How to Identify Fake Scallops

Beware of Imitators of This Delicate Shellfish

Raw scallops

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Scallops, when cooked properly, are deliciously sweet and tender, needing very little fat or added flavor. Just a few on a plate turns dinnertime into quite a delicacy! So it sure is disappointing when the scallops you are eating don't live up to these standards. Could that mean that the scallops are in fact not really scallops at all? Before coming to that conclusion, you should learn a bit about scallops themselves.

Types of Scallops

The scallop is a bivalve mollusk of the family Pectinidae and is related to clams, mussels, and oysters. There are many varieties of scallop, but the most common is the tiny bay scallop, found in East Coast bays and estuaries, and the larger sea scallop, which exists in the deep cold waters on the ocean floor. Bay scallops are most often less expensive than sea scallops, especially when the sea scallops are very large.

The bay scallop is actually the adductor muscle (which hinges the two shells), as the remaining part of the bay scallop is the coral (ovary or roe) and is inedible. A typical bay scallop is about half an inch wide, is a pale pink or light beige color, and has a soft texture. Sea scallops, on the other hand, are more than three times larger and can be up to 2 inches in diameter. They are a little chewier than bay scallops but still tender. Both bay and sea scallops are somewhat irregular in shape.

Over the past several years, diver sea scallops have made an appearance as a seafood specialty on restaurant menus. Instead of using scallop dredges on the bottom of the ocean floor, divers harvest sea scallops using their hands. This may justify the higher price tag, but diving is also better for the environment as there is no machine disturbing the undersea flora and fauna.

How Scallops Are Sold

Whether bay or sea, scallops are usually sold by the pound and often in packages. The packaging is marked with the letter U and a number (or range of numbers) indicating how many scallops are per pound. For example, bay scallops might be labeled “U-30/40” while large sea scallops could be “U-10.” This means that there are between 30 and 40 bay scallops per pound while you will get just 10 sea scallops for the same weight.

Pre-packed scallops may also be distinguished by being “wet-packed” or “dry-packed. Dry-packed is what it sounds like: you are getting just the scallops and nothing more (and they will feel sticky). Wet-packed, on the other hand, indicates that the scallops are sitting in a brine solution meant to extend their shelf-life, and will be somewhat slick. The dry-packed are preferred as they are fresher, but if wet-packed is all that is available, they simply need to be rinsed before using.

Identifying Fake Scallops

Because the scallop is a prized type of shellfish that can reach $30 a pound, there are, unfortunately, some shops that will try to sell “scallops” that are not true to their name. Certain unscrupulous fish markets and grocery stores have been known to swap out pieces of less expensive large sea scallops for smaller, more delectable bay scallops. Worse yet, some fish counters substitute shark meat for scallops—charging you for pricey scallops while they paid less for cheaper shark meat.

If you are questioning whether you have the real deal on your plate or not, there are a few tips to help you decipher if the scallops are authentic or fake. Since scallops are an animal, each individual scallop is not shaped exactly the same—they are slightly different in size, and won't be perfect cylinders. Fake scallops, however, will look identical to each other as they were made using something like a round cookie cutter. The texture of the scallop should also be a good indicator as there are distinct grains in real scallops, where it looks like the piece would just fall apart if "sliced" with a fork. A fake scallop would appear to be more solid and dense.

If you are specifically looking for imitation scallop, however, there are some honestly-labeled imitation scallop products, similar to the imitation crab and lobster sold by reputable seafood firms and grocery stores.