Commercial scallop harvesting leaves little room for error, with the scallops frozen and packaged almost immediately after shucking. In coastal areas, however, particularly along the Atlantic seaboard, fresh specimens will be available, either wild or farmed. Of all shellfish, scallops are among the most perishable, so knowing what to look for in a bad one is vital.
Look for fresh scallop meat that is firm to the touch, with a white to beige color, although some females have a slight orange tint. Avoid those that have taken on a brown discoloration, or that show signs or shredding around the flesh. This is not a sign of expiration, but rather of poor handling.
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Sniff fresh scallops, either shucked or still in the shell. Although they are shellfish, scallops should not really smell fishy at all. Rather, they should give off a sweet, seaweed-tainted aroma. If the fish odor is strong, discard them.
Frozen scallops do not give off any odor from the packet, but avoid those that are not shiny or solid. If there is a lot of frost in the packaging also, it is a sign that the scallops may have passed freshness before freezing in the resulting ambient liquid.
If buying live scallops, buy only those whose open shell closes shut when tapped. Those that do not respond may have breathed their last.
Because they perish rapidly, most sea scallops, the majority of which come from the Northeastern and mid-Atlantic coast, are shucked at sea. Smaller Calico scallops, which come from warmer Gulf of Mexico waters, on the other hand, can be shucked dockside. With the latter, buying from a reputable fishmonger is an essential precaution.
Scallops are very delicate, so they are killed right after harvesting. So-called "Wet pack" scallops are soaked in a sodium tripolyphosphate solution to preserve the meat and keep it plump. Scallops labeled as "dry pack" are untreated but have a shorter shelf life.
Both sea and bay scallops are susceptible to toxic algae and contaminants. With farmed scallops, though, harvesting is prohibited when the level of contaminants in the water reaches a dangerous level. If buying fresh, wild scallops, it is vital to know where they came from.
- Eat fresh scallops on the day of purchase, if possible. If not, refrigerate immediately, but for no longer than 2 days, wrapped in damp paper or covered with a wet cloth. Be careful when storing as most refrigerators are not set cold enough for shellfish.
- To maintain an ideal temperature below 38 degrees Fahrenheit, place the scallops in a dish over ice, on the bottom rack of the fridge where it will be coldest. Take care to cover the tray to catch any dripping from goods stored above.
- Frozen scallops are no match for tender, sweet fresh scallops, but are fine for stir-fries or soups. They can be stored for around 3 months but need to be thawed overnight in the refrigerator, not at room temperature. Expect thawing scallops to seep a lot of liquid.
- To prepare, rinse the scallop portions under cold running water and pat dry.
Do not store live scallops in water, or they will die and start to go bad.
Do not allow raw and cooked scallops to come into contact with each other.