Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (2024)

Why It Works

  • A rich seafood stock ensures this cioppino is full of flavor, not bland and watery.
  • Carefully sequencing the poaching of each type of seafood in the broth leads to perfect results, not mushy, overcooked fish.
  • A flavorful roasted red pepper salsa adds additional layers of flavor to the stew.

Cioppino is from San Francisco and the seafood found in a simmering pot there will usually come from the Pacific, but its roots are oceans away, up and down the coast of Italy and the South of France, where this style of tomatoey seafood stew is common.

The word "cioppino" most likely comes from "ciuppin," a Ligurian variant of these Mediterranean stews, which was brought to San Francisco by Genoese immigrants more than a century ago. In my copy of the Italian cookbook La Cucina Ligure by Alessando Molinari Pradelli, there are two versions of ciuppin. In one, which the book describes as "particolare" to convey its relative strangeness, the fish in the ciuppin is left whole; in the other, presented as the more traditional one, the fish is puréed to make a creamy broth, much like a French bouillabaisse. It's worth noting that both of the ciuppin recipes in that book only call for fin fish and not the shellfish that's required in a cioppino, although I've found other Italian recipes for ciuppin online that incorporate a wider variety of seafood. In any event, trying to pinpoint every last detail of cioppino's origin is a bit of a fool's errand since the fishermen and sailors of the Mediterranean have travelled up and down that coast for millennia, spreading cooking traditions all the while—that is, after all, why this type of soup has so many variants throughout the region.

To many American eyes, a bowl of cioppino may look a lot like what they think of as bouillabaisse, but that's a misconception. What often gets passed off as "bouillabaisse" over here is really just a saffron-inflected cioppino, sometimes with lobster tossed in. That Americanized "bouillabaisse" is without a doubt delicious, but it's also a pretty far cry from what bouillabaisse is supposed to be.

So what defines cioppino? Well, for starters, lots of Pacific seafood, if you're lucky enough to live there, including mussels and clams, shrimp, squid, fish, and crab like Dungeness, which at the prices Dungeness goes for these days is admittedly an extravagant touch. If you don't live near the Pacific, it's still easy enough to make cioppino, since most of those ingredients can be easily substituted with Atlantic varieties.

Beyond the seafood, cioppino is based on a rich seafood broth flavored with white wine and plenty of tomato. A slice of San Francisco sourdough toast (or any sourdough, really) is the proper finishing touch.

In developing this recipe, I had a few goals. First, while there are some very good renditions of cioppino out there, I have too often been the victim of thin and watery attempts at it. Priority number one was to ensure a broth so flavorful that it justifies the expense of making cioppino in the first place. I also wanted to land on a technique for cooking the stew that would ensure all the seafood in the bowl hits the table perfectly cooked, a difficult task given the variety of the seafood in the pot and how quickly some of it can overcook.

The last thing I was intent on figuring out was how to incorporate capsicum flavor. Peppers usually find their way into cioppino in one way or another, often as chile flakes to add heat and sometimes as bell pepper cooked into the broth's aromatic base, along with other classic aromatics like onion, garlic, and celery. I wanted to take those basic ideas but be more thoughtful about them, all with the goal of creating a more delicious final stew.

Building a Better Broth for Cioppino

Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (1)

It's disappointing to eat a cioppino that's loaded with seafood and weak on flavor, but it's an unfortunately common experience. Much of the seafood that's served in the bowl is cooked quickly and has little time to infuse the broth with any flavor. In my experience, it's not enough to build the stew in one pot from start to finish—you'll never capture the flavor the stew deserves. Instead, you have to make a rich seafood stock first, one where you can cook flavorful things like fish parts and crabs hard, extracting as much flavor as possible (and, from the fish heads, their natural gelatin, which will give the broth more more body).

Because cioppino is a more robust stew, I don't take the delicate approach of a traditional French fumet. Instead I sauté onion, fennel, celery, and garlic with tomato paste more aggressively, allowing the aromatics to brown a little.

Next, I toss in whatever affordable crustacean I can wrangle—here on the East Coast, that meant blue crab bodies and the reserved shells from the shrimp that'll end up in the final stew (if you can get head-on shrimp, even better, chuck those shrimp heads into the stockpot for even more flavor). I know live crabs can be difficult to find in some parts, so just do the best you can; if you can't get any, or if the crabs are too expensive to justify using in a stock, it's okay to skip them.

After that, I add dry white wine and fish bones and heads from any lean, white-fleshed variety, like snapper, bass, halibut, etc. You can almost always get those kinds of fish scraps at a good fishmonger—they're happy to sell what would likely otherwise be garbage for a low price. Just make sure they're fresh (ask to smell them if in doubt), because a fish stock made from old fish isn't going to make a broth anyone will want to eat.

To further develop a rich seafood flavor, I also dump a couple small bottles of clam juice into the pot. We'll be adding actual fresh clams and their juices later, but it's still a great ingredient for building a very flavorful stock.

Once the whole thing has simmered for an hour or so, it's ready to strain and be used in the actual cioppino.

The Capsicum Conundrum: How to Get the Best Capsicum Flavor With a Roasted Red Pepper Salsa

Cioppino isn't a fiery stew, but it usually has at least a little heat from chile flakes. A lot of recipes also cook red or green bell pepper into the stew's aromatic base. That's a flavor I love in Cajun and Creole cooking, where green bell pepper is a crucial part of the "holy trinity" of aromatics that ground a wide range of dishes from jambalaya and gumbo to étouffée, but here I felt like it would get lost in the broth. I wanted to capture that pepper flavor, but in a more thoughtful way.

I went about that in two ways: First, I cook the stew itself with both red pepper flakes and a bit of chile paste, for a more complex chile heat. Which chile paste you use is up to you. I used a Calabrian chile paste that I had on hand, but sriracha, sambal oelek, or other chile pastes will work.

Second, I used the bell peppers as inspiration to create a condiment to serve alongside the stew, charring them and then puréeing the roasted pepper flesh with olive oil, lemon juice, more chile paste, and fresh herbs (I minced up some parsley and the fronds from the fennel that goes into the stock and stew). It's a more concentrated and dynamic expression of the pepper that's a delicious and easy upgrade to a classic cioppino.

The Seafood Sequence: The Best Way to Cook Seafood in Cioppino

Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (3)

The last key step to a great cioppino is not ruining the seafood. There's a lot that goes into the pot, and if you aren't careful, it can easily overcook. I ended up cooking the seafood in the following sequence:

  • Squid: Squid can either be cooked very briefly or for a longer period of about 25 minutes, both of which will deliver tender results; anything in the middle is likely to be rubbery. I love the flavor of long-stewed squid, and since this is a stew, it seemed like an obvious choice to go with that. It also makes things easier to manage, since the squid can just stay in the pot without fear of it overcooking.
  • Mussels and Clams: Mussels and clams go in next, giving enough time for heat to penetrate their shells and pop them open.
  • Fish: I recommend portioning the fish into 2-ounce pieces, which are just the right size per serving.
  • Shrimp: Finishing up with the quickest-cooking of the raw proteins, I add the shrimp and in no time they'll turn pink.
  • Crab: Since Dungeness is hard to come by where I live, I decided to add the crab to the stew in the form of pre-cooked crabmeat (lump blue crab or Jonah crab are common options), which is by far the easiest way to incorporate crab into the stew for most home cooks. Shelled crabmeat needs nothing more than a very brief dip in the broth before serving. Crab is an important ingredient in cioppino, but it's also the one that varies most from place to place, so what you end up using will influence how to need to prepare it. If you do use shell-on crabs, I recommend warming them first, either in the broth or another way, and then divvying them among the serving plates.

By sequencing the addition of seafood in order of cooking time, everything should be perfect just as the cioppino is ready to hit the table.

December 2021

This recipe was cross-tested in 2023 and lightly edited to streamline some of the cooking process.

Recipe Details

Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew)

Prep20 mins

Cook2 hrs

Total2 hrs 20 mins

Serves6to 8 Servings

Ingredients

  • For the Seafood Stock:
  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces; 227g), diced (about 2 cups)
  • 1 medium head fennel (9 ounces; 255g), trimmed of fronds and stalks (fronds reserved), then roughly diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 large celery ribs (about 3 1/2 ounces; 100g each), diced (about 1 cup)
  • 4 medium cloves garlic (20g), smashed
  • 1/4 cup (65g) tomato paste
  • 6 blue crabs, rinsed (optional)
  • 2 1/2 ounces reserved shrimp shells (see below)
  • 1 cup (240ml) dry white wine
  • 2 1/2 pounds (1.1kg) non-oily white fish heads and/or bone cages, such as snapper, bass, or halibut, washed well
  • Four 8–fluid ounce (240ml) bottles clam juice
  • 3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 10 whole black peppercorns
  • For the Roasted Red Pepper Salsa:
  • 2 red bell peppers (6 ounces; 170g)
  • 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon (15ml) chile paste, such as Calabrian chile paste, sambal oelek, or sriracha
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems and reserved fennel fronds (3/4 ounce; 20g)
  • 3/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
  • For the Cioppino:
  • 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces; 227g), finely diced (1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 medium head fennel (9 ounces; 255g), trimmed of fronds and stalks (fronds reserved), finely diced (1 1/2 cups)
  • 6 medium cloves garlic (30g), minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 teaspoons (10g) chile paste, such as Calabrian chile paste, sambal oelek, or sriracha (optional)
  • 4 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt, divided; for table salt, use half as much by volume
  • One 28-ounce (794g) can whole peeled tomatoes, tomatoes crushed well by hand or a potato masher
  • 2 1/2 quarts (1.9L) Seafood Stock (recipe above)
  • 3/4 pound (340g) cleaned squid bodies and tentacles, bodies cut crosswise into 1/2-inch rings
  • 2 pounds mussels (about 36 mussels; 900g), de-bearded and rinsed
  • 1 dozen littleneck clams, purged
  • 1 pound (454g) halibut or other firm white-fleshed fish, cut into 2-ounce portions
  • 3/4 pound (340g) shrimp, shelled and deveined (shells reserved for seafood stock, above)
  • 8 ounces (227g) jumbo crabmeat (optional)
  • Sourdough bread slices, toasted, rubbed with garlic, and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, for serving

Directions

  1. For the Seafood Stock: In a large, 8- or 12-quart heavy-bottomed pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, fennel, celery, and garlic, and cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to brown, about 7 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook for 1 minute.

    Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (4)

  2. Add crabs (if using) and shrimp shells, and cook, stirring and scraping often, until shells are cooked through and turning red, 3 to 4 minutes.

    Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (5)

  3. Add white wine, bring to a boil, then cook until raw alcohol smell is gone, about 4 minutes. Add fish heads and bones along with the clam juice. Cover with water (at least 2 1/2 quarts). Add parsley, bay leaves, and black peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer over medium low heat, and cook for 1 hour. Strain seafood stock and reserve until ready to make cioppino. You should have about 2 quarts (1.9L); add enough water to bring total volume of the stock up to 2 1/2 quarts (2.4L), then set aside.

    Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (6)

  4. Meanwhile, for the Roasted Red Pepper Salsa: Working directly over the flame of a gas burner or under a broiler, cook the red bell peppers, using tongs to turn occasionally, until deeply charred all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a heatproof bowl, cover with plastic, and let stand 5 minutes.

    Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (7)

  5. Using paper towels, rub charred skin off peppers. Stem and seed peppers, then roughly chop flesh and add to a blender jar or tall, narrow vessel compatible with an immersion blender.

    Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (8)

  6. Add olive oil, lemon juice, chile paste and minced fresh herbs and, using an immersion blender, blitz until fairly smooth. Stir in salt, then set aside or refrigerate for up to 5 days until ready to use.

    Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (9)

  7. For the Cioppino: In a large 8- or 12-quart, heavy bottomed pot, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, fennel, garlic, red pepper flakes, and chile paste (if using). Season with 2 teaspoons salt, and cook, stirring often, until very soft but not browned, about 15 minutes; lower heat if necessary to prevent browning.

    Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (10)

  8. Add crushed tomatoes and their juices along with the 2 1/2 quarts (2.4L) Seafood Stock. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add squid and cook at a gentle simmer over medium low heat for 18 minutes. Increase heat to medium high; add mussels and and clams. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to medium; cook until they just begin to pop open, about 3 minutes. Season halibut with 3/4 teaspoon salt, gently add to broth, cook for 2 minutes. Season shrimp with 1/2 teaspoon salt, then add to broth, cook until shrimp is just pink and halibut is just cooked through, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, all the mussels and clams should be open (discard any that are unopened). Using tongs and a spider or slotted spoon, pick out 20 mussels and transfer to a medium bowl. Shell the mussels, add the mussels back into the broth, and discard the shells. Season broth with remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt.

    Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (11)

  9. If using crabmeat, add to a strainer and lower into the simmering broth until just warmed through, about 30 seconds, then remove and arrange on a small serving bowl. Divide stew among bowls. Garnish with reserved fennel fronds, and serve with toasted sourdough, the Roasted Red Pepper Salsa, and warmed crab (if using).

    Cioppino (San Francisco Seafood Stew) Recipe (12)

Special Equipment

Large heavy-bottomed pot, tongs, immersion blender, spider or slotted spoon

Notes

To purge clams, set them in a large mixing bowl and cover with cold water. Add a generous amount of salt (about 2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt per 1 quart water) and let stand 30 minutes. Lift clams from water, discard water and rinse out bowl. Repeat this process until no sand is visible in the bottom of the bowl.

If you live in an area where Dungeness crabs are available and want to splurge, you could use cooked Dungeness in place of the lump crabmeat suggested here; divide the Dungeness crabs into manageable pieces and warm in the broth before serving.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The seafood stock can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 5 months. The red pepper salsa can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

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