Hands down, the best scallops I've ever eaten were from a little shack of a restaurant in Maine. The restaurant, just a red-painted clapboard house, with a view of the bay and the full moon reflecting off of the water, was full of salty dog characters pulling apart lobsters and drinking beer. I ordered scallops, and eventually, out came a dish full to the brim of smallish sea scallops, poached in wine and doused in butter: utterly, sublimely delicious. Unlike New York City restaurants, where an order of scallops nets you three or four scallops, tops, there were at least a dozen in my dish; to my regret, way more than I could eat. I've since forgotten the name of that Maine hamlet, let alone the restaurant, but there are a few meals in my life that I hope never to forget, and that was certainly one of them.
A Brief History
The many species of scallops, in the family Pectinidae, are marine bivalves in the Mollusk phylum. Paleontologists have dated the oldest scallop fossils from the Triassic period (230 million years ago). 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. The Food Timeline quotes several recipes for scallops from cookbooks dating as early as the Ancient Roman Apicius. A 17th century British cookbook recommends to "[b]oil them very well in white wine, fair water, and salt, take them out of the shells, and stew them with some of the liquor, elder vinegar, two or three cloves, some large mace, and some sweet herbs chopped small; being well stewed together, dish four or five of them in scollop shelpps [scallop shells] and beaten butter, with the juice of two or three oranges."
In the US, 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.
- 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, probably because they're beautiful. Boticelli's fifteenth century painting, the Birth of Venus, depicts Venus (the goddess of love) stepping out of a scallop shell. Or for something completely different: Picasso's cubist The Scallop Shell, recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
- St. James, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, is associated with the scallop shell and with pilgrims to the shrine of St. James, in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. For you amateur historians, the St. James Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut describes the historical association between scallop shells and St. James here.
- Scallops have super cool eyes distributed like little jewels along the edges of their shells. Believe it or not, there is a whole article in The Atlantic, complete with freaky video, dedicated to the wonders of scallop eyes.
- The bay scallop is New York State's official shell.
Like clams, mussels and oysters, scallops can be cultivated, and indeed are increasingly farmed all over the world (see the Environmental Impact section, below, for more information). Here is a detailed description from the United Nations of the different types of scallop aquaculture, if you want to get super nerdy about it.
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.)
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 (more background on how this happened here, from NOAA). 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.
Eastern US bay scallop populations have waned in recent years, with the culprits of the decline ranging from overharvesting, to environmental degradation, to overfishing of sharks (which leads to increases in skate and ray populations, both of which eat bay scallops). Populations may be rebounding in well-managed fisheries such as in Massachusetts.
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.
What to look for
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. More information on this here.
Scallops are high in protein, Vitamin B12 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.
What to Do with It
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. My favorite preparations are the simplest, because I love to let the delicate flavor and texture of scallops shine through.
One of the most famous scallop dishes is the French coquilles St. Jacques (the "St. Jacques" being St. James, mentioned above in "Factual Nibbles"), 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 one of the most delicate shellfish types - they don't keep well. To store them successfully, put them in a zip-top 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 stick the whole thing in your fridge. This will prolong their life for just a day or two.
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. Another thing to point out: there is often a part of a shucked scallop called the abductor muscle (as opposed to the adductor muscle, 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's a picture.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
Seared Scallops with Red Pepper Puree
This is a meal that is quick enough to make on a weeknight, but pretty and elegant enough to serve to guests at a weekend dinner party. Punch it up with a scattering of minced chives or parsley before serving.
Check out our Pro Tips, above, on how to achieve a good sear on scallops. Make sure your scallops are as dry as possible; I like to put them on a plate sandwiched between two sheets of paper towels.
For the red pepper puree:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 red bell pepper, cored and seeded, chopped roughly into 2-inch pieces
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of your knife
1⁄4 cup water
1 tablespoon heavy cream (optional)
For the seared scallops:
1 tablespoon grapeseed or organic canola oil
6 medium sea scallops, adductor muscles removed
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Special equipment: food processor or blender
For the red pepper puree:
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a small, heavy saucepan. Add the bell pepper, a generous pinch of salt, and a very tiny pinch of cayenne. Sweat the pepper (cook without browning) for 3-4 minutes, or until the pepper is slightly soft. Add the garlic and cook an additional 2-3 minutes. (Turn down the heat if the pepper or garlic starts to even remotely brown.)
- Add the water and turn down the heat to medium-low. Cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar and cook until the pepper pieces are soft and most of the water has evaporated, about 15 minutes.
- Carefully add the contents of the pot to the food processor or blender and process until smooth. Add the heavy cream (if you like) and pulse for a few seconds to evenly distribute.
- Taste and season with additional salt and a few drops of lemon juice, if necessary.
- For a very smooth puree, force the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding the solids. Keep the puree warm until ready to serve.
For the seared scallops:
- Pat scallops as dry as possible with paper towels. Generously season the scallops with salt and freshly ground pepper.
- In a medium, heavy sauté pan, heat the oil over high heat until very hot, but not smoking.
- Add the scallops. Sear (without moving) on one side until golden brown, about 1 minute to 1 1⁄2 minutes per side (this will depend on how large your scallops are). Flip the scallops and cook on the second side for another minute.
- Remove from heat to a warm plate.
- To serve: spoon a dollop of the red pepper puree on a small plate. Top with two scallops.
Serves 3 as an appetizer.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)