Have you ever seen a sign for “dry scallops” and wondered what it meant? Well, I'm here to explain it to you, although it's not as straightforward an explanation as I'd like.
While “dry” has a simple definition in the scallop world, it’s been misapplied so often it now represents a range of qualities rather than a specific status.
Technically, a dry scallop is one that hasn’t been soaked in a chemical solution, which would most often be Sodium Tripolyphosphate (TSP). Why, you may ask, would anyone want to soak scallops in a chemical solution? One reason is that chemicals such as TSP act as a preservative, so scallops caught on a 10-day trip will still be sellable at offloading (and after their long trip to grocers). That seems reasonable, right? I mean in an ideal world we’d have no need for preservatives, but we don’t live in an ideal world so they serve a purpose even if they don’t sound particularly appetizing.
The second reason is that TSP attracts and retains moisture. That also sounds like a decent idea, because a moist scallop sounds appetizing, right?
Nope. Not in this case.
We’re not talking about retaining moisture to ensure a top-quality texture and mouthfeel. We’re talking about plumping the scallops 'til they’re chock-full o’ water.
And this is bad for several reasons.
The first is that you pay by the pound, so you end up paying MORE money for your watered-down scallops.
And the second reason is that all that water gets in the way of a good sear. A properly seared scallop will have a deeply caramelized surface. To achieve this, the sugars and amino acids in the scallop must come into direct contact with the hot pan. As the extra water in soaked scallops evaporates it sneaks out between the scallop and the pan, so you end up with a steamed surface rather than a browned crust. The only way to brown a wet scallop is cook all the extra juices out, by which point you'll have a chewy, dry scallop. Doesn’t sound too appetizing, does it? Check out this video to see what I'm talking about.
Want to hear something even less appetizing? TSP is regularly used as a cleaning product, lubricant and degreaser, which is why wet scallops can feel slimy and taste metallic or soapy.
Is your mouth watering yet??
OK, so I think it’s pretty clear we should avoid TSP-soaked scallops. But can we just agree to do that and call it a day?
Nope. Sorry. Because TSP has some obvious downsides, there are now other chemicals on the marketplace designed to perform the same tasks more covertly. They can plump scallops and other seafoods to add weight and prevent rot without bestowing a soapy or metallic flavor. Technically any such ingredient should be listed on the product label, but you often need such small amounts of these sophisticated compounds to achieve the desired effect they're essentially undetectable, not that it's common to check... and since many folks purchase their fish at a fish counter and don’t see a label, who knows what might be lurking in those scallops…(maybe a quick rewrite here)
But you don't need chemicals to get "wet" scallops. As you may know, 95% of U.S. sea scallops come from trip boats at sea for a week or more at a time. They store their scallops buried in ice, and over the course of the trip the scallops absorb melting ice water like little sponges. A 1996 study from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science* showed that while natural scallop moisture contents ranged from 73.7 to 78.9%, moisture content at (trip boat) offloading ranged from 74.2 to 82.5%. That might not sound like much, but it’s similar to the difference between a pear (83%) and plum (87%).
In the mid 1990’s the FDA implemented a policy requiring scallops with a moisture content above 80% to be labeled “water added scallop product”, but under pressure from industry this requirement was abandoned in 2004. And neither the FDA nor anyone else enforces when the term “dry” can be applied, so just like “sustainable”, it’s a catch word that’s meaningful in principle but often not in reality.
Speaking of reality, here are some photos of a little experiment I conducted last week (check out the video here).
I purchased frozen scallops from a big box store and scallops from a Portland Maine fish store (not the one I frequent by the way) and compared them to my frozen scallops from Stellwagen Bank. Right off the bat, you can see just how different they look. Here are Downeast Dayboat scallops:
And below are defrosted scallops from a big box store, which listed TSP in the ingredients.
Notice how unnaturally turgid the box store scallops are, like a water balloon about to burst? Think Sophia Loren vs Pamela Anderson... I'll take Sophia Loren please...
The scallops from the local shop, which weren't labeled wet or dry, fall somewhere in between You can find out their relative "wetness" if you watch the video.
And the difference is even more obvious in the pan, as shown below, with Downeast Dayboat scallops at 11:00, the big box store scallops at 6:00 and the local shop scallops at 2:00. These were cooked in the same pan for the same amount of time. Just look at the difference - you can even see the liquid oozing out of the wet scallops (check out the video for more).
So in the case of scallops, the old adage "You get what you pay for" is usually true. But of course there are exceptions. In 2010 while still working for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, I took a seafood processor and fisheries manager from the Isle of Man on a tour of Maine. A reputable wholesaler gave us a tour and showed us their premium "super dry" scallops. Upon leaving, the processor gave the fisheries manager a knowing look and said "no way those were dry, mate" and they both laughed. Because in Europe those "super dry" scallops would never pass as dry. But that's where we are in the U.S.: because the "soaking" starts on the boats (or at least 95% of them), it's just generally accepted that all scallops will have some degree of added water, so "dry" is a relative term. I even heard one dealer say he thinks of dry scallops as ones that have been soaked for only a few hours. And since no one patrols usage of the term dry, he's free to apply it that way.
So what's a consumer to do? Well, if you want truly exceptional scallops you should buy true dayboat scallops from a fishmonger you trust.
And of course we here at Downeast Dayboat would be happy to help you do that. As you know, Downeast Dayboat scallops NEVER touch fresh water, which is one reason (but not the only reason) they're so exceptional.
In closing, here's a photo of Waylon looking coy. He wants you to eat more Downeast Dayboat scallops too.
 DuPaul, et al, 1996 Natural and Ex-Vessel Moisture Content of Sea Scallops (Placopecten magellanicus) https://www.vims.edu/GreyLit/VIMS/mrr96-5ocr.pdf
 * Incidentally, both the Downeast Dayboat scallops and box store scallops weighed 0.14 lbs pounds when raw. After cooking the Downeast Dayboat scallops weighed 0.12 lbs and the box store scallops weighed 0.095 lbs. The local shop scallops went from 0.16 to 0.115 lbs.