Looking at upscale restaurant menus these days, you’d think there was no longer any such thing as plain old scallops. It seems like everyone feels obliged to include information about where the scallops come from and how they were harvested. Some menus get very specific, with entries like “So-and-So Island Diver Scallops,” but the most common term of all is “day-boat” scallops.
One logically might think that the “day-boat” label means the scallops come from boats that make a fishing trip out and back within a single day, presumably a sign of extra freshness. But that’s seldom the case. Instead, says Michael Cigliano of the wholesale division of Santa Monica Seafood, “day-boat” has become the menu equivalent of what are more accurately known in the seafood business as “dry-pack” or “chemical-free” scallops, as opposed to the “dipped” or “soaked” variety.
Apart from a small amount taken in the North Pacific, large scallops in our market come from New England, though the North Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) is found from the mid-Atlantic to Newfoundland, Canada. In the past, much of the commercial catch has come from the Georges Bank east of Massachusetts, but most of these grounds are closed to help cod and other stressed fish stocks recover. Most of the New England catch now comes from closer to shore near Cape Cod and in the Gulf of Maine. Winter is prime season for fresh sea scallops, with most of the catch coming from November to mid-April.
Like many other foods, scallop meats destined for commercial freezing are typically treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), an additive widely used in the frozen-food industry. When used in small concentrations, STP helps bind the natural water content of the food to the protein, keeping the water content more or less intact through freezing and thawing and preventing “drip loss.”
Though STP and similar phosphates were mainly intended for use with frozen foods, scallop processors learned long ago that soaking fresh scallops in relatively strong STP solutions could increase their weight by 25% or more, as they absorb and hold extra water. Predictably, this dilutes the scallop flavor, and most top chefs and other discerning buyers have always insisted on untreated, “dry-packed” scallops.
Responding to complaints that buyers were paying scallop prices for water, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration struggled with the phosphate issue for several years and considered outlawing any use of STP on fresh scallops. However, seeing the difficulty of enforcing such a ban, the agency and the scallop industry came to an agreement. Under rules adopted in the early 1990s, any scallop meats that exceed 80% water by weight (the upper limit of the natural range) can be sold only under a separate category of “scallop product-water added.”
This rule has effectively split the fresh scallop market into two channels, one for premium natural or “dry-pack” scallops, the other for less expensive scallops typically soaked to the maximum allowable stage. Wholesalers and retailers choose which part of the market they will work in or cater to both.
Of the two tons or so of scallops that Santa Monica Seafood brings in each week during the season, Cigliano estimates that half are dry-pack, which he sells mainly to white-tablecloth restaurants and in Santa Monica Seafood’s retail stores. Dry-pack commands prices as much as 40% higher than the soaked variety, which are popular with more modestly priced eateries.
There are some true day-boat scallops on the market, mostly taken by divers, rather than by trawling. Michael Cimarusti, executive chef of Water Grill in downtown Los Angeles, buys exclusively from a small supplier in Maine who sends him gallon tubs of diver-harvested scallop meats “so fresh they still move.”
Scallops this fresh are ideal for eating raw or very lightly seared, as in the recipe for seared scallops with scallop tartare. If you want the freshest possible scallops, you can sometimes find them live in the shell in downtown Los Angeles’ fish markets, such as Los Angeles Fish Co.
Diver scallops represent only a tiny fraction of the total scallop catch; the rest is taken by trawling. San Francisco wholesaler Paul Johnson, seafood supplier to many of the Bay Area’s top restaurants, estimates that less than 1% of the New England trawl scallop catch is actually taken on boats with trip lengths of one day or less.
“There are only a few days at the beginning of the season that it’s economically feasible to bring in a single day’s load,” says Johnson. “But there’s nothing wrong with scallops that are two or three days old.”
As long as “day-boat” strikes restaurateurs and diners as a more attractive selling term than “dry-pack,” the former is likely to remain the more common menu term, even when the latter is more accurate. It’s a stretch of the truth we can probably all live with.
When buying scallops, Johnson advises looking for meats that vary in size and color through shades of ivory to pale tan; too uniform a white color can indicate excessive soaking. Dry-pack scallops may be slightly sticky to the touch and typically have a fairly strong briny, seaweed-like aroma, even suggesting sour milk. This is fine as long as they do not smell fishy or of ammonia. To preserve flavor, avoid washing scallops except for a quick rinse to remove grit and debris, if necessary.