Everything You Want To Know About Scallops
Clean, sweet and tasting of the ocean, scallops are considered a seafood delicacy by many people. Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and relatively low in calories, they are an incredibly healthy source of protein. What I particularly like about scallops is they are very versatile and can be prepared in many ways, from simple searing and grilling to sautéing, deep frying, stir-frying, and baking. I have even prepared scallops in soups, stews and risottos. Be sure to check out some of my favorite scallop recipes below.
What’s In A Name?
As with many delicacies, many stories and traditions have grown up around the scallop. You may have heard the term “Coquille de St. Jacques.” While this names a classic scallop preparation, it also translates to “St. James’ shell.” St. James the Greater was a disciple of Jesus and is the Patron Saint of Spain. Pilgrims traveling to his shrine carried a scallop shell with them to signify that they were making a pilgrimage. At stops along the way on his pilgrimage, the pilgrim was offered what food he could scoop up in his shell.
The scallop shell is symmetrical and quite beautiful, and as such is often found in motifs both decorative and religious. At some time, the scallop shell was linked with fertility, and it often shows up in classical art along with images of beautiful and desirable women. A notable example of this is Boticelli’s The Birth Of Venus.
What Are Scallops Really?
It is nice to know a little history of the scallop as a symbol of pilgrimage and fertility, but what are they? Scallops are bivalve mollusks. This means that they have two shells. Although the reproductive organs, or roe, are edible, the part of the scallop that most people in the United States eat is the adductor muscle that opens and closes the shell.
Some people refer to this muscle as “the nut.” Unlike other mollusks that we eat, such as mussels and oysters, most species of scallops are free-swimming and can propel themselves across the sea floor several feet at a time by rapidly opening and closing their shells.
Types of Scallops
There are three kinds of scallops that are consumed in the United States””sea scallops, bay scallops and calico scallops.
- Sea scallops are relatively large, often as many as 1½”-2″ in diameter, and are often presented in beautifully seared platings of two or three.
- Bay scallops are much smaller, although some aficionados find them to be sweeter than sea scallops. Because of their small size, bay scallops are not the ideal scallop for searing but are wonderful in stir-fries and even cooked as scampi to be served as a light pasta sauce.
- Calico scallops are harvested off of the US Gulf and Southern Atlantic coasts. Unlike sea and bay scallops, their shells are tightly closed, and they must be steamed open before further preparation. Although similar in shape, size and color to bay scallops, they are less sweet than their Northern cousins.
Characteristics of Scallops
Speaking of shape, size and color, the adductor muscle itself can range in color from pale ivory to beige. Raw scallops are somewhat translucent and are generally round. Large sea scallops might be up to an inch thick and up to 2″ in diameter, while bay and calico scallops, while shaped the same, are much smaller.
How Are They Harvested?
Scallops are harvested in one of two ways by trawling or by diving. Trawling is done by scraping the ocean floor and pulling up scallops (and whatever else is down there) without regard to maturity or to the damage possibly being done to the ocean floor.
A more environmentally friendly, albeit expensive, method of harvest is by diver and giving us “diver scallops”. A diver scallop is not another species of scallop, nor does it designate at size. Rather it describes the manner in which the scallops were harvested.
Divers go down and choose mature scallops by hand, leaving behind immature scallops as well as leaving the ocean floor alone. Since the ocean floor is not disturbed by the divers, diver scallops are usually less gritty than those harvested by bottom trawls.
Day Boat Scallops & STP
Unlike other mollusks that can hold themselves tightly closed once caught, sea and bay scallops cannot and are extremely perishable. For this reason, scallops are killed right after harvesting. Some are immediately frozen while others are brought quickly back to shore to be sold as “day boat scallops,” some of the freshest, and priciest, scallops you can find.
Due to their extreme perishability and the high costs of only taking a boat out for a day at a time, some scallop fishermen treat their scallops with a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate, or STP, which helps keep the scallop from drying out. Used judiciously before freezing, treatment with STP is not necessarily a bad thing.
Unfortunately, when used in great quantity, a soak in STP causes scallops to absorb a lot of excess moisture, sometimes as much as 50% of their weight. Of course, since scallops are sold by weight, this artificially inflates the price.
Buying The Best You Can Afford
If you are concerned about purchasing scallops treated with STP, make sure to look for “dry pack” scallops. Dry pack scallops are packaged without any additives. By law, STP treated scallops must be sold as “wet pack.”
It is fairly easy to tell the difference between dry pack and wet pack scallops. While the natural muscle color is generally ivory to beige and the texture can be slightly sticky, scallops treated with STP are bright white and are very wet to the touch.
Dry Scallops Shrink Less
If you are planning to prepare a dish using a dry-heat cooking method, such as sautéing or searing, you will be better off purchasing dry pack scallops. As you can imagine, a wet pack scallop is more apt to steam in all of that excess water and overcook long before it will caramelize. And the wet scallops shrink when you cook them almost 40% whereas the dry scallops do not. You may be paying more for the dry scallops but by the time you are done cooking them, you may actually be saving.
If you are making a dish where the scallop is a supporting player or are using a moist heat cooking method like a fish stew or chowder, you will probably be fine using wet pack scallops. It is a personal decision that you will have to make based on your budget and your feelings about food additives.
How Are Scallops Sold?
Like shrimp, scallops are sold by count-per-pound. Sea scallops might be marked at 10/20, meaning that between 10 and 20 scallops are in each pound. This translates to scallops that weigh somewhere between .8 to 1.6 ounces each. The higher the numbers, the smaller the scallops.
Of course, larger sea scallops tend to be the most expensive. Another weight designation you might see is U/10 or U/15. This means that it takes fewer than, or under, 10 (or 15) to make up a pound. Here again, the larger the U number, the smaller the scallop. Bay scallops, being smaller than sea scallops, generally fall in the 70/120 range. This roughly equates to between 4 to 9-10 bay scallops per ounce.
When purchasing scallops, make sure to buy from a reputable fishmonger and be sure to smell the scallops before purchase. The scallops should smell clean and sweet and like the ocean. If they have a strong fishy smell, do not buy them.
The muscles should be in one piece, so inspect them carefully. If you see signs of the muscle fibers pulling apart, pass them by as this is a sign that the scallops are past their prime. As mentioned before, dry pack scallops should feel slightly sticky but not be slimy. If the rubbery side muscle has been left on the scallops, ask your fishmonger to remove them. Trust me, this will save you valuable time in the kitchen, once it’s time to cook.
How To Store Fresh Scallops
Fresh scallops need to be stored at temperatures below 38F. This is generally lower than most people keep their refrigerators, so you will have to make some adjustments. An ideal set up for storing scallops is to have a shallow plastic container with holes in the bottom set in a deeper plastic container.
Place ice in the shallow container and spread the scallops on the ice. Cover everything with a damp paper towel, and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Even with this care, make sure to use the scallops within a day or two. Because they are so perishable, using them the same day you purchase them is ideal.
What About Frozen Scallops?
If you purchase frozen scallops, they will keep in the freezer for up to three months. Thaw them in the bag in the refrigerator overnight. Again, to due spoilage issues, do not thaw them out on the counter. If you find yourself in a pinch and you have to thaw your scallops quickly, do not use the microwave. Rather, run the frozen scallops, still in the bag, under a stream of cold water in the sink until thawed.
Scallops are lean protein, and as such, they can toughen very easily upon cooking. It is very important not to overcook scallops as they can go from succulent to rubber ball pretty quickly. Don’t take your eyes off them when cooking to make sure that you remove them from the heat when they are still moist, juicy and plump.
Grilling, sautéing, broiling and grilling are all simple, dry heat methods by which you can cook large sea scallops to really showcase them. Moist heat methods including stir-fry (with sauce) and simmering (as in soups and stews and even risottos) are perfect for the small, sweet bay scallops.