Scallop 101: How to Buy Fresh Scallops on Dry Land or Online

The seas is full of both fearful and beautiful things—but none lovelier than the fluted shellfish, the scallop

J. George Frederick in Long Island Seafood Cookbook.
How to Buy Sea Scallops

Is there any other seafood with the buttery sweetness, unique characteristics and history of the beloved scallop? At LobsterAnywhere, we’re hard-pressed to find one. Find out how to buy fresh scallops on scallops on dry land, at sea or online!

A (Brief) History of Scallops

Photo by Catholic CuisineIn the Middle Ages, the scallop shell was a holy symbol that was worn on the cloaks of pilgrims traveling to the shrine of Saint James the Apostle, a fisherman of Galilee. According to legend, Saint James body was lost at sea on the way to Spain for burial. Miraculously, his body was washed ashore, undamaged and covered in scallops. The scallop shells were said to signify the love of God and one’s neighbor, and the ridges were said to signify the good works that pilgrims would perform on their return. In honor of Saint James, the French named scallops Coquilles St. Jacques – “Seashells of Saint James.” Coquilles St. Jacques is also a classic dish featuring sea scallops baked in their shells with white wine sauce and a crust of breadcrumbs and cheese.

Venus-on-Scallop-Shell

The goddess Venus is depicted on the half shell of a scallop in Botticeli’s Birth of Venus
(1485).  Credit: Google Art Project

The most famous depiction of scallops is in the artwork that portrays the birth of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. (In Roman mythology, she is known as Venus.) In his famous work, The Birth of Venus, the Italian Renaissance painter Botticelli depicts Venus drifting to the shore atop the half shell of a scallop, moved by the breath of Zephyrus on the left. Spring can also be seen on the right, handing her a shawl. See it for yourself in Florence, Italy, at the Uffizi Gallery (Uffizi Room n°: Sale 10-14).

What is a Scallop?

What can clap without any hands, see but has no head, and swim without arms, legs or a tail? You guessed it – the amazing scallop.

How to Buy Scallops

Scallops are not a fish. They are bivalve mollusks with scallop-edged, fan-shaped shells. The shell opens and closes with the help of one large adductor muscle. It is this large muscle that is enjoyed as seafood in the USA. Harvested scallops are sold with the adductor muscle removed. Scallops are rarely sold live in the shells, unless you buy them straight off the boat! The black stomach sac, intestinal vein and coral (roe), the pink segment attached to the eye, is discarded. You might find a tough membrane attached to the side, this should also be removed. In Europe, they use the whole scallop, as it is considered sacrilegious to discard the coral.

Did you know that scallops are one of the cleanest shellfish available? This is because the abductor muscle is not used to filter water, as it is with muscles, oysters and clams, hence it is not susceptible to toxins or contaminants.

Unlike clams, mussels, and other bivalve mollusks, the scallop cannot close its shell completely. This is why they have a short shelf life out of water and spoil so quickly. It is critical to shuck freshly caught scallops right on the boat before they lose their moisture and die. The meat should be put immediately on ice or frozen quickly to preserve its freshness.

What’s the Difference Between Sea Scallops and Bay Scallops?

There are more than 300 species of scallops, all edible, but the two prevailing types in the Maine and chilly North Atlantic waters are sea scallops, which can grow as much as eight inches in diameter; and bay scallops, which grow to about three inches. Each ring or visible line markings on a scallop’s shell represents a year of growth.

Sea Scallops

A sea scallop (Plactopecten magellanicus), which is also known as the giant scallop, deep sea scallop or ocean scallop, is the largest of the scallops. They live for as long as 30 years and can be harvested all year round (although scallopers must pay attention to both the state and region catch limits). They are less expensive than bays and are found further off the shoreline in deeper waters. The larger sea scallop is versatile, as it holds up to both grilling and searing. On some restaurant menus, you might notice the term ‘dive scallops.’ These are actually sea scallops that are caught by divers by hand in 70-plus feet of water.

Bay Scallops

Bay scallops (Argopecten irradiens), also know as Cape Scallops, are fished from November to March to allow for spawning (Yankee Magazine, Nov./Dec. 2015) and are found in beds of sea grass close to the shore. Unlike sea scallops, bay scallops are hermaphrodites – meaning they have both male and female productive organs. They have a life span of only 18 months and can only be harvested in their second year. Since supply is limited, they can be more expensive than sea scallops. The highly sought after Nantucket bay scallops, for example, are so scarce they can command the highest price of any shellfish. There are cheaper imports like the Chinese bay scallops that were introduced in the US in the late 1980s.

Calico Scallops

Calico scallops can be found in the southern waters of the Atlantic and Florida Gulf coast, as well as South America. They look similar to bay scallops, but even smaller, and a little darker. They are also about half the price. Be careful, as they can be marketed as bay scallops, but cannot come close to taste and texture.

Scallop or Skawl-up?

The coastal New England states, particularly coastal Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have their own way of enunciating the word scallop – Skawl-up –while inland folks and the remaining Northeast states pronounce it with an accent of ‘a.’ Both are acceptable, but the way that a person pronounces the word will surely give away their place of origin!

Processed Scallops: Wet Scallops Versus Dry

Captain’s Tip: Wet or chemically soaked scallops look unnaturally glossy and bright white, and they can also have a soapy aftertaste (yuck). Processed scallops throw off a liquid when seared and do not brown like good dry scallops.

To be considered a scallop officially, the moisture content must be less than 80%, according to the FDA. Unfortunately, most markets carry scallops that have been treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), a chemical used to preserve, whiten and plump them up. STP is often added to fresh scallops before soaking them in water as a way to make them absorb water and increase their size and weight. Since scallops are extremely perishable, the big markets want to extend the shelf life, while at the same time save a few “clams.” These “fake” scallops always shrink up when cooked.

Fishing for Scallops: From the Sea to Your Plate

Three of the top US ports hauling in sea scallops include New Bedford, MA; Cape May, NJ; and Norfolk, VA. Each seaboard state has its own regulations on catch methods and the limits on scallops.  Most sea scallops are landed by large offshore “trip boats.” Scallopers from New Bedford, Massachusetts, will go out fishing for 10 days or more at a time. Commercial scallop fishermen use dredging nets, also called drags, which sweep the grassy beds to catch several dozen at a time. Seaweed, mussels and starfish can be dragged up from the ocean floor. The smaller bay scallops are closer to shore and are harvested in bays and estuaries by nets, rakes as well as dredges.

As sea scallops have a short shelf-life out of water, they must be removed from their shell immediately after harvesting. Shucking scallops is the toughest work in scalloping and often happens on board the boat at sea. The scallops are cut by hand and washed in clean salt water, put into muslin bags and then held on ice or flash frozen at sea. The shell, black gut or stomach sac, including the roe, are usually discarded.

Day Boat Scallops & Diver Scallops

Diver scallops are just what the name implies, hand-picked by divers that select only the big ones and leave the smaller ones until they have a chance to grow. And, because they are hand picked, have less grit than the dragged ones. Divers simply jump into the water and swim down to the ocean floor and, one by one pick the biggest scallops. The divers carry a mesh scallop bag with them and once the bag is full, they signal the boat to lift the full bag and send down an empty bag.

The term “Diver Scallops” would often refer to a U-10 sized scallop but not necessarily guarantee that the scallops are actually harvested by hand. There’s no way of knowing!

“Menu” terms versus “Market”: These terms are sometimes misused. There is a code of ethics among the fishermen and seafood purveyors and they would never use the term “Diver Scallops” unless they were referring to scallops harvested by a diver. Restaurants don’t necessarily abide by this code of ethics and often mislead customers with what they state on their menus.

Scallopers also make day trips; hence, the catch is called “day boat” scallops. Day boat scallopers use smaller boats and harvest within 3 miles of the shore. Diver scallops are active off Maine’s rocky coast. Scallops can also be caught with a small hand net or even by hand, but take care as scallops will pinch to defend themselves. They can swim by flapping their shells (although this looks more like a hopping motion and is not very fast) as well as blowing air from either side of their mouths.

Half the battle when catching scallops for a seafood dinner is finding them. Bay scallops camouflage themselves in thick beds of grass that are about 4-8 feet of water close to the shoreline. They can be difficult to find, but have three characteristics that stand out:

  • They swim…or jump…or something: Scallops are the swiftest of the bi-valves. By quickly opening and closing their shells, their meaty “eye” or abductor muscle works like a jet engine to propel them through the water. If you get close enough to a bed of sea grass underwater, you can watch bay scallops pop up and flitter off. This quick YouTube video by Boris CCRCam is worth a watch.
  • Open wide: Often referred to as filter feeders, their mouths are usually open to catch food particles and plankton filtering through.
  • Stunning blue eyes…and lots of them: Another scallop trait is its eyes, which look like a series of bright blue and turquoise gems along the edge of its shell. There are about 50 on the average scallop, but they can only detect movement and light.
Scallop Buying Guide

8 Seaworthy tips for buying fresh scallops

How to Buy the Best Scallops

Since the seafood supply trade is difficult to regulate, both identifying and buying quality scallops can be a tricky business. A scallop that looks a little too perfect or uniform in shape may not even be a scallop at all, but a stamped-out disk of a white fish! Even well-intentioned seafood buyers can be duped by mislabeled or even “adulterated” scallops. When shopping for scallops, follow this checklist:

  1.  Buy Fresh: If possible, check the harvest date. Fresh scallops go bad quickly, so it is best to buy them within days of harvesting. Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) scallops that are frozen on the boat will be far superior and much fresher than poorly handled scallops sitting on ice. Furthermore, be wary of frozen scallops that may be thawed and mislabeled as “fresh”.
  2. Eat Local: Always check the country of origin – Canada and USA are the best sources for scallops with sustainable harvesting and seafood management laws. If the price per pound is too good to be true, it’s a dead ringer for an imported, farm-raised scallop.
  3. Check Appearance: All-natural, dry scallops are a cream mother-of-pearl color, but they can range from grey, beige to a slight pink or orange hue. Scallops with an orange tint are female scallops and are safe to enjoy. Scallops also differ in color due to the types of algae they consume. Scallops that are brilliant white or appear extra plump are most likely wet scallops. The scallop meat should be firm and its color translucent; and the meat should not be split or shredded. Finally, stay clear of scallops with dark edges or flaky meat.
  4.  Catch Dry Scallops: Scallops should be purchased dry-packed and untreated. According to the FDA, to be considered a scallop officially, the moisture content must be less than 80%. A processed scallop feels slick to the touch, while a dry scallop is somewhat sticky. If you see sodium tripolyphosphate (STP) on the label, then put them back.
  5.  Avoid Wet Scallops: Processed scallops are soaked in a solution (sodium tripolyphosphate). This gives them a longer shelf life and allows them to hold more water – sometimes 20%-30% more, which artificially plumps them up. This chemical also prevents scallops from browning up properly. You’re not only paying for the extra weight but also an inferior scallop. Milky scallops, or those with a lot of excess water, are a sign they have been chemical-treated.
  6.  Size up Your Scallops: Scallops are sorted by their size and sold by count-per-pound. The larger the size and the lower count per pound, the more expensive they are. The “u” is the weight standard for “under” per pound. Sea scallops are available in U-10 (under 10 per pound), 10-20, 20-30, 30-40, and 40-50 per pound. Bay scallops will have higher counts, since they are much smaller.
  7. Smell Like the Sea: Scallops should never have a pungent, fishy smell or give off any hint of sourness or iodine. Improperly chilled scallops will spoil quickly. Scallops should smell sea fresh! If there is no briny scent all, it is very likely they are wet scallops.
  8. Sea Versus Bay Scallops: Sea scallops can be up to 3 times larger than bay scallops and are found further off the shoreline in deeper waters. They are fished all year round. Since smaller bay scallops are less abundant and subject to seasonal availability, they cost more. Depending on the state and town, bays are harvested from October to December. Beware of imported farm-raised Chinese scallops; they will always be cheaper.

Nutrition Information

Scallops are low in sodium and saturated fats and are an excellent source of protein. Did you know they have fewer calories than poultry? Scallops contain vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fish oils.

The top five vitamins and minerals in scallops are:

  1. Vitamin B12
  2. Phosphorus
  3. Selenium
  4. Choline
  5. Zinc

Nutrition Facts:

  • Serving size: 100g/3.5 oz. (raw).
  • Calories: 87.
  • Fat Calories: 7.
  • Total Fat: 0.8 g.
  • Saturated Fat: 0.1g.
  • Cholesterol: 36 mg.
  • Sodium: 87 mg.
  • Protein: 16.2 g.
  • Omega-3: 0.2g.

Advice on Scallop Cooking & Preparation

Some folks will pluck scallops right out of the sea and eat them on the spot. Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to know a day boat scalloper. The key to maintaining the flavor and freshness is to allow as little time as possible from the time they are taken from the sea to your kitchen.

The simpler the preparation, the better. Our favorite way to cook scallops is to sear them over high heat to create a beautiful golden crust.

For more tips, see our guide to cooking the perfect sea scallops.

Go Scalloping at LobsterAnywhere

LobsterAnywhere online ships all-natural, chemical free scallops. They are not cheap because these are REAL scallops with no solutions added. Our premium IQF dry pack sea scallops meet or exceed USDC standards for both moisture and sizing integrity. Our beautiful sea scallops will pan-sear to perfection.

Scallops are a favorite among seafood regulars at LobsterAnywhere because you simply can’t find these jewels of the sea at your local seafood market. Our large sea scallops are about the size of a silver dollar and designated as U-10, since you receive about 10 or less per pound. Our scallops are harvested from scallop beds throughout the Northern Atlantic Ocean and are purchased straight from the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts–known as the scallop capital of the world.

Our succulent scallops are shipped fresh frozen so that our customers can sear, bake, broil or grill them to perfection. You won’t find a fresher, purer scallop anywhere. Check out some of the scallop reviews from our seafood crazy fans.

Be sure to try our recipe for baked scallops. LobsterAnywhere.com offers three scallop dishes:

  • Jumbo sea scallops wrapped in bacon
  • Plank Scallops, also wrapped in bacon
  • Sea Scallops

Don’t forget to add some fresh lobster to your order!

New Bedford Sea Scallops

Can’t get enough scallop information? Be sure to see our list seaworthy scallop facts!

References

  • Tammi, E., & Tammi, K. A. (2011). Scallops: a New England coastal cookbook. Gretna: Pelican Pub.
  • Harris, M., Taylor, P., Best, T., & Emden, E. V. (2013). How to make love to a lobster: an eclectic guide to the buying, cooking, eating and folklore of shellfish. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Whitecap.
  • SCALLOPS TRIVIA & FACTS. (n.d.). Retrieved January 16, 2017, from http://www.foodreference.com/html/fscallops.html
  • How to Pronounce “Scallop” | New England Dialect. (2016, December 17). Retrieved January 16, 2017, from http://www.yankeemagazine.com/article/food/yankee-dialect-how-to-pronounce-scallop
  • Brennessel, Barbara. Good tidings: the history and ecology of shellfish farming in the Northeast. Hanover, NH: U Press of New England, 2008. Print.
  • Frederick, J. G., & Joyce, J. (1971).Long island seafood cook book. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Dore, Ian. New fresh seafood buyer’s guide: a manual for distributors, restaurants and retailers. Place of publication not identified: Springer-Verlag New York, 2013. Print.
  • “Pink vs. White Scallops.” Pink vs. White Scallops | Cook’s Illustrated. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 June 2017. <https://www.cooksillustrated.com/how_tos/6552-pink-vs-white-scallops>.

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