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Jul 22, 2002 04:54 PM

Good Scallops, Bad Scallops

  • d


Is there anybody else here who finds the ordering of scallops in a restaurant to be a somewhat risky proposition?

Here is my experience. If I go to a good restaurant and see that a scallop dish is on the chalkboard list of specials, or among the specials for that evening, as described by my waitperson, then it is a pretty good bet that the scallops will be fresh and delicious.

There is this restaurant in my area that specializes in "tapas" style cuisine. Tapas are like miniature entrees which can be quite delicious. I eat there about once a week.

About two weeks ago, I ordered one of the scallops "tapas" dishes from the chalkboard menu. It was delicious.

Last night, I went there and ordered one of the scallops "tapas" from the printed "summer" menu. Big mistake. They weren't right. They went "crunch" and "squish" and they were just plain yuck!

I've had the same experience in other restaurants as well. If scallops are one of the evening specials, they are usually delicious. But I have been to more than one restaurant where, after ordering them from the regular menu, they were an absolute disaster.

Good scallops taste divine and melt into your mouth. There's nothing better than good scallops. On the other hand, there's nothing worse than bad scallops.

Why do some restaurants have such a hard time getting scallops right? Or is it just me?


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  1. Dennis,

    Maybe this will help. There are basically two types of scallops found in most restaurants: dry packed, and the 25% water added scallop product. There is a third type of scallop, the so called diver scallop, which I'll get to in a minute.

    By the way, I was raised on the Chesapeake Bay and have spent the last twenty five years working in hotel and private club kitchens.

    DRY PACKED- depending on freshness, these can be excellent. These are harvested, shucked, and sorted by size, with no further processing. If prepared properly, these are sweet, firm, and creamy. I dont hesitate to eat them raw, right out of the can.

    25% WATER ADDED SCALLOP "PRODUCT"- these are harvested from larger boats which stay out for longer periods of time. The phosphates, or whatever they are treated with, not only "extend" the shelf life, but water is cheaper than scallops. You would be surprised how many middle and high end restaurants use these. Not to knock anybody, but some chefs don't know the difference, or care even. Some larger restaurants are purchaser driven, and that individual may decide which type of product to use. The water added are much cheaper. These are soft, flabby, you can't sear or saute them, because they are leaching out all of that water. Many restaurants use these.

    True DIVER SCALLOPS are hand harvested, thus the name. The price is $$$ and they are worth every penny. This type of product is most often found in such restaurants as Daniel, Le Cirque, or The French Laundry. Although many chefs get carried away with their descriptive menu writing, I believe that more often than not, a so called "diver" scallop is only a dry packed scallop (not a terrible thing, but why call something other than what it is?). These same chefs seem to call regular commodity chicken "free range" or "Amish", refer to choice meats as prime, and so on.

    My theory differs from yours. When I see a chalkboard special, I worry a little, because the product could be old, as in "we gotta sell this shit before we have to throw it out". In my opinion, you have no greater chance of getting a good vs. lesser scallop type product because its on the printed menu/chalkboard/whatever.

    Hope that helped.

    27 Replies
    1. re: ronr

      Thanks, that was a really interesting and helpful post!

      Just a question, for a retail shopper, how would I visually differentiate the dry packed from the water added scallops? I dont recall seeing them marked as such in my fish stores.

      Second, we hear sometimes that some "scallops" may be stamped out of shark or some other meat. Is this something we should be concerned about or an urban myth?

      Thanks again!

      1. re: jen kalb

        Dry scallops are tough to find in retail markets, although if you have a Wegman's supermarket in your vicinity, they carry dry scallops regularly. I bought some last week at about $10 or $11 a pound, vs. $8 or 9 for the wet scallops.

        Your best bet is to find a good fishmonger and patronize him/her. Let him know what you like, and they can get it for you.

        I've heard the stamping story before, years ago, but then it was skate, not shark. Whether or not that's try, I don't know.

        1. re: Bob Libkind

          After reading these posts I got a hankering for scallops last night. For the past year or so I always ask fish mongrels if the scallops are wet or dry.

          Usually they don't have a clue if it's a supermarket fish counter... and I don't believe the ones in the independent fish markets tell the truth most of the time.

          Anyway... I took a cruise over to Stew Lennards and bought some nice looking big ole sea scallops. The counter man didn't even know what wet or dry scallops were... no big deal since I had them from there before and they have always been sweet and tasty.

          When I got home I realized that the price had been a bit on the low side... The computer tag on the price said " Shark filets."

          Just an accident or were they?

          Hmmm... I never believed those "stamping scallops" stories before but...

          1. re: The Rogue
            StriperGuy (formerly FeedMe)

            There are definitely fake scallops sold mostly by unscrupulous restaurants. Doubt a fish monger would try to get away with it. Uncooked, they would not look too much like real scallops.

            They are made by cutting small discs out of a skate wing.

            It you order a bunch of scallops and they are all exactly the same circumference...

            Also they tend to be very firm and do not have the sweet scallop taste. They also tend to be a bit more fibrous. Also, one edge will often be much thicker then the other, as skate wings taper greatly from one side to the other.

            Skate can be delicious in it's own right, but it ain't scallops.

            1. re: StriperGuy (formerly FeedMe)

              I've never had the fake scallops when I've ordered scallops, but at more than one Chinese restaurant the fake scallops have been part of a "Combination Seafood" dish. I have no problem with that. It seems no worse than the fake crab that's also usually part of the dish. After all, skatewing or whatever is a seafood.

              1. re: e.d.

                I've never had scallops much, but I can't imagine that even cooked skate could be like them. Totally different texture. But I certainly believe that it happens. I believe pretty much anything when it comes to restaurants...

              2. re: StriperGuy (formerly FeedMe)

                This whole idea of stamping out scallops from skate wings has been making the rounds for quite some time now. Anyone who's ever worked much with skate wings finds it pretty funny since the cartilege that makes up the skate's skeleton makes such a process rather labor intensive and economically foolish. Check out the "seafood quiz" at the bottom of the website linked below.


                1. re: Dennison
                  StriperGuy (formerly FeedMe)

                  Interesting post... hate to say it, but I have eaten "scallops" made out of skate wing on more then one occasion.

                  I actually like skate, and when you have the punched out fake scallops it is just obvious that it is skate.

                  One of the earlier posters said that he had had them at a Chinese restaurant, and that jibes with my experience.

                  Once you have been served "skate-scallops" if you are aware, it is really obvious what you are eating.

                  1. re: StriperGuy (formerly FeedMe)

                    I don't doubt at all that you've had skate "scallops" in Chinese restaurants. My best guess is that they were intended to simulate dried scallops rather than fresh. When fresh, scallops have the texture of the abductor muscles that they are. Very few people would confuse skate, with its striated meat, for a fresh scallop. However, scallops that have been dried, reconstituted and cooked do flake apart in strings. Because dried scallops are a relatively high ticket item, I can easily see chinese chefs substituting stamped circles of skate to keep costs down. I'd guess that the chinese language menu (or the waiter) would make that clear to the diner. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that translation problems resulted in some places simply labeling a dish as scallops in English. Just a guess...

                    1. re: Dennison

                      Awhile back, my uncle was on vacation in Clearwater Florida, and spent some time on the commercial fishing docks. He witnessed people punching out small disks from the wings of some sort of ray. When asked, they said they were making scallops. He was told that this is common practice, due to the high price of real scallops. I love sea food and eat scallops often, but can not remember the last time I had real ones. Even the ones I had last night at Red Lobster were round cylinders that obviously were punched out of something.

                    2. re: StriperGuy (formerly FeedMe)

                      Many years ago I had fake scallops served to me that were obviously some white fleshed fish such as cod, pollack, or haddock. But you could tell immediately that they were fish not scallops.

                      1. re: StriperGuy (formerly FeedMe)

                        In light of your post, perhaps the faux scallops that I have had in Chinese Seafood Combo dishes are discs of shark or some other, non-skate, firm white fish. I am no expert on skates and the way they taste. Around here the closest thing we have is dried stingray (called mantaralla in Mexican restaurants).

                        1. re: e.d.

                          I'm sorry, I thought I was answering Dennison's post. All I know is that I have been served uniform sized discs of some firm fish in Seafood Combo dishes at more than one Chinese restaurant.

                          1. re: e.d.

                            It was probably monkfish, which also has been used to simulate lobster.

                            1. re: jake pine

                              Out here in the West, monkfish costs as much as scallops, so that's not likely.

                              Last night, only to supply 'hounds with real info, I ordered a "Seafood Combo" at my favorite local Chinese place and then focused my attention on the white fishy discs that looked sortof like sliced scallops. And what they were were sliced fish balls (or fish rolls ?) just like I've had in Vietnamese soups etc. So I feel embarrassed that I hadn't recognized this before. I guess until this topic came up I just dismissed them as faux scallops and not paid much attention. I don't know if all fake scallops are the same, but I do know what they were in this dish at this restaurant.

                              1. re: e.d.

                                Yes, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants use processed "fish ball" disks that look somewhat like scallops.

                                BUT they aren't "faux scallops" unless the restaurant claims that they are scallops. It is not clear from your account that this is happening.

                                1. re: e.d.
                                  s.m. koppelman

                                  Unless they're telling you you're getting scallops and they're giving you fish balls or fish cakes instead (which would be strange, since the texture and taste are so different), nobody's trying to cheat you unless they're selling them as scallops (or calling the thousand-year-old and icky-when-heated surimi/fake-crab "crabmeat").

                                  Fish balls and fish cakes go back a long time and in any event are legit foods in their own right, with a rubbery consistency that thankfully doesn't occur much in nature. Punched-out disks of firm, white fish made to look like scallops are fake scallops. Fish balls and fish cakes are fish balls and fish cakes.

                                  Whether you like fish balls (in this context or any other) is another story.

                            2. re: e.d.
                              Stanley Stephan

                              I've heard that stingrays are used as fake scallops. Maybe that's where the skate rumor started. However, in the link below, it says that skate may be used.


                              I've also read that dogfish and shark are used as substitutes. One place takes, from my understanding, scallop pieces and using a binder called Fibrin creates a scallop medallion. I'm a little unclear on this as they are promoting the product as 100% real scallop.

                              Getting back to the original post, maybe the reason scallop quality varies is because they are fished from different places. Scallops can come from New England, Asutralia, Peru, Icland, Mexico or Japan.

                              Anyway, if you would like to order fake scallops, link is below.


                            3. re: StriperGuy (formerly FeedMe)

                              The thing I love about scallops is their lovely unique flavor. Without that flavor I can't see any other seafood successfully being substituted for it. I've had skate and shark, neither taste anything like scallops, I don't think.

                        2. re: The Rogue
                          Caitlin McGrath

                          The treated scallops tend to be really white, while dry scallops are a more natural ivory-beigy color. That's one clue. Sometimes the wet ones already have the foot (muscle) removed as well.

                          How did your scallops taste, and what'd you do with 'em?

                          1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                            I heated a cast iron pan nice and hot... threw them in with a pat of butter and totally caramelized them on both sides on high heat so the insides were medium rare. Took them out... deglazed the pan with a tiny bit of white wine and soy sauce, h2o, and a bit of finely chopped garlic. Reduced and poured the sauce over the scallops... yum. Ate 3/4 lb by myself with some Stew's Spicy / Sweet Napa salad on the side. Total fats were from 1/2 tablespoon of butter. (I'm on a health kick before I go on a chowish vacation...)

                            1. re: the rogue
                              Caitlin McGrath

                              Sounds delicious. I find I can put away a lot of shrimp or scallops on my own, and (given your descriptions here) I bet I'm half your size. They're just so good when they're fresh and sweet and well cooked.

                            2. re: Caitlin McGrath
                              Josh Mittleman

                              Caitlin is right about using the color as a clue to whether scallops have been treated with a phosphate bath. Also, if the scallops are sitting in a pool
                              of milky water, they have either been treated or they are VERY old.

                              Washed scalloped (I believe that's the common term) are hard to sear because they contain a lot of water. I've noticed that they have a less complex taste, perhaps because they are less fresh: Fishermen wash scallops because they otherwise tend to degrade quickly after they come out of the water. Washed scallops are acceptable (to me) when I plan to season them heavily and grill them. I'd also happily use them in soup. For more delicate dishes, I want them fresh.

                              My favorite scallop recipe: Dust each scallop generously with cracked black pepper, sea salt, and lime zest. Sear briefly in a very hot pan. Deglaze with dry white wine and reduce to a pan sauce. Add a bit of butter, if you like. Serve with Buckley's South Australia 2000 Chardonnay, which has a lovely lime note.

                        3. re: jen kalb

                          The dry packs will vary slightly from scallop to scallop. Some will be pinkish, some greyish, some just white. The phosphate treated scallops will all be a uniform color.

                        4. re: ronr

                          what about the types with a chemical after taste, how have they been treated? once had some on sushi and almost threw up.

                          I've also encountered these in some supermarket bay scallops.

                          1. re: SG

                            Those are the ones treated with phosphates, the 25% water added scallop "product"

                          2. re: ronr

                            Without disputing anything you wrote (except, surely a chalkboard special with none on the menu represents an actual special and not a firesale) there is another important scallop distinction to make, at least in New England:

                            In New England, there is a short early winter season of "bay scallops" harvested daily from local waters in small boats. You'll find these "mini-marshmallow"-sized scallops in only a few places for a short time--if you're lucky.

                            Most of the time and in most places all that's available are the "full on marshmallow"-sized sea scallops that are harvested in big boats at sea, or intermediate sized scallops labelled bay but from parts unknown. Comparing scallops of equal freshness and handling, there is no contest. The N.E. bay scallop is an incredible delicacy. Unfortunately, their numbsers are too small to sustain a continuous fishery.

                            In appearance, the bay scallop has a rippled dark shell (like the Shell oil logo) while the sea scallop has a smooth light shell in the same outline.

                            In general, colder water New England shellfish of all varieties are more strongly flavored (in the fresh sweet sense, not smelly/fishy) than shellfish from further south. That's a plus if you seek the flavor (especially in cooking), and, for some who seek a milder subtlety for eating raw, a negative.

                          3. It could very well be a function of timing. Sundays (particularly specials on Sundays, which are sometimes designed to move perishables and make room for fresh deliveries in the new week) are usually the day of the week most remote from fresh delivery.

                            1. Peruvian Scallops marketed by Sprouts are the worst ever. They clearly are the "wet" pack but the water that comes off 1.5 pounds of "scallops" is nearly 8 ounces, exceeding that "25%" wet pack. Even drained and dried with towels they are impossible to saute because of the volume of liquid leaching off. They are also tough and fibrous. The large ones wind up looking like small bay scallops. Better off paying the high price for real diver scallops than trust the grocery store chain bargins...6.99 a pound for water is not a bargin.

                              1. Just think how many scallops/jumbo prawns/lobsters, non-farmed seafood all all types must be harvested from the oceans every day to feed the demand world wide. And we in the 'West' don't begin to eat as much seafood as people in Asia do.
                                It's actually frightening.
                                I honestly don't know what's going to happen when the last 'wild' seafood as offloaded.
                                Here off Van. Island I was one of hundreds of commercial fishing boats catching whatever swam. We did this for years throughout the Gulf Islands catching and keeping live rock cod.
                                If we didn't catch 300 2-3 pound rock cod a day we weren't making any profit.
                                We basically destroyed the rock cod fishery......maybe forever.
                                I think today there is a catch limit of 1 rock cod a day for sports fishermen now around here.
                                Illegal and over harvesting is happening in every ocean in the world sadly.
                                And there seems to be no long term solution. Throughout Asia any laws passed to try to save the wild fishery are ignored. We all know that.
                                End of today's sermon.
                                One more thing:
                                I have personal knowledge of a number of boats operated by Vietnamese who moor in the Fraser river. Every night the RCMP and DFO play hide and seek with these boats who come across the Straits and hide in little bays throughout the Gulf Islands during the day and seine for live herring at night. They use the live herring to 'hand-line' for the last of the rock cod who live around the underwater pinnacles. They have live-wells and after a few nights fishing a white cube van meets them somewhere remote. Inside the white cube vans are circulating tanks which keep the rock cod alive. These vans then take the ferry to Vancouver where the live rock cod are sold in the underground Asian restaurant market for enormous profits.
                                Multiply this daily scenario by maybe a million or more boats worldwide.