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Dry Scallops: Why You Should Always Buy Them

Nutrition Articles

Shopping for seafood can be not just confusing but downright misleading. It’s hard to know what’s good quality and/or sustainable and what’s not. Take sea scallops, for example. All sea scallops sold in stores are either dry scallops or wet scallops. At seafood display counters, they’re often not labeled. But there’s a big difference between dry scallops and wet scallops and sellers should be transparent about it.

dry scallops

For the best flavor, quality, and texture, you really want dry scallops. In the picture above are some beautiful pan-seared scallops that I personally made. Maybe not the best pic but they turned out so fantastic — perfectly browned, buttery, rich, and flavorful — primarily because they are in fact, dry scallops.

Unfortunately, if you’re shopping at a mega-supermarket chain, you’re likely purchasing wet scallops without even knowing it.

Dry Scallops vs. Wet Scallops

Both dry scallops and wet scallops are the same species of sea scallops. Sea scallops contain about 75 to 80% water in their natural state. Unlike other types of mollusks, like clams and mussels, sea scallop shells don’t close tightly when they’re removed from water. When they’re caught on scallop boats, they start to lose their natural moisture fairly quickly and are prone to spoiling. The difference between dry scallops and wet scallops is in how they’re preserved once they’re caught at sea.

What are Wet Scallops?

Wet scallops mostly come from boats that spend at least a week out at sea. They need to be preserved during the long periods between harvest and actual consumer consumption. So they’re soaked in a chemical solution that includes sodium tripolyphosphate (STTP), which is a preservative.

Look for labels that say, “soaked in water,” or just “water”, and include sodium tripolyphosphate in the ingredients. That lets you know for sure that they’re wet scallops. Here’s an example from a frozen product I found at my “local” big box supermarket:

wet scallops

There are three things, in particular, that STTP does to scallops and none of them are positive.

1. Negatively affects the taste, texture, and color

Chemically treated wet scallops, not surprisingly, have what many people describe as a chemical metallic taste. Some describe it as a soapy flavor. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

The retention of water also affects the texture when you cook them, as a lot of that water cooks out, leaving the scallops dry and tough.

Finally, wet scallops lose their natural tint which is more of an off-white, sometimes vanilla or tannish appearance, and instead turn more of a snow-white color.

2. Prevents proper searing

STTP also helps to retain moisture in the scallop. However, retaining moisture is not a good thing, especially when it comes to pan-searing, which is perhaps the easiest and most delicious way to cook scallops. Almost every seafood restaurant today includes pan-seared sea scallops on their menu.

However, the moisture in wet scallops prevents a good sear.

The retained water seeps out during the searing which interferes with the caramelization process. Instead of a crispy, brown crust, with a juicy sweet flavor and plump texture, you get a rubbery, dried-out flat-tasting scallop that shrinks in size once all the water is cooked out. Yum!

Other methods of dry heat cooking like grilling and broiling will create similar problems when using wet scallops.

3. You pay extra for the added water weight

Because the added water in wet scallops makes them weigh more than dry scallops, you pay more per pound for an inferior product. Another frustrating example of how big food producers care more about the bottom line than the consumer.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of sea scallops sold in supermarkets are in fact, wet scallops. Luckily, not all sea scallops are wet scallops.

What are Dry Scallops?

Dry scallops are not treated with STTP. Rather, they are flash-frozen within hours of harvest. This preserves their natural moisture levels and therefore their natural, sweet succulent taste and plump texture. They also retain their natural slightly off-white color.

It also means they will sear really well over high heat. Without the extra moisture, the surface of the scallops will naturally (and quickly) caramelize and brown over high heat. This browning is known as the Maillard reaction in cooking, a chemical reaction between proteins and sugars, which results in an abundance of aromas and flavors that we naturally crave in seared and grilled food.

More Seafood Articles and Scallop Recipes to Try

When Dry Scallops are Wet Scallops

Unfortunately, some dry scallops may not be dry scallops. Back in 2012, the Boston Globe investigated the moisture content of sea scallops from 21 Massachusetts supermarkets. It found many products contained high moisture levels, well above 80% moisture levels, indicating they were chemically treated with STTP. However, the packages did not list the chemical treatment on their labels.

In fact, many of those packages had misleading claims such as, “wild-caught” and “all natural.” In other words, wet scallops were being sold as dry scallops. Whether or not this continues today, I do not know. However, it’s widely known that seafood fraud is rampant in the global seafood trade because it’s impossible to monitor and regulate the highly complex chain of seafood processors and distributors. The multi-billion dollar scallop industry is no exception.

What’s a consumer to do?

Where to Buy Dry Scallops

As with everything, it comes down to reputable sellers and people you trust. Shortening the supply chain by buying as directly as possible is the best way to ensure top-notch sea scallops.

Best choice: direct from scallop fishermen

It’s now possible to buy directly from small-scale scallop fishermen and respectable seafood sellers via online shipping. A great resource is The Local Catch. Simply click on the Find Seafood link and enter your location and the words “scallops” in the keyword box. Most of these locations are in the Northeast, where the sea scallop industry is centered. There are two, in particular, I would recommend.

The first is Downeast Dayboat, whose video I share below, a fantastic small-scale scallop fishing business, and a great source for ordering top-notch dry scallops online.

Another great online source is Red’s Best out of Boston. They process and sell the catches from dozens of small-scale New England fishermen right on the historic Boston fishing pier.

Second best choice: local fish markets

Your next best choice would be independent local fish markets. Get to know the owners and ask frequent questions about their seafood, where it comes from, and how it’s harvested. Many fishmongers are good people who want to sell high-quality seafood from reputable fishermen and fisherwomen. They will proudly sell you dry scallops!

Third best choice: grocery stores

Your next best choice would be a grocery store that sources good quality seafood. Some seafood counters in stores are better than others. Health food stores typically are better than big box supermarkets. For example, my local co-op, River Valley Market, does a great job of sourcing and selling dry scallops from around New England. And they proudly label it, like so…

dry scallops properly labeled

You’ll often see the words dry pack or dry packed which means they’re dry scallops. If the sea scallops are not labeled as dry scallops or wet scallops, simply ask. If they don’t know, I would assume they’re wet scallops. Most sea scallops sold in conventional supermarkets are wet scallops.

Finally, there are some good frozen brand-name dry scallops products you can find in both supermarkets and health food stores. Naked Seafood-brand sea scallops is one example:

frozen dry scallops

I’d be a little suspicious of frozen packaged sea scallops from big brand-name stores. The large-scale distribution and processing of these products means they’re more susceptible to fraud.

That said, I did purchase the above package of Naked Seafood scallops from River Valley Market as I know they seek out better quality companies.

What’s the Deal with Dayboat Scallops and Diver Scallops?

You’ve probably heard of these two types of sea scallops. A good way to get some really top-notch dry scallops is simply to purchase sea scallops that are sold as dayboat scallops, and more rarely, diver scallops.

Dayboat scallops come from boats that leave and return to shore within 24 hours, thereby ensuring a fresh, high-quality product. You won’t often find these in big box supermarkets. Local seafood markets or direct from the fishermen will be your best sources for dayboat scallops.

Diver scallops are the rarest of the rare and considered the creme de la creme of sea scallops. They are hand-harvested by divers and thus, fetch a very high price. I’ve never seen them sold in supermarkets and only rarely in restaurants. Most diver scallops come from Maine. This great article by Downeast Dayboat goes into more detail about diver scallops and why you should be careful buying them. Evidently, they get mislabeled too. Ugh!

Speaking of Downeast Dayboat, they did a nice video showing the differences in how dry and wet scallops sear. They also show you why some scallops you may think are dry scallops, are actually wet scallops! Check it out…

Searing Dry Scallops vs. Wet Scallops

How to Cook Pan-Seared Dry Scallops

Seared scallops are without a doubt, the most popular way to cook sea scallops. When you use dry scallops, they should cook up very quickly and be incredibly delicious!

Step 1: Dry and season the scallops

Yes, you have to dry your dry scallops. 🙂 Even dry scallops will have a little bit of moisture. This is simply natural moisture, kind of like the natural moisture on fresh fish. Simply pat them dry with a paper towel and then season both sides with salt and pepper.

Step 2. Heat a cast-iron pan

The best cooking pan is without a doubt, a cast-iron pan. You don’t even need to add oil. But make sure you’re using a well-seasoned pan. Although you can use a stainless steel pan, I would avoid it as you’ll have to add oil and the scallops will still likely stick.

Heat your pan over medium-high heat. Really get it hot!

Step 3. Add the dry scallops

Don’t crowd them in the pan. I would say for a normal-sized cast iron pan, don’t add more than about 8 scallops. If you’re cooking more than that, you can work in batches. Transfer the first batches to an oven set to low heat to keep them warm.

When you add the scallops, do NOT move them around. This is the most important point! Let them sear and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes, depending on their size. Larger ones will need to cook a little longer. Regardless, they should turn nice and browned.

Flip and repeat on the other side for a few more minutes until a crust forms, another 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the heat off, remove the scallops, and transfer to plates.

Step 4. Make an herb butter sauce in a separate saucepan

Many recipes recommend making the butter sauce right in the cast iron pan with the scallops. It’s certainly more convenient but adding butter to a really hot pan can easily burn it, like so…

burnt butter

You can’t see it very well in the black cast iron pan but you can clearly see it foaming too aggressively and you can see the edges starting to burn.

To prevent this, I would recommend browning the butter in a separate saucepan. A stainless steel pan is best so you can easily see the process. The butter will slowly brown (which is actually just the milk solids browning) but you want to make sure it doesn’t burn, of course.

Simply add a generous amount of butter (at least 4 TBSPs per pound) to your saucepan over medium-high heat. It will start to foam, like so…

butter foaming

Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or lime juice (I love lime juice!). The butter will now start to brown, like so…

butter beginning to brown

Stir it around to prevent the browned bits from sticking. When it’s a chestnut brown color, like above, immediately remove it from the heat. Add any fresh leafy herbs of your choice and stir well. Good choices are chives, parsley, sage, and basil. I threw in some chives…

browned butter

That’s it! The whole process takes no more than five minutes. Simply spoon this delicious browned butter sauce over the scallops on a separate plate. Season to taste with extra lemon (or lime) wedges, salt, and pepper.

Voila!

pan seared dry scallops
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Dry Scallops: Why You Should Always Buy Them
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About the Author

Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.

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