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Long cooking shellfish - doesn't make them softer?

OK, so I just tried a large whelk today (Chinese mistranslate it as "conch"). After smashing open his shell and then starting to cut him up, I immediately notice his flesh is very firm. So he was very tough after being cooked.
I was wondering, do shellfish like this breakdown and soften like land-based-meat through long cooking (or slightly long, super-hot cooking in a pressure cooker).

My understanding is no, they don't, because their muscular structure is different. The whole long-cooking thing in land animals is to breakdown collagen, which is what holds together the musce fibers. But from what I understand that's not how shellfish muscles are, right? I don't think they have collagen holding the fibers together. It's just one large dense muscle, especially for the simple animals like the bivalves and sea snails.

Am I right?

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  1. I don't know anything about the muscle structure, but I am familiar with Pacific razor clams. You don't want to overcook them, as they will get tough.

    1. <My understanding is no, they don't>

      I believe you are correct. Most mussels I know of do not get soften as I cook longer. That is my experience.

      1. You understand correctly. Overcooking any mollusk will toughen them, which is why scallops (for example) are seared for a very short time, oysters are often eaten raw on the half shell, etc. (Raw scallops at a good sushi restaurant shouldn't be missed. Sweet flavor with a very slight saltiness.)

        1. I've actually only ever eaten whelk raw.

          1. Braised abalone becomes more tender the longer you cook them. In fact, if you don't braise them long enough, they are tough.

            7 Replies
            1. re: ipsedixit

              You are talking about the dried abalones, right?

              Fresh abalones can be eaten raw.

              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Ipse is right. Fresh abalone on the shell can be braised to make them softer. Had it a few times a few years ago in Cantonese restaurants that had fresh abalone (braised) as part of a Chinese New Year menu (substitute for what used to be shark fin of a set). Part of the trick by the kitchen is to make criss cross cuts on top, like what Chinese restaurants do with squid/cuttlefish (or even pork kidneys in Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine) to give them a better bite (or what Japanese sushi chefs do with aji, kohada, iwashi/sardines).

                I've also recently had fresh wild small abalone caught off the coastal waters of Southern Hong Kong, purchased it from a market and had the cooked food vendors/stalls steam them (clear steam or with dried citrus peel, a fisherman's receipe), and the flesh was quite tender.

                Dried abalone, rehydrated and braised, does not need criss cross cuts on top. Slow heat simmering, technique, and time will soften it.

                Whelk...hmmm haven't had it braised. In Hong Kong people eat sea snails/babylons and even after boiling them (or steaming), they are softer but still have a good bite. The larger conch are more suited for soups.

                1. re: K K

                  Criss-crossing really is the key, and a slow slow slow simmer.

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    I take that back...the babylons in Hong Kong in Chinese indeed translate to "whelks"...so small whelks. Big whelks are generally sliced thin and either dehydrated/rehydrated or double boiled with soup (the "in" thing is with melon/fruit for sweetness, like at Ser Wong Fun).

                    The smaller babylons I also had simmered (with shell on), and served cold. 梅貝煮 was the name given by the izakaya restaurant (Ishiyama in Hong Kong), but in Japanese I think is called baigai. After simmering the small whelk flesh was just tender delicious after the sauce went all the way through. Perfect excuse to drink Japanese alcohol with it.

                    1. re: K K

                      So they do cook whelks for a long time and it softens them?

                      1. re: peanuttree

                        The Japanese way at the izakayas is low heat simmering/braising in a mixture of soy sauce, kelp (konbu), and daikon. Cannot tell you the duration. After cooking they are refrigerated and served as cold appetizers / food to be consumed with alcohol.



                        The simmering does soften them up a little bit, but the end result still yields a good bite and chew (not crunchy, not hard). Then again I've never had them raw, so I don't know how chewy or hard they are to begin with to compare.

                2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                  You are talking about the dried abalones, right?


              2. While I've not eaten whelk, I know that lots of people do.

                I have, however, harvested, cleaned, and prepared my body weight or more in conch (outside the US, and long before harvest restrictions -- today farm-raised).

                You have to either grind it (for, say, ceviche or chowder), or butterfly it and beat the beejeezus out of it with a tenderizer mallet to make it edible (but oh, how edible it is...) to make cracked conch. You pound it til it is very thin and almost lacy-looking, then bread those slices in a little cornmeal and fry til golden, then serve with a little hot sauce.

                3 Replies
                1. re: sunshine842

                  Oh you've brought back memories. Cracked conch, conch salad, conch burgers. Eating one of those fabulous conch burgers at Ms Emily's Blue Bee Bar in the Abacos. Free diving for conch in the BVI. What a blast.

                  Sunshine, ever try the conch noodle?

                  1. re: sunshine842

                    there's farm-raised conch? Really?
                    Dang, I thought that was my idea. (just an rough idea, I don't actualy know that much about aquaculture)

                    1. re: peanuttree

                      there's a very large farm in Providenciales, Turks & Caicos (been there)

                      Bkeats -- YES! The very first time I had cracked conch was at Miss Emily's.

                  2. OK people, so this is getting interesting.
                    It is starting to seem, with further comments and subsequent research, that long-cooking shellfish CAN make it softer. Certainly at least abalone. And according to poster K K, sea snails too.

                    This is inetersting from a sicentific standpoint. Why is this so, if there is no collagen-gelatin conversion to occur?

                    Anyway, I guess the only way for me to know for sure is to try myself. I'll start with a pressure cooker, if that doesn't work, one day when I have time I'll try old-fashioned braising

                    1. For Conch/Whelk.....steamed for 10 minutes in the shell.


                      1. if it is conch or anything in that family you must pound the heck out of it (cut thin and pound) - at least that's what we do with scungilli and the outcome is marvelous.

                        1. Shrimp definitely get softer if you overcook them. The first batch of gumbo I made was before I really knew what I was doing, so I put in the shrimp at the beginning. After simmering for hours the shrimp would fall apart at the touch of a spoon. It actually was very tasty. The shrimp soaked up a ton of broth, and would explode with juice when you bit into them.