How to shop for scallops (Coquilles St. Jacques)

Scallops, also known as Coquilles Saint-Jacques, are one of my favorite types of seafood. The taste is complex and at the same time sweet and salty, and the texture is creamy. Raw scallops are my favorite type of sashimi, but only if they are very fresh.  I can still remember the first time I had scallops, in 1998 at the PwC christmas dinner where seared scallops were served as a hors d’oeuvre. At the time I had no idea that the very tasty morsels that looked like marshmellows had been taken out of shells that look like the logo of the oil company Shell. [For the Dutchies out there, did you notice the resemblance between the words “schelp” (shell) and “scallop”? That is no coincidence!]

Scallops fit very well with my favorite type of cooking, because they are at their best when they are as fresh as possible and you do as little as possible with them. That’s another nice thing about scallops: you don’t have to be a very fancy chef to be able to cook them. The hardest part is buying them, and that is why I wrote this article.

Scallops are for sale in three qualities with corresponding price tags:

  1. Fresh in the shell (in the Netherlands around 3 euros each or 12 euros per kilogram including the shells)
  2. Fresh out of the shell (in the Netherlands around 1 euro each or 35 euros per kologram)
  3. Deep-frozen out of the shell (in the Netherlands around 16 euros per kilogram)

Scallops are at their best when they have just been taken out of the sea and then start to deteriorate slowly. Fresh scallops are very firm, smell pleasantly and are easy to sear or sautée. Once out of the shell they slowly start to become softer and will lose much more moisture when you try to sear or sautee them. When they are more than a week out of the shell or worse have been deep-frozen, they will leak so much liquid that it will be impossible to sear them properly.

The picture above is of a fresh scallop that I had taken out of the shell myself and then seared briefly in hot oil. This scallop was very firm and easy to sear in less than a minute.

The second picture is of a scallop that had been taken out of the shell 4 days before. It was taken out of the shell in the USA on December 21 and I had bought it on December 22 in Amsterdam, but this was for our Christmas dinner and we were travelling to La Torre del Saracino on the 23rd and 24th and therefore it was as fresh as possible. As you can see I could still sear it, but it took more time (thus making the scallop meat tougher) and it didn’t get as browned. I had kept a few of the December 21 scallops and try to sear them on the 31st, so 10 days out of the shell, and that was impossible. Instead of browning they would cook in the liquid that was seeping out. (Unfortunately I did not take a picture of this, so you’ll have to take my word for it.) My point is that although they were initially the same scallops, just keeping them in my fridge at 0C/32F for 6 more days made all of the difference.

Quality #1: Fresh in the shell

There are two qualities of fresh scallops in the shell: scallops caught with nets dredged along the bottom of the sea and so-called “diver scallops” (Dutch: handgedoken) that were harvested by divers. Diver scallops have a higher price tag, but unlike the scallops caught with nets there is never a large amount of mud or sand in them that you would also be paying for and they are usually fresher. If available, go for diver scallops.

When shopping for scallops in the shell, always smell them. Since this is a luxury item, they do not always sell quickly and may have been in your fishmonger’s display for some days. Scallops in the shell are usually not treated with preservatives, so even kept on ice they can go bad pretty quickly. By smelling it is very easy to tell if they are fresh or not. Fresh they will smell like the ocean (fresh and slightly salty). If they are not fresh, you will not like the smell. If your fishmonger doesn’t let you smell them, you know enough.

The hard part may be to get the scallop out of the shell. You can ask your fishmonger to do this for you, or you can do it yourself. It is not very difficult, but you may not find if pleasant to remove the slimy parts that you won’t eat.

The scallop has one straight shell and one curved shell. Simply insert a sharp knife into one of the holes on the side, and cut as closely as you can along the straight shell, going round once the shell opens a bit. Be careful to keep the shell closed while you do this to prevent the scallop from tearing.

You can now easily take the scallop out of the curved shell with a spoon.

With your fingers just tear off everything except for the muscle (the white ‘marshmellow’). Some people also like to eat the orange/pink “coral” that is the roe.

Rinse the scallop with cold water and pat dry with paper towels.

You may wonder what knife you’ll use for taking the scallop out of the shell. On the one hand you need a sharp knife, but on the other hand you may not want to use your best chef knife because it might be damaged by the tough shell. I own a dedicated knife for this from France as shown above. An oyster knife may also do the trick, although the blade of an oyster knife may be too short. If you don’t own a dedicated knife for this, use an old but sharp knife.

You may also wonder what yield you will obtain from taking scallops out of the shell. I recently bought 18 large diver scallops for a total of 5.8 kilograms (12.9 lbs). This yielded 680 grams (24 oz) of scallop flesh, a yield of 11.6%.

Quality #2: Fresh out of the shell

These are the scallops how they are sold at most fishmongers in the Netherlands. They are harvested in the USA and treated with preservatives to give them a shelf life of 10 days. They are indeed safe to eat for 10 days if they are kept in the coldest part of your fridge (preferably at 0C/32F), but as described above the quality does deteriorate slowly because they lose their firmness and become more difficult to sear.

The scallops arrive in the Netherlands in buckets of 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) as shown above. It is very likely that your fishmonger also gets them in buckets like this and that he will sell them until close to the expiry date. Ask your fishmonger about the production date (that should ideally be not more than 3 or 4 days ago). Or even better if you need a whole kilogram of scallops: simply order your own bucket and insist on it having a production date of 2 or maximum 3 days prior.

Quality #3: deep-frozen

The ice-crystals that will form when freezing the scallops will destroy the muscle tissue, so deep-frozen scallops are never the same quality as fresh. Use them only for recipes where you do not have to sautee or sear them, see below. To preserve as much of the texture as possible, let the scallops thaw slowly in the fridge.

Which scallops to buy?

So what is my advice? Well that depends on what you would like to do with them. If your budget is tight, my advice would be to buy less of a good quality. I would rather serve 1 perfect scallop than 3 soggy ones.

To eat scallops as sashimi, only quality #1 will do.

To eat scallops seared/sauteed, the best is quality #1 but quality #2 with a production date of 4 days ago or less will do as well. If you can get quality #2 with a production date of no more than 2 days ago, the additional spending and work for using quality #1 may not be worth it. Also because it may be difficult to find really fresh quality #1, and it is usually unknown how long those have been out of the sea already.

To eat scallops steamed or smoked, quality #2 should do although you should still check the production date or the firmness of the scallops.

To eat scallops stewed (usually in a creamy sauce), deep-frozen is the economical option. I would not use quality #1 for stewed scallops because you won’t taste the difference and the difference in spending and the amount of work is enormous.

Any questions about shopping for or preparing scallops?

If you have any questions, just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. This includes questions regarding wine matches for scallops, which of course depends on the way you will prepare them.

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