How to Tell the Difference Between Real and Fake Scallops

seared scallops

photo: Brent Hofacker (Shutterstock)

Scallops are a true seafood gem. They’re tender, sweet, and a real delight no matter how you cook them. (I’m a big fan of theirs.) Unfortunately, their luxury can mean they’re quite expensive, which of course makes them look like they’re widely used for counterfeiting attempts. Inner Edition A video was recently released of fish restaurants selling imitation scallops, and the TV show makes it seem like the practice is an epidemic. And I call bullshit.

What Inner Edition says about fake scallops

That Inner Edition Piece found several restaurants that served fried scallops and sent them to a lab for testing. The show discovered that the scallops they tasted contained no scallops at all, and the expert interviewed suggested that the material making up the imitation scallops was actually surimi, or fish paste made with pollack or whiting.

Now, I’m not saying imitation scallops don’t exist at all. In fact, I’ve even found some sold about Hmart (via a Korean brand). Real scallops cost quite a bit; for example, the online retailer Maine Lobster Now sells them for $76.99 a pound. So they’re obviously not a daily treat unless you are Jeff Bezos.

What is surimi used for?

But especially Inner Edition Trash refers to surimi as “fish slime” in an attempt to make the ingredient too sensational, it’s something you’ve probably eaten. If you are a fan of California Rolls, the mock crab in them is indeed made of surimi. The fish it’s usually made of, Pollock, is the same fish McDonald’s uses in their classic sandwich, the Filet-O-Fish. I assure you it’s not garbage.

Fishballs, a very popular ingredient in Asian cuisine for soups and snacks, are often made with surimi and a starch binder. In my opinion, attempting to insult a useful and globally popular ingredient is actually pretty minor.

How to tell the difference between scallop and surimi

The difference between a scallop and surimi is honestly quite big. First of all, one clue lies in its preparation. You won’t see fried scallops (those are the giants) very often because if you cook them this way, they’ll be rubbery and unappetizing. Why ruin an absolutely outlandish ingredient like that, you know? And how many times, if you think about it, have you seen fried scallops on a menu?

You will often see bay scallops, the sweet little things, breaded and fried. They make a great snack for popping or as a side at a seafood stand.

Second, surimi has a very distinct uniform texture. It’s springy, spongy, and not fibrous at all, being essentially a fine paste that has been shaped and cooked. Because of this texture, it is unmistakable. I understand that unless they are shown side by side, people who are less experienced with seafood might not know the difference. Scallops have a vertical fibrous grain that splits easily and can be seen if you examine a piece closely.

Third, scallops all have different shapes and sizes. They are valued according to how many of a certain size it takes to make a pound, ie the fewer per pound the more valuable they are as they are larger. But that’s the thing, too: scallops are all irregularly shaped. None of them are shaped the same. So if you get a basket full of evenly shaped rounds, examine them carefully as you eat them.

Finally, scallops have a sweet and delicate taste. Surimi tends not to have much flavor, so flavor additives are often used to complement its flavor. Frying a scallop would negate its attractive culinary qualities, essentially insulting such a wonderful ingredient that works better with a quick sear in a pan with a little butter.

Inner Edition has a somewhat dubious expert, Dr. David Friedman, who explains some of these things in the video. (I call him dubious for selling “all natural” weight loss supplements on his websitewhich doesn’t bode well for me personally.)

As I said, faux scallops are a real product, there’s no question about that fact. I can also understand why a bad business owner would want to sell a much cheaper ingredient as a luxury item because he can make a lot of money from it. But whether this is as widespread as Inner Edition suggests that this is the case, I seriously doubt it. But do yourself a favour: if you see fried scallops on a menu, skip them. There are better ways to eat them.

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