Everything You Need to Know About Scallops
The Mollusk; Harvesting & Aquaculture; Preparation & Recipes
Scallops are a true jewel from the sea. We enjoy scallops in a wide variety of forms, from a tasty appetizer to the star of the main course.
Digging a little deeper to try and understand more about this distinguished-looking shellfish, we found some interesting things about the scallop itself, how they are ‘farmed’, and of course, the many ways scallops can be prepared for fine culinary enjoyment.
Scallops live in saltwater. They are a type of mollusk, that also includes clams, oysters, mussels, etc. Scallops have two hinged shells called bivalves, which the scallop opens and closes using large adductor muscles.
The adductor muscle actually has fast and slow adductor muscles. The fast ‘striated’ muscle contracts and opens quickly for swimming. Yes, scallops can swim! (Not very fast and not very straight, but are quite mobile). The slow ‘smooth’ adductor muscle contracts for long periods keeping the shells closed with very little energy expended.
Why do we talk about this adductor muscle? You see, the adductor muscle is the tasty white meaty part of the scallop that we love to dine on.
We eat scallops, but what do scallops eat? They are filter feeders and they eat plankton. Many things that drift in seawater are referred to as plankton, such as krill, algae, and other small microorganisms.
Scallops don’t need to be ‘fed’ per se, meaning, no other land or sea creature is required to feed them. Being a filter feeder, they nourish themselves and at the same time, help clean our sea waters.
Do scallops have to worry about any predators? A resounding YES! They have two main predators; rays, and that vicious beast that all mollusks fear, the starfish!!
How can a starfish ‘attack’ a scallop? Glad you asked. Starfish use their suction-cupped feet to pry open and feed off of mollusks. But scallops do have two things that help them avoid both the rays and starfish. Their adductor muscles and their eyes are their two defense mechanisms.
photo by C. Bartlett-Maine Sea Grant
Scallops can have up to 200 beautiful blue eyes that help them detect when there is movement close by, and potential danger. When they spot movement or a change in light with those big baby blues, the scallop uses their adductor muscles to ‘swim’ away from their predators.
Scallop Harvesting in the USA
In the US, most sea scallops are harvested in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, from Newfoundland to North Carolina. Typically, most scallop harvesting in these waters is done via dredging.
Dredges are lowered into the ocean by huge booms. The heavy metal gear is dragged across the top of the seafloor and captures the scallops, then the catch is raised by winches. Special dredgers and trawlers have been mandated by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to minimize the impact of dredging on other species of fish.
Once the scallops have been collected, they are deposited on deck, sorted, and loaded into heavy plastic bushel baskets. Each scallop is then cut by hand, (shucked), to release the treasured white adductor muscle, a.k.a. the ‘meat’.
Everything but the ‘meat’ will go back into the seawater. The ‘meat’ is packed into 50-pound cheesecloth bags and iced in the ship’s hold, where it will stay until it is off-loaded back at the docks.
Some boats will stay on the water for days, but another method is used to get the scallop back to port quickly called Dayboat Scallops.
Dayboat scallops refer to the length of time the boat is scallop fishing. The ship must return within 24 hours of leaving the dock. Scallops are dredged, some may be shucked, and brought back to the dock within the 24-hour period.
The scallops caught are naturally about as fresh as you can get, since they are not stored on the boat as long as multi-day dredging.
Another method of harvesting scallops in state waters is done by SCUBA divers who hand-select the scallops. This method is thought to be more ecologically friendly since they are hand-selected, without dredging.
Obviously, this is much more time-consuming and a costly venture for those harvesting. This cost will eventually be passed off to the consumer.
In the mid-2000’s the scallop industry in Maine almost completely collapsed due in part to overfishing as scallop production was dramatically lower. Since then, the state has put in measures to prevent this from occurring in the future.
Now, in state waters, there is a specific calendar from December 1st until the end of April when scallops can be harvested, and only on certain days during this time is harvesting allowed. Maine also has incorporated rotational fishing area closures to help prevent over-fishing, and maintain the stability of the industry.
Scallop Aquaculture from Japan to America
This begs the question… is there an eco-friendlier, cost-effective method of harvesting scallops without the process of dredging? The answer might just be Scallop Aquaculture.
Scallop aquaculture is the commercial activity of ‘farming’ scallops until they reach a certain size and can be sold as the product we can eat. Today 90% of the world’s sea scallops come from China and Japan, and most are farmed. Scallops were the largest form of seafood exported from Japan in 2018.
Where does the US stand with scallop farming? Well, that is an interesting story, and its roots go back to 1889. A ship from Bath, Maine, about 35 miles north of Portland, set sail for Japan with a load of Sulphur. Unfortunately, the ship was wrecked in a typhoon off the coast of Japan.
Japanese villagers who saw the shipwreck heroically tried to save those on board. They were able save four of the 23 crew members from drowning. Their bravery began an enduring relationship between Maine and Aomori, Japan. This friendship has strengthened over more than a century with the two forming a sister-state partnership in 1994.
Little was known about scallop aquaculture in America before that time. But fairly recently many of the techniques used in Aomori, Japan were shared with a delegation from Maine.
Scallop Aquaculture Process
Here is a quick overview of the aquaculture process. Scallops release their sperm and eggs into the open water and are fertilized. This fertilized creature, is a free-swimming creature, attaches itself to seagrasses, and is referred to as ‘spat’. Fishermen have a method of catching the spat before it attaches to seagrasses.
To catch the spat, fishermen suspend ‘spat bags’ in the water. These spat bags contain a stuffing that collects the spat that is drifting in the sea current. (In Maine, this is typically done late summer and early fall.)
The spat bags are connected to a line that is anchored in the sea and stays submerged until May/June. At this point, the small scallops have formed in the spat bags. The bags are retrieved and the small scallops are transferred into a nursery.
The nursery is an enclosed cage-like device that is placed back into the water and protects the small scallops from predators while allowing its food, plankton, to flow through and feed the scallops. Here they will grow in size over the next two to four years into a full-sized scallop.
The scallop nurseries are cared for throughout those years as cleaning the nursery is required often to prevent fouling of the scallops.
Once this two to four-year period of time is complete, the scallops are harvested from the nurseries and the same process of shucking and bringing the scallops back to shore is performed.
There are different government requirements that must be followed in order to ensure the scallops being harvested meet all regulations.
The cost of the equipment, the government requirements, the time to initially harvest the scallops requires a substantial investment and dedication to the industry. This is certainly not a quick turnaround for an easy profit. As with most fishing industries, it takes a hardy, strong, dedicated, and patient person to get involved in this industry.
Bay Scallops vs. Sea Scallops
There are two types of scallops that we eat here in the States, the bay scallop and the sea scallop.
The most obvious difference is that the bay scallop is much smaller than the sea scallop, about one-third the size. The method scallops are classified (graded) is by the number of scallops per pound. In general, there are 70 to 120 bay scallops per pound, while sea scallops are generally to 10 to 25 per pound.
The bay scallop is said to be sweeter and more tender than the sea scallop. It is more likely that bay scallops will be found in stews and casseroles, while the sea scallop generally is the feature of the main course. The bay scallop is found in shallower water, closer to shore in bays and harbors. The sea scallop is found much further offshore.
When prepared without heavy sauces, scallops are very healthy food. It doesn’t matter if the scallop is a sea or bay scallop, a four-ounce serving is only around 100 calories, with ZERO fat! Plus, that four-ounce serving is filled with 16 to 23 grams of protein!
Selecting and Purchasing
Now the best part, choosing and preparing scallops for eating. For our purposes, we will assume the scallops that you purchase are shucked. When choosing your scallops, let your eyes, nose, and mouth do the work.
The size of the scallop is done by scallops per pound. So, U/10 scallops mean that a pound of this type will have Under 10 scallops per pound; U/20 Under 20 per pound, etc.
Ask your friendly fish market person if the scallops are ‘wet’ or ‘dry-packed’ scallops. ‘Wet-packed’ scallops have been soaked in a phosphate solution the help preserve the scallops. This process does make them absorb more liquid, (water). This is done to preserve the scallops if the fishing vessel is going to be offshore for a few days.
Note that higher water content makes it more difficult to sear the scallop, it is more like steaming than searing.
Dry packed scallops are packed without any preservatives. They are sometimes referred to as ‘chemical-free’. Dry packed are usually caught and brought back to the dock the same day, resulting in extremely fresh scallops.
Be sure to smell the scallops, they should smell a little briny and sea-weedy. They should NOT have a strong, sharp, fishy smell. They should not show any signs of ‘wear’, as a result of mishandling. Stay away from scallops that have torn or rough edges. They should be smooth with white color and no discoloration.
Like most seafood, scallops are perishable. It is best to cook them the day of the purchase. If you are cooking them the next day, ask your local fish market if having them in the refrigerator for a day would be fine. Beyond that, you likely would need to freeze them.
Thawing. If you have purchased frozen or frozen your scallops, NEVER thaw them in a microwave. It is best to thaw scallops overnight in a refrigerator.
if you are in a hurry, you can defrost scallops by putting them in a zipper locked plastic bag and running them under cold water, (never warm or hot water).
When getting the scallop ready for cooking it is best to rinse them off with cold water to remove any grit. Never soak the scallops in water.
Set them aside on paper towels to drain. Once taken from the refrigerator, it is good to let the scallops get to room temperature. This takes about 30 minutes.
Be sure to pat the scallops to ensure they are dried thoroughly when ready to cook. This allows the scallop to be seared properly.
If marinating scallops, it is best to check each individual recipe for the amount of time to marinate the scallop. Some recommend marinating for as little as 5 to 10 minutes. In general, most recipes will limit the marinate time to an hour or less.
It is time to put these scallops in a few recipes. Remember, do not over-cook scallops as they will get tough and chewy, and pat dry thoroughly. Let’s start with pan-searing and something basic to get us going.
Lemon Garlic Butter Pan-Seared Scallops – Serves 4 – Total time – about 15 minutes
Recipe from cafedelites.com
2 Tablespoons of Canola Oil (you can use other oil but we prefer the canola oil)
1 ¼ pounds of sea scallops
3 tablespoons of unsalted butter (divided)
Salt and fresh pepper to taste
4 or 5 garlic cloves minced (1 ½ tablespoon of minced garlic from a jar)
¼ cup of dry white wine, you can use broth, but we prefer white wine, (we know you are shocked by that!!!)
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
¼ cup of fresh parsley chopped
- Heat oil in a large heavy pan and a tablespoon of butter over medium-high heat until sizzling
- Add scallops without overcrowding – leave space between - do them in batches if necessary – seasoning them with salt and pepper
- Sear for 2 or 3 minutes until a crust is formed about a quarter-inch thick on the bottom.
- Individually flip/turn over each scallop and let that side cook another 2 minutes.
- Remove scallops to a plate, (repeat until all scallops are cooked)
- In the same pan, after the scallops have been removed, melt 2 tablespoons of butter while adding the garlic. Cook for about 1 minute
- Add in the white wine (YAY!!!) stir in the garlic and lemon juice. and simmer for 2 minutes.
- Remove pan from heat. Add the scallops back to the pan for flavor. Garnishing with parsley
Serve over rice, pasta, or as is with garlic bread. Steamed asparagus is a great side for this dish. YUMMMMYYYYY!
Honey Bourbon Glazed Bacon Wrapped Scallops – Serves 6 – 1 hour – Can be an appetizer
Recipe from eatsbythebeach.com
This recipe can be a main course or served as an appetizer, your preference. And yes, it contains a little bourbon as we are expanding our culinary tastes!
24 to 30 toothpicks
24 large sea scallops – about 2 pounds
12 Slices of bacon (your favorite type)
Half a cup of honey
¼ cup of bourbon
1 tablespoon of low salt soy sauce
1 tablespoon of melted butter
Fresh black pepper to taste
- Soak 24 to 30 toothpicks in water for 30 minutes (a few extra just in case)
- Preheat oven to 400; and line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.
- Place bacon in a single layer on the sheet and cook for 7 to 8 minutes. Leave bacon pliable so it can be wrapped around the scallops.
- While bacon is cooking mix together the honey, bourbon, soy sauce, and melted butter in a small bowl
- Remove bacon from pan and place on paper towels to drain, cut bacon strips in half (reserve the bacon fat).
- Lightly season the scallops with pepper and wrap each scallop with a piece of bacon, securing it with a soaked toothpick.
- In a cast-iron skillet grease the bottom with the reserved bacon fat, and place the scallops, in the skillet. (leave room between the scallops)
- Using a basting brush, then brush the honey bourbon sauce on both sides of the scallops.
- Bake the scallops for 5 minutes. Then remove the pans from the oven. Flip each scallop and coat the scallops again.
- Return pans to the oven and bake for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the bacon is crisp.
- Remove pans and serve immediately. OOOOH, SOOOOO TASTY!!!!!
Cilantro Scallops - Serves 2 to 4 – Total Time – 35 minutes
Recipe from foodandwine.com
Assumption. This is a grilling recipe; we assume that you have a grill!! If not, borrow one, or purchase one. In dealing with the grill, we will keep it simple, but still delicious.
Wooden grilling skewers -Enough for each skewer to hold 3 or 4 scallops
1 ¼ pound large sea scallops
¼ cup of canola oil (or vegetable oil)
2 tablespoons of fresh lime juice. (Pick up a lime or two, if any limes are leftover, grab a Corona and insert a lime slice. Grilling seems to demand a beer in hand)
1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper, (a little more if you prefer more ‘zip’)
2 garlic cloves minced – (if minced garlic in a jar, a tablespoon)
¼ cup of fresh cilantro
1 ¼ teaspoon of low sodium soy sauce.
And of course, the mandatory salt and pepper to taste. (In just about every recipe out there)
- Soak the skewers in water for about 10 to 15 minutes
- In a bowl, combine the scallops and all the other ingredients. Be sure to coat the scallops thoroughly with the mixture. Let it marinate for a few minutes.
- Place the scallops on the skewers, no more than 3 or 4 to a skewer, leaving room between each scallop.
- Once the grill is hot, (about 425 degrees) place each skewer on the grill. Grill for 2 to 2 ½ minutes, then flip the skewers. Apply a bit more of the marinade, and cook for another 2 to 2 ½ minutes.
- Remove from grill and serve. Accompany with some guacamole, salsa, and your favorite tortillas. Remember to finish those limes with your Corona’s. AWESOMMMMEEE!!!
Bay Scallop recipe
We did not want to hurt any small bay scallop’s feelings so here is a delicious offering for bay scallop lovers.
Baked Scallops with Wine and Cheese – Serves 2 - Total Time – 30 minutes
Recipe from one of the ‘Fellas’
1 pound of bay scallops (they are cute but don’t get attached to them)
4 Tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoons of minced garlic
¼ cup of a dry white wine
1 cup Panko bread crumbs; (can add finely chopped nuts, like walnuts if desired)
Grated Parmesan Cheese – (to your liking) – (other cheeses like grated Pecorino Romano are an option)
- Place butter and garlic in a small Pyrex baking dish, and set the oven to 400 degrees
- Move the rack to the top position
- Place the Pyrex into the oven and bake until the butter is melted completely.
- Remove the dish from the oven and add the scallops. Then pour the wine over the scallops and mix wine, butter, and garlic with the scallops until coated.
- Sprinkle the top of the scallops evenly with the bread crumbs (and nuts if used)
- Top it all with parmesan cheese. (Can be a thin layer or a little thicker as desired)
- Bake for 10 minutes.
- Broil, for about 2 minutes to slightly brown the cheese and bread crumbs.
- Remove and enjoy the sweet delicious bay scallops with fresh zucchini, and/or cauliflower while you sip on your wine. FABULOUSSSSS!!!!!!
The Mighty Mollusk Roundup
There are probably tens of thousands of ways to cook scallops. Let your adventurous culinary nature run free. Have fun with this most intriguing and tasty seafood delight.
As you can see from the recipes above, with just a little preparation, and cook time, you won’t have to wait long to enjoy your creation no matter how they are prepared.
The scallop is certainly an interesting, complex mollusk. And we adore love those cute little baby blue eyes. With aquaculture farming expanding, local and international regulations, hopefully, we will be able to enjoy scallops for many millennia to come.