Abalone is a large marine gastropod mollusk (a.k.a. a sea snail) that is found in the cold waters of New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa as well as the Northwestern coast of the United States and Canada. It has extremely rich, flavorful, highly prized meat; it is so highly prized, in fact, that abalone was brought to the brink of extinction on the West Coast where they were once so plentiful that they could be simply picked off rocks at low tide. Careful management has brought population levels back a bit and some recreational harvesting is allowed. For those of us not brave enough or geographically situated to dive for abalone, farmed abalone is increasingly available.
How to Prepare Abalone
Where to Get Abalone
For the largest and best wild abalone, you need to dive for them or know someone who will since it is illegal to sell wild abalone. But diving is only legal with a license within defined areas, following strict rules. Each state has its own regulations so it is important to check the rules and regulations where you live.
If you are not diving for wild abalone, there are several abalone farms in California and Hawaii where you can get this special mollusk. The Monterey Abalone Company has been growing abalone under the piers in downtown Monterey since 1996 and sells sustainably raised red abalone live and will ship overnight.
The abalone attaches to its shell with a solid round muscle at the bottom, while everything else is just clinging to the shell. You can find a lot of ways to pry a whole abalone out of its shell. Screwdrivers and crowbars are frequently used, but a simple wide, flat, wooden spatula works wonders for gently releasing an abalone from its shell.
Open a section between the abalone and the shell by working the spatula between the non-attached flesh and the shell until you hit the muscle that is attached to the shell. Then work the spatula around and along the space between the muscle and the shell until the abalone detaches. Push against the shell with the tool rather than the abalone for easiest release and to keep the abalone whole.
Once you remove the whole abalone from its shell, you will see it is attached to the guts, which is called the viscera. This may not be the most pleasant of tasks, but you need to separate the two from each other using a knife and discard the viscera.
Next, you need to cut or scrub off the black edges, and then remove any tough pieces from the abalone. Now you have a whole, cleaned abalone.
How to Tenderize Abalone
Once tenderized, abalone is best described as a cross between scallops and foie gras (in a good way). It needs tenderizing—or long, slow cooking to tenderize it—or it will have the texture of a rubber tire. There are a couple ways to tenderize the potentially tough flesh of succulent abalone.
The first, and most common way is to slice the abalone and then gently but thoroughly pound each slice with a meat tenderizer or the back of a large spoon.
A second option is to pound the entire cleaned abalone. This can be done by wrapping the cleaned abalone in a clean towel and pounding it with a baseball bat or similar piece of wood, or pounding the wrapped abalone against a hard surface, being careful to pound gently to avoid tearing too much of the abalone flesh.
A final way to tenderize abalone is in the cooking, either by braising or stewing it.