A Tale of Two Scallops

As I’ve mentioned before, up until the past couple of years, I’ve always been kind of “meh” about seafood. I hated all of it as a kid, but grew to like more and more as I got older and my palate developed. And it’s still always changing. A couple of weeks ago I had a culinary ephiphany and realized that I absolutely love scallops.

After this epiphany, I decided to educate myself about scallops, with the hopes of learning enough to prepare them at home. I found out that there are three types of scallops – wet pack, dry pack, and day boat.

Wet pack scallops are sold in frozen bags, and are usually soaked in water before they are frozen. This water turns them white, and makes them difficult to work with.
Dry pack scallops (or IQF – individually quick frozen) are also previously frozen (you can buy them in bulk in bags, or can usually find them already thawed in a regular grocery store’s seafood area), but these do not have additional water added to them. They appear to be off-white to pinkish to beige. These are a tad more expensive than the wet pack, you’ll want to look for the words “dry pack” on the bag if you buy them that way.

Even more expensive are day boat scallops, which are fresh (never frozen), and are shipped to vendors around the country the same day they are harvested. These are considered to be the creme de la creme of scallops, and are priced accordingly.

The price differences among the different type of scallops are amazing. I ruled out wet pack right off the bat. I was able to find thawed dry pack scallops at Costco for $10.99/lb. Dayboat scallops, at The Fish Guys in the North Market were ~$24.00/lb. Wow! $13 price difference between IQF and day boat? Is it worth springing the extra money for the fresh ones?

Chef Norman Carmichael of Maca Cafe in Powell seems to think so. He uses day boat scallops in his seared scallops dish exclusively. We had a conversation this past weekend about scallops and he seems to think that you get inferior results with IQF scallops.

But what about for your average home cook? Are the results between the two so dramatic that it’s worth a 130% premium on the price? That’s what we here at Casa Foodie sought to find out.

We bought 6 of each kind of scallop – IQF and day boat, and used identical methods for searing both. And then we tasted them alone, and then used them as part of a dish. Here is what we found out.

Almost identical in size. The IQF were slightly whiter, but not dramatically so. The IQF had more collected liquid (but not much), whereas the dayboat scallops were bone dry. After patting the IQF dry with a tea towel, they were almost identical in appearance, and both felt mostly the same, with the fresh scallops feeling just a tad firmer.

Side by Side Comparison of Dayboat and IQF Scallops

Very subtle for both – the dayboat scallops were virtually odorless, and the IQF had slight fishy overtones (think ocean smell, but not overtly fishy). Again, the differences were virtually imperceptible.

Searing Capabilities:
Both seared without a problem, and did so quite well. Surprisingly, the fresh scallops took slightly longer to sear, but both sides caramelized quickly. So no real difference.

My husband actually preferred the IQF, which were slightly sweeter and whose texture was a little less firm. I thought both were excellent.

The Winner:
To me, the fresh scallops had a slight edge, but the differences were so subtle that I can’t justify the $13/lb. price difference. Not when I get almost identical results with both. My husband actually preferred the IQF. So, believe it or not, the IQF wins this one hands down.

Can you guess which one is which in the picture below? The IQF is on the left, the day boat scallop is on the right. If I hadn’t cooked them myself, I never would have known the difference, honestly.

Scallops in Saffron Cream Sauce

We decided on a dish that would let the scallops shine, so we did a bit of wilted garlic spinach at the bottom, arranged the seared scallops on top, and then finished it with a saffron cream sauce. Delicious, and extremely low-carb (which makes this dish a winner for me!).

Speaking of saffron, man were we in for a shock when we went to Penzey’s yesterday to get some and found out the prices had gone up 50%. The sales lady told it was because drought conditions had cut into last year’s harvest. But Trader Joe’s saffron is comparable in quality to Penzey’s mid-grade, and they still have it for $5.99 per 1g. Needless to say, we headed straight away to Trader Joe’s and stocked up. If you use saffron with any regularity like we do, you may want to do the same while the price is still low.

Seared Sea Scallops in a Saffron Cream Sauce
adapted from “Big Small Plates” by Cindy Pawlcyn

For sauce:
1/2 tablespoon butter
1 to 1-1/2 medium shallots, minced
2 tablespoons Manzanilla or other dry sherry
1/2 cup white wine
generous pinch saffron, crumbled
2 cups heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
Several shakes of cayenne
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

To make scallops:
12 large sea scallops
Olive oil for brushing
1-2 tbsp. canola oil
4 tbsp. butter

For plating:
4 handfuls fresh baby spinach
1-2 tbsp. butter
garlic salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce, melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring, until just tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Be careful not to caramelize them. Add sherry and cook it down until the pan is almost dry. Add wine and saffron; cook, stirring, until the alcohol has evaporated, another 2 or 3 minutes. Add cream and cook, stirring, until sauce has reduced at least by half, another 2 minutes or so: you want about 1-1/2 cups of sauce that is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Finish with salt, cayenne, and white pepper. Keep warm while searing scallops or refrigerate and reheat before serving.

Blot scallops with paper towel or kitchen towel to remove excess moisture, then sear using the butter bomb method (video showing the process is here). Set scallops aside.

In a separate pan, melt the butter and wilt the spinach. Season to taste.

To serve, reheat the sauce, if necessary. Place a mound of spinach on your plate, then arrange scallops on top of the spinach. Top with sauce, and then serve.

Serves: 4

8 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Scallops

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