Y&H has been talking to chefs about fish and shellfish lately, and one of the subjects that most interests me concerns “freshness.”  Exactly how fresh is that “fresh fish” on your plate and, even more pointedly, how fresh do you want it to be?

It sounds like a stupid line of inquiry, but it’s based on the concept of aging steaks. You wouldn’t dare eat bovine flesh fresh off the bone. It has to age, for both flavor and tenderness. Otherwise, you’d be chewing and chewing that tasteless meat like cud.

Some species of fish and shellfish seem to behave similarly. Like scallops.

Barton Seaver was telling me about an experiment at the Woods Hole Laboratory in Massachusetts a few years ago. He and others were asked to judge the quality of scallops in different stages of degradation, from fresh off the boat to 8 days out of the water.  It was a blind test.

“The one that smelled the worst was the freshest,” Seaver told me. “It smelled poopy.” The taste, he added, wasn’t far off.

By contrast, the Blue Ridge chef said, the scallops that were 7 or 8 days old “were the ones that tasted the sweetest and that smelled the most fragrant.”

“This was a wake-up call,” he added.

Just for the record, food chemist Harold McGee doesn’t seem to agree with the results of the Woods Hole test.

In his book On Food and Cooking, McGee writes, “Because their shells don’t close tightly, scallops are usually shucked soon after harvest, with only the adductor muscle kept for the U.S. market, the adductor and yellow and pink reproductive organs for Europe. This means that meat quality usually begins to deteriorate long before it gets to market. On boats that go out for more than a day, the catch may therefore be frozen and/or dipped in a solution of polyphosphates, which the adductors absorb and retain, becoming plump and glossy white. However, such scallops have less flavor and lose large amounts of liquid when heated. Untreated scallops have a duller, off-white appearance with pink or orange tones.”

We may be comparing apples to scallops here, but those two perspectives don’t seem reconcilable. So let’s get more voices in here. What’s your take on fresh scallops?