Abalone (ab-ah-LOW-nee) is a large marine gastropod mollusk. The large sea snail is most often found in the cold waters of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Japan, and the west coast of North America. It has extremely rich, flavorful, and highly prized meat that is considered a culinary delicacy. Among the world's most expensive seafood, abalone is often sold live in the shell, frozen, or canned. It is often cut into thick steaks and pan-fried though it can be eaten raw or added to other dishes.
What Is Abalone?
Abalone is a gastropod mollusk that lives in coastal saltwater. A member of the Haliotidae family, it ranges in size from 4 to 10 inches. Like other univalve snails, it has a single shell on top and uses a large foot to cling to rocks and eat algae. The abalone shell is flat and spiral-shaped with several small holes around the edges. Its other names include ear shells and sea ears because of its shell shape. The interior of the shell is an iridescent mother of pearl (nacre) pattern that is as prized as the meat it protects.
The popularity of abalone led to overfishing and nearly brought the shellfish to extinction. Both white and black abalone that live off the California coast are on the endangered species list and it is illegal to gather wild abalone from the oceans in many parts of the world. Due to careful management practices and strict harvesting regulations, wild abalone populations are making a comeback. Farmed abalone is increasingly available.
Due to regulations and the fact that the abalone requires special preparation before eating, it is expensive. Abalone in the shell needs to be carefully pried out and the meat tenderized. People who eat the shellfish say that the cost and work involved are worth it; the meat is simultaneously sweet, salty, and buttery.
How to Cook Abalone
To prepare abalone, it must be shucked, cleaned, and tenderized or the meat will have a rubbery texture. The abalone attaches to its shell with a solid round muscle at the bottom. To gently release the meat from the shell, a wide, flat, wooden spatula works well. It is sometimes soaked, blanched, or frozen prior to shelling. The viscera (guts), black edges, and tough outer skin is then removed. All parts are edible, but eating these trimmed pieces is a matter of taste and careful preparation so they're often discarded.
The cleaned abalone meat needs to be tenderized, often by pounding it whole or as thick-cut steaks; it can also be done with long, slow cooking methods. The delicate flesh will pick up the flavor of other foods it's cooked with, so seasoning is generally light. Treated carefully as a delicacy, abalone is often gently and quickly fried in a pan, though it may be steamed or poached. It is also eaten raw, particularly in Japanese sashimi.
What Does Abalone Taste Like?
When properly tenderized, abalone has a taste often likened to a cross between scallops and foie gras. Abalone has a crisp chewiness with the distinct saltiness of the ocean waters it lives in, though it is also rich and sweet with a buttery finish. This food is also an excellent way to get a taste of umami as well.
Abalone vs. Whelk
Also a gastropod, whelk is from the Buccindae family. It is considerably cheaper than abalone. Whelk is primarily an Atlantic Ocean sea snail with a spiral shell and it's most common in European cuisines. It's smaller than abalone, doesn't require as much preparation, and often cooked and served in the shell. The taste is similar to clams and it can easily become too chewy when overcooked.
There are around 100 species of abalone worldwide. About 15 species are grown in aquaculture settings and North America is home to about nine species. Black, pink, pinto, red, and white abalone are the most common.
Abalone is often treated in a very delicate way that showcases the shellfish's esteemed meat. Gourmet dishes will often simply fry steaks, sometimes in butter and with mushrooms, while one favorite California dish breads it before cooking. It's very common to see abalone in upscale versions of Southeast Asian restaurant dishes, including raw as sashimi or tartare, as part of a baked seafood medley platter, or as a topping for soup and porridge.
Where to Buy Abalone
In many parts of the world, it is illegal to harvest or sell wild abalone. The laws vary greatly and it's important to check the rules and regulations where you live if you plan on diving for abalone. Even commercial fishers are often restricted in how many wild abalones they can gather in a certain period of time. Farming abalone has become common in areas where this special mollusk lives. It's a convenient way to find sustainably raised abalone, just be sure to buy it from a reputable supplier. Fresh abalone can often be shipped overnight.
Whole abalone is commonly sold by weight. It's important to remember that the shell is heavy; consider that you'll get less than half the total weight in meat. When selecting fresh abalone, it should be thick, dark, and have no off smells. Shucked, cleaned, and frozen abalone meat is also available and the price is comparable to the whole shellfish because of the extra processing required. In either form, abalone is expensive and considered a luxury food. Finding a "deal" on this shellfish may mean that it is poor quality or illegally harvested.
Though not widely available, canned abalone can be found. Cleaned and cooked, it is convenient and probably one of the most expensive canned foods you'll put in the pantry.
It is preferable that fresh abalone is prepared and eaten the same day as it was caught or purchased. It can be kept alive overnight in the refrigerator: Place it in a bowl covered with wet towels. Any abalone you won't eat by the next day should be shucked and cleaned, then frozen. Commercially canned abalone may keep for up to five years.