdy and retain some crunch even after sitting in liquid for a while, or it may be that it’s just a time-honored tradition to serve oyster crackers with clam chowder.

Whatever the case, these fun, iconic crackers make that creamy bowl of New England clam chowder complete for me.