Know your seafood: Scallops


Whether broiled, fried or pan-seared, fresh scallops are an excellent stand-alone dish and compliment any salad or casserole with their sweet flavor and delicate texture. Rich sea scallop beds located just off Cape Cod have drawn fishermen for centuries, and continue to make the nearby Port of New Bedford the top grossing port annually—outranking even the highly lucrative Alaskan pollock fishery. With average dock prices ranging around $15 per pound, even low landings of this prized species can bring lucrative paychecks to scallop fishermen. But as with any quality popular seafood item, the market is flooded with impersonators and low-quality versions of this New England favorite. Read on learn more about this delectable bivalve and to find out how to make the best selections when purchasing sea scallops for you and your family.

scallops 2

Sea scallops is a term used to refer to many species of marine bivalve mollusks in the family Pectinidae. Scallops of different varieties are found in oceans all over the world. Their fan-shaped shells with radiating patterns of striking colors have made them a favorite of sea-shell collectors around the world. In fact, when thinking of the archetype of a basic sea-shell, it is usually this simple fan-shaped symmetrical scallop shell that first comes to mind. Unlike some of their closely related cousins like oysters and muscles, scallops are active swimmers (Check out their amazing mobility here. This incredible ability to move about under water is a result of their highly developed central abductor muscle. In comparison to other commonly consumed bivalves, the scallop’s abductor muscle is much more pronounced and developed, and it is this part of the animal that is harvested for consumption. Scallops come in many sizes, and for commercial purposes they are labeled similar to shrimp- a number is used to designate how many scallops of a given size it would take to constitute a pound. The label “20/30” means it would take 20-30 scallops to make up a pound, and labels like U10 means it would take less than (“under”) 10 to make a pound.

Vessels called dredgers rake the seafloor selectively harvesting scallops. You can read more about dredgers and how they work in this recent post on vessel types.

scallops 3As noted, the vast sea scallop beds located just off Cape Cod and southward have allowed for the development of a successful scallop fishery out of the local port of New Bedford. Scallops harvested by this fleet are called sea-scallops because they are found relatively far off-shore. They are usually of the 10/40 size range, and sometimes even bigger. At the opposite end of the size spectrum, the most prized and highest valued New England scallops harvested for consumption are called Bay Scallops because they are found relatively close to shore- close to Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. These scallops tend to be the smallest in size that are commercially harvested, usually of the 70/120 size. These delicacies of our local waters should not be confused with the bay scallops abundantly imported from southeast Asian countries.

The highly valued and closely regulated fishery for these small sweet sea scallops can be found just off the shores of Nantucket. This fishery normally opens at the beginning of November each year and carries strict quotas for the few fishermen that are allowed to harvest this top-quality stock of scallops. Normally fishermen are only allowed five bushels a day of scallops during this short season each fall. The season comes to a close each year when the air becomes too cold (less than 28 degrees Fahrenheit) for the survival of the scallops that must be thrown back. Unlike the large commercial dredging vessels that operate out of New Bedford, the Nantucket Bay Scallops are caught mostly by dredging by hand. The careful attention paid to harvesting and regulating this prized sub-species leads to its unparalleled quality and high demand at market.

scallops 4

Because of their immense popularity and high demand, there are several imitators and knock-offs sold at market. Given the high prices associated with fresh sea scallops, it is often tempting to try the lower cost alternatives that can be found in many grocery stores. However, especially when it comes to scallops, you get what you pay for. One popular technique that some manufactures have taken to practicing is to soak poor-quality scallops in a phosphate solution to inflate their size (as much as 30%) and whiten them. This process also extends shelf life and helps in the absorption and retention of water which lowers the overall costs. As you can imagine, the quality of these soaked scallops does not even come close to comparing to freshly harvested all-natural sea or bay scallops. What’s more, this phosphate solution is a commonly ingredient in many soaps and dish detergents. Not surprisingly, it gives the scallops a soap-like flavor! To avoid these versions, look for labeling that indicates that scallops are “chemical free” or “dry-packed” or “all natural” It is important to note that seafood industry standards now allow a scallop that has less than 13% soaked added weight to still be called “dry’ but it cannot be called “all natural.” Turner’s only sells and serves all natural sea scallops, which are the most expensive sea scallop on the market, but they are worth it because of their incomparable flavor and texture.