When you think of fancy, elegant, high-end seafood, you probably think of lobster, crab, caviar, shrimp and of course, buttery, sweet scallops. Scallops are a bivalve mullusk that are found all over the world. There are lots of different species but the two main scallops we see in our part of the world are the North Atlantic Sea Scallop (caught year round offshore from Newfoundland to North Carolina) or Bay (or Cape) Scallops which are caught from mid-October through March (if the season is good) in shallow bays off Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Peconic Bay off Long Island.
Sea Scallops are huge, growing up to 8 inches in diameter with meats up to 2 inches wide. The meat is actually the powerful adductur muscle which opens and closes the shell, enabling it to actually flap, swim and even jump. Unfortunately in the U.S. we discard everything except this muscle (even the roe) but the white, creamy scallop muscle is a luxury on its own. Both species are well managed and sustainable. Seas are subject to closures and Bays have a short, controlled season.
The Difference is in the Handling
Most of us have had scallops at home or in restaurants that have been great, good, not so good or just plain bad. Finding great sea scallops can be a confusing crap shoot. There is a HUGE variance in quality and labeling out there. “Dry Pack,” “Chem Free,” “Day Boat,” “Diver,” What the heck do these labels mean?
The scallop industry commonly soaks their product in water and sodium tripolyphosphate (a chemical used to retain moisture in frozen seafood). When fresh scallops are soaked up to 25% extra water weight can be added. The results are a whiter, plumper looking scallop, usually less expensive than the untreated ones. The soaked scallops will have a lot of their flavor soaked out of them along with their natural sugars being diluted (so they’ll never caramelize in the pan) and they will weep out all that added liquid. They will also often have a rubbery texture.
Day Boat describes small, short trip boats that get their product back to market the same day. There are day boats working out there, but the vast majority of sea scallops at market are dredged off-shore on “trip boats,” shucked at sea and brought in fresh.
Diver scallops are another small, elite category. Scallops are harvested by “divers” who dive down and bring up limited numbers of scallops by hand. The advantage is, again, a well-handled scallop that gets to market quickly. It may sound romantic on the menu, but the majority of scallops labeled Day Boat or Diver are most likely mislabeled, due to the limited supply, not to mention the expense. That doesn’t mean that the trip boat sea scallops won’t be well-handled and perfectly wonderful.
When buying scallops, ask for dry pack (non-soaked, no chemicals). Ask where they’re from (our northeast scallop fishery is by far the biggest in the world). So, North Atlantic is an OK answer. They should have kind of an opaque appearance and a sticky, but not wet, texture. Scallops have a distinctive smell that can be fairly strong, but should be a sweet scallop smell. Typically, scallops are packed at sea in 40 lb. cloth bags and unfortunately being packed in such large bags, they can get a little “gassy.” Gassy scallops usually will cook up with a sweet flavor but the best scallops have a lighter, sweet smell.
Scallops marked as “bay scallops” are often farm raised in China and shipped all over the world. There are also small southern scallops called Calicos that are sometimes mislabeled as bays or capes. They’re not as tasty, plus they open the shells with steam instead of hand-shucking. Always be sure to ask where the scallops are coming from and don’t be afraid to take a whiff.
The season for our wonderful Nantucket Bay scallops started earlier this month. They are handled in such small amounts, they always end up at the market super fresh, sweeter and more tender than the larger scallops—we often pop a few raw ones right into our mouths when they arrive. These beauties make a fantastic ceviche. The sushi grade scallops marinate quickly. We received some Nantuckets at the market today in spite of the fact supplies have been very tight this season. Landings on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard haven’t been good. I would suggest to come and get ’em while we’ve got ’em because it might be a pretty short season.
As for the preparation, with a nice fresh scallop, the simpler, the better. With either seas or bays, a simple quick searing in the pan is great. Make sure your skillet is hot before adding a little oil. This will let the scallops caramelize to a golden brown—but make sure not to crowd the skillet or they will steam moisture out instead of searing it in. Flip the scallops once, and when they are almost opaque in the center, they’re ready! You can finish them with a touch of butter in the pan, maybe a squeeze of lemon, Voilà!
Here’s an interesting sea scallop recipe with spinach and walnuts—great for a light dinner or even a side course.
This content was originally published here.