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Maine Ingredient: How to Buy and Cook Sea Scallops

Some of the best come from ice-cold New England waters and are harvested just in time for a holiday splurge; here’s how to buy them and sear them perfectly.

by Joanne Smart

fromFine Cooking
Issue 144

If you love sea scallops, then winter really is the most wonderful time of the year, because that’s when scallop season opens in Maine. In order to understand why Maine scallops are so prized, it’s important to know how most other North Atlantic sea scallops are harvested. More than 95 percent of scallops are harvested year-round from large boats that spend a week or more at sea hauling in thousands of pounds of scallops in waters ranging from North Carolina to Canada. Because scallops don’t live long in their shells, they must be shucked on the boat. Usually stored on ice in mesh bags, the shucked scallops can easily absorb water from the melting ice, which can dilute their flavor. Plus, some scallops get soaked in a whitening and preserving solution, which also artificially plumps them. Excess water can inflate scallops’ price per pound and can affect how well they sear.

Scallops harvested in Maine water don’t see ice time or chemical preservation. Here’s why: Maine scallops can be harvested only in winter, when the dredging of their beds does not interfere with lobster traps. Due to strict regulations established to save a depleting resource, Maine scallop permits also require that scallops be harvested within 3 miles of shore and limit the daily catch to 135 pounds per boat, which means boats go out and back in a day. Aside from being incredibly fresh with a sweet, delicate flavor, these “dayboat” scallops are kept cold naturally thanks to the wintry weather, so they don’t get put on ice.

What’s a diver scallop?

Chances are you’ve seen scallops described on a restaurant menu as “diver” scallops. Unfortunately, in many cases, it’s not true. That’s because diver scallops, harvested by hand by a scuba diver, are quite rare and account for less than 1 percent of all domestically harvested scallops. While no different from the scallops caught by dragging, diver scallops tend to be big, handled with great care, and sold within hours of coming out of the water, resulting in the highest quality. Because Maine has a vast coastline that’s too rocky for dredging, most real diver scallops hail from there.

How to buy the best scallops

Luxurious Maine scallops can retail from $20 to $35 per pound; the price varies year to year, depending on supply. Because labeling is not well regulated, it’s best to shop for scallops from a trusted source; you can also find Maine dayboat scallops via mail order. If you can’t get your hands on these seasonal treats, you can still make the delicious recipes below using the best-quality scallops you can find. One option is IQF (individually quick frozen) scallops, which were flash-frozen at sea shortly after harvest. As long as they have been properly handled, these scallops can offer great fresh, sweet flavor. Don’t buy scallops that are brilliant white and slippery, a likely sign they’ve been chemically treated. Instead, choose “dry” scallops that are more ivory in color (or pink or orange, a natural variation) with an almost sticky feel to them.

When cooking, keep it simple

The less you fuss with scallops, the better. Searing them quickly in a hot pan gives them a lovely crisp, brown crust while the inside remains tender and creamy. Be restrained on seasoning; the rich flavor of the scallop should be the main attraction. Even better, the Maine attraction.

How to prep and cook scallops
How to Prep and Cook Scallops How to Prep and Cook Scallops How to Prep and Cook Scallops How to Prep and Cook Scallops
The part of the scallop that we eat is the adductor muscle, which is what makes these feisty bivalves locomotive. On the side is a slightly tough smaller muscle that pulls off easily and is best removed. Try to purchase dry (not wet) scallops, but even these can collect condensation. For best browning, pat scallops dry with a paper towel before cooking. It helps to get the pan hot before you add the fat. To tell if it’s heated, dribble a little water into it. It should quickly bubble and evaporate. Give the scallops plenty of room and cook them undisturbed to develop a deep brown crust. They will cook longer on the first side than they will on the second.
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