The Great Scallop Debate

Seafood (especially scallops), when prepared properly, can be some of the tastiest morsels you have ever eaten without a lot of time consuming preparation. However, done improperly, words like “rubbery”, “fishy” and “icky” spring to mind.

With that said, I live in Wisconsin. You know, “Frozen Tundra”? “The Great Northwoods”? Pretty far from an ocean in any direction. Which means that the seafood that I can get my hands on typically comes from a freezer section. Up until a few years ago, my typical seafood purchase had the name of a certain lady on it. I have moved up since then to whole shell-on prawns and frozen crab. Hey… Alton says frozen crab is “okay!”

Scallops, on the other hand, are a very recent addition to my culinary skillset. I have made HUGE scallops even for fancy dinner parties and close friends thinking that the size was important to correct cooking methods. Boy was I wrong. If you haven’t heard of the difference between “Dry” and “Wet” scallops, here’s the scoop:

“Wet scallops are commonly treated with Phosphates which is a preservative. When scallops are soaked in phosphates, they absorb water making them weigh more and thereby costing you more. (Take in mind, that you are paying for added water.) The absorbed water evaporates during cooking and, in turn, shrinks your scallops leaving them smaller, dry and somewhat tasteless. Furthermore, the added water does not let scallops brown properly during cooking. It is generally easy to discern treated scallops as they will usually appear snow-white in color.

Comparison of Scallops

Dry scallops are all wild and natural. They are not treated with any chemicals whatsoever. They are harvested directly from the ocean, shucked on deck, then immediately frozen on the boat to capture their quality. Dry scallops caramelize naturally during cooking to a golden brown color that is very attractive when serving. And, as you might have guessed, there is no cost-added water weight with dry scallops. Dry scallops generally have a natural vanilla color. ”
– Taken from http://www.fishex.com/seafood/scallops/scallops-dry-vs-wet.html

“Pishaw,” says I! “I am going to take whatever scallops are the biggest and best bang for the buck.” Without knowing it, I was setting myself up to make not only sub-par scallops but also making more work for myself.

Here’s the deal when you buy frozen scallops or “fresh” scallops from a grocery store counter; they are almost always “wet” scallops. Dry scallops will almost always be labeled “dry” in some way on the packaging. It isn’t a requirement, but even frozen dry scallops usually specify it on the package. Now… If you are doing some small bay scallops in a cream sauce to throw on top of some pasta, you aren’t going to notice any appreciable difference (other than texture) between wet or dry. However, if you are going to try to sear a scallop, please learn from my mistakes and only get dry scallops! A fishmonger or good butcher with seafood connections should be able to get you dry scallops without breaking the bank.

I managed to find a small handwrapped package in frozen seafood section of the local “mega-mart” and it was labeled “Dry” right on the sticker. There wasn’t a drastic price difference between it and the jumbo scallops in a commerical package right next to it. But scallops have never been a cheap purchase. I think the package of seven very large dry scallops went for $10. And they may have been re-frozen.

Now I have made a number of what I thought were seared scallops before. But before I used the dry scallops, I hadn’t really done it successfully. These scallops seared beautifully, and the smaller of them were done perfectly in the middle at the same time as a golden sear was finished on the outside (about 2 minutes per side). If you get a package of widely different sizes, like I did; I discovered something else that was kind of handy. Once properly seared, if the center still feels too raw, place a single scallop on a microwave safe dish and cook it in the “nuker” for a max of 30 seconds. It doesn’t seem to change the flavor and for those who really can’t appreciate semi-raw scallops, it makes a big difference in the texture of the center.

So, standard searing practices (really high heat, stainless or cast iron, high smoke point oil, don’t over-crowd the pan, rotate once only, etc), a bit of sea salt for each scallop, a very light pinch of extra fine sugar over all of them and using dry scallops will lead you to a very happy place. Please note: Even dry scallops will need to be wiped off with paper towels before cooking in order for the sear to take. If you see any funny looking white liquid in the pan around the outside of the scallops, more than likely, they have been treated and will not really sear.

Pepper, especially white pepper, should be added to the top of the scallops only after they are rotated once. If you are going to want a buttery flavor -and let’s face it… Who isn’t going to want some buttery goodness? – wait until the very end and add room temperature (or melted) better to the pan right before you are going to remove the scallops. Lemon should be squeezed on by the taster, or for purists, left off completely. Serve the scallops with some cous cous or rice pilaf and sit back and enjoy.

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2 responses to “The Great Scallop Debate

  1. What a timely article! I have been eyeballing a couple of scallop recipes that I’ve been wanting to try, but have been a little intimidated since I’ve never cooked them before. Who would have thought dry scallops would have been the way to go? I’ll let you know what happens with my scallop endeavors… Thanks for the article; it was very helpful!

    -MM

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  2. One thing that I did not say specifically is that wet scallops can be used very effectively in recipes that don’t involve searing. I make a pistachio cream scallop/shrimp sauce that I put over bow tie pasta. And I use the cheapest scallops that I can get for that. So plain old frozen scallops do have a place. But seared recipes will simply be better with dry scallops; or if you are lucky enough to get them, fresh scallops.

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