Real Food Encyclopedia | Scallops
Humans have been eating mollusks found near the coasts (e.g., clams, oysters, mussels, scallops) for thousands of years, and their shells have been used for everything from currency to jewelry. Scallops, generally divided into “bay” and “sea” types, are prized for food across much of the world. Recipes for scallops have been found as early as the Ancient Roman Apicius.
In the United States, the scallop’s adductor muscle, the muscle that opens and closes the shell of the animal, is most commonly eaten. Most scallop species tend to swim around, propelling themselves through the water by opening and closing their shell, and so their adductor muscles are well-developed. In Europe (and lots of other places outside of the US), scallops are commonly served in their shell with their delicate coral-colored roe attached, something rarely seen in the US, in part because the US Food and Drug administration has more stringent regulations for scallops with the roe attached, citing an increased possibility of natural marine toxins in roe-on animals.
Fun Facts about Scallops:
- The term “scalloped” can refer to a couple of things: “scalloped” in a culinary sense means cooked with cream and butter (and maybe cheese), and comes from a once popular preparation of scallops cooked with cream and presented in their shells. “Scalloped” in a design sense means to have ruffled edges, and refers to the wavy edges of some species of scallop shells.
- According to food scientist Harold McGee in his book “On Food and Cooking,” scallops’ sweet flavor comes from the conversion of several amino acids into glucose when the bivalves die.
- Scallop shells show up in art and design a lot. Botticelli’s 15th century painting, the “Birth of Venus,” depicts Venus (the goddess of love) stepping out of a scallop shell. A completely different take: Picasso’s cubist “The Scallop Shell.”
- The bay scallop is New York State’s official shell.
What to Look for When Buying Scallops
Both bay and sea scallops are sweet and tender, with a delicious delicate (and non-fishy) flavor. Sea scallops range quite in size, some up to two inches in diameter. Bay scallops are quite a bit smaller than sea scallops. Like shrimp, most scallops are sold according to how many you get per pound. You’ll see them labeled like this: u/10 (you’ll get under 10 scallops per pound), u/20 (under 20 scallops per pound), etc.
First, look for “diver” or “dry” scallops. These scallops have not been treated with sodium triphosphate (STP), which are added to scallops to retain moisture and to preserve them. (STP has the oh-so comforting distinction of being “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration.) It’s hard to get a nice sear on these so-called “wet” scallops, and the STP affects the delicate taste and texture of the bivalve. Wet scallops tend to be super white, while dry scallops lean toward a creamy white/off white color. Note that dry scallops are quite a bit more expensive than wet. As with all fresh seafood, give your scallops a whiff. They should smell like the ocean, not fishy.
Beware of scallops that look exactly uniform in shape. Some less-than-scrupulous sellers sell fake scallops that are stamped from shark meat.
Sustainability of Scallops
According to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, in most cases, farmed scallops are actually an environmentally sound alternative to wild-caught. Farmed scallops don’t require commercial (external) feed, and no antibiotics, chemicals or fertilizers are used in scallop aquaculture. The best environmental choice is scallops that are farmed on suspended lines.
Northern Atlantic sea scallop populations have rebounded in the last few decades. However, wild-caught sea scallops are often harvested using dredges, which can result in significant bycatch and, in some cases, destruction of sea-floor habitats. As of May 2013, sea scallop-fishing boats in the Mid-Atlantic must use a Turtle Deflector Dredge to keep sea turtles from being caught in the dredges or injured.
On the East Coast, bay scallops are generally harvested from October or November through March. Atlantic sea scallops are harvested year-round. On the West Coast, you may come across Alaskan weathervane scallops, which are in season from August through October, although most of them end up frozen. You may also see Mexican bay scallops (mostly from Baja), which are harvested from April through November, along with Gulf of Mexico bay scallops, whose season generally runs from June through September. (There are three primary species of bay scallop on the East Coast of the US: the northern bay scallop, the southern bay scallop and the Gulf of Mexico bay scallop.)
Scallops are one of the most delicate shellfish types — they don’t keep well. To store them successfully, put them in a sealable bag in a small stainless-steel bowl. Place the bowl with the scallops inside another bowl full of ice and a little bit of water and refrigerate. This will keep them fresh for a day or two.
Cooking with Scallops
- There is often a part of a shucked scallop called the abductor muscle (as opposed to the adductormuscle, the part we eat) that is extra tough. It’s on the side of the scallop muscle and is sort of crescent shaped. Pull it off before you cook your scallops — it should tear off very easily.
- Here are some great tips from America’s Test Kitchen about getting a nice sear on your scallops, even if you can only find wet scallops.
Scallops are delightful poached, sautéed, broiled, baked and fried. They are eaten raw as sushi in Japanese cuisine. Larger scallops (i.e., sea scallops) can be seared in a hot pan to develop a deliciously crispy, brown crust. Scallops are excellent paired with dairy products (think butter and cream), fresh herbs, wine and citrus.
One of the most famous scallop dishes is the French coquilles St. Jacques (the “St. Jacques” being St. James), traditionally a dish of poached scallops topped on a bed of mushroom puree, topped with a creamy sauce and broiled. Bacon-wrapped scallops, a variation of the British appetizer angels on horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon) are also super yummy. Most of the sea scallop recipes you’ll see call for searing, as in this recipe for seared scallops with brown butter, or this one with a Sriracha beurre blanc sauce (yes please!). It can be hard to achieve a sear on bay scallops, but they are delicious poached or pan-roasted. Scallops also make a pretty tasty chowder.
Scallops are high in protein, Vitamin B-12 and are rich in minerals like iron, zinc, selenium, copper and phosphorous. They are also very low in calories. Like a lot of shellfish, however, the sweet bivalves are quite high in cholesterol.