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Seafood FAQ: Don't get soaked when buying scallops
Meats treated with STP must be marketed as such.
By Steven Hedlund
July 01, 2005
Scallops resurfaced as one of the nations 10 favorite seafood items in 2003, when Americans devoured a total of 96 million pounds of meats. Previously, the bivalve hadn't cracked the top 10 since 2000, when consumers ate 76 million pounds.
However, the rising popularity of scallops gives unscrupulous processors the incentive to stretch a profit by adding too much water to the drum-shaped meats. Retailers and chefs need to understand the difference between "wet" and "dry" scallops if they're to purchase and market them properly.
And they need to know that scallops, wet or dry, are delicate, cook quickly and shrink and toughen when overcooked. It takes only one bad experience for a consumer to never buy scallops again.
Q. What's the difference between wet and dry scallops?
Since scallops don't live long out of water, they are shucked, washed to remove bits of mud, shell or viscera and iced at sea, if not frozen onboard. Sometimes, the meats are treated with a mixture of water and sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), a practice commonly referred to as "soaking," to prevent moisture loss.
Simply put, "wet" scallops have been soaked; "dry" scallops have not. Soaking also lengthens the shelf life by a few days (dry scallops have a shelf life of nine to 18 days, if handled properly and stored at no higher than 35 degrees F).
In terms of appearance, "dry scallops have more color variation [than wet scallops]. Some even have a strong orange tint," says Berkeley, Calif., chef Jay Harlow, author of 12 cookbooks, including "West Coast Seafood: The Complete Cookbook."
"If they're [uniformly] white," he adds, "it's usually a sign that they've been soaked or sitting in water."
Oversoaked scallops are artificially shiny and have a spongy feel, whereas dry scallops are creamy white and have a firm texture. Top-quality product has an ivory translucency and elastic springiness.
Q. Is treating scallops with STP legal?
Yes. STP is a food additive the Food and Drug Administration generally recognizes as safe (GRAS). STP is also used to treat shrimp and lobster meat.
However, oversoaking scallops is considered economic fraud, because consumers are paying for water, not meat, says an FDA spokesman.
"If we believe scallops have been oversoaked, we can take regulatory action, he notes. Soaking is intended to help prevent moisture loss, not bulk up the size of the meats."
The weight of the meats increases 3 to 4 percent when dipped in 1 kilogram of water and 100 grams of a 1-to-1 mixture of STP and glassy sodium phosphate for 30 minutes, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. That's after the meats have been frozen and glazed, then thawed.
Q. Must STP-treated scallops be labeled as such?
Yes. STP must be labeled as an ingredient. Previously, scallops consisting of less than 80 percent water were to be labeled "dry," scallops consisting of 80 to 84 percent water were to be marked "water-added scallop product," and scallops consisting of more than 84 percent water were illegal to market.
But last year, the FDA threw out the labeling policy it adopted in 1992 after new data suggested that the natural water content of the various scallop species (there are more than 350 in the Pectinidae family) was higher and more variable than previously indicated, says the FDA spokesman.
Q. What's the best way to cook scallops?
That's completely up to the chef or retailer, when asked by a consumer, to decide. But here are a few recommendations:
"With any scallop, cook it just enough that the center is just losing its translucency," says Harlow, who also teaches cooking classes on the West Coast and publishes The Seafood Monitor, an online newsletter. "With a big one, it's like the equivalent of medium rare. If you cook it beyond that stage, it will continue to dry out.
"I like to sear scallops in a skillet along with saffron risotto made with a seafood stock," he says. "But the simplest way to cook scallops is to dust them with a little flour and saute them in a little oil with white wine, shallots and butter. You know it's perfect if it's succulent and moist and heated all the way through."
"I advise our customers to sear scallops in a smoking hot pan, or, in the case of the giant Mano de Leon [diver scallops from Mexico], I wrap them in pancetta and recommend they be grilled over a medium heat until the pancetta crisps," says Bill Dugan, owner of the FishGuy Market in Chicago.
"The scallops we get are so fresh," he adds, "that we also recommend various raw preparations or a la minute ceviche."
The most important thing to remember is that scallops are delicate and cook quickly. If consumers overcook or undercook them, "they're inclined to think scallops aren't special," says Harlow. "The main trend over the past 10 to 20 years has been to treat them as something special. They're like filet mignon."
Q. Do wet and dry scallops cook differently?
Yes. Wet scallops shed more water and shrink more than dry scallops when cooked.
When seared, dry scallops brown on the outside, whereas wet scallops don't brown unless overcooked, says Harlow. Grilling and sauteing are the best ways to cook wet scallops, he adds.
"I like scallops on the grill. I alternate scallops and salmon on a skewer, because they take about the same amount of time to cook," says Harlow. "That's the way a lot of consumers and mid-scale restaurants are going to prepare them anyway"
Q. What happens to wet scallops when cooked improperly?
"A lot of water is released when cooking wet scallops, says Dugan. "The result is a shrunken, aged product that won't caramelize in the pan."
"If overcooked, they're chewy and rubbery," concurs Harlow. "If undercooked, there's a noticeable difference in texture between the inside and outside."