The Product: Abalone, the Flavor of Northern California

by Katherine Sacks
May 2013

Abalone Stats

$21 to $26 a per pound

Monterey Abalone Company (ships nationwide); The Abalone Farm; American Abalone Farms

Gently pry abalone from the shell using a spoon, being careful not to damage the meat. With a small knife, remove the liver and innards from around the meat. Rinse well to remove bits of shell and rest 24 hours to allow the abalone to relax. Lightly pound abalone to help tenderize them. 

Keep abalone as cold as possible, stored on ice, for 24 to 48 hours. Do not freeze.

Giant surf clams, geoduck clams, razor clams, conch, cuttlefish, and squid

Food lovers come to San Francisco for the city’s infamous sourdough, outstanding farmers market produce, and California common beers from local microbreweries. But for some Bay Area chefs, the one flavor that truly captures the essence of San Francisco is abalone.

“I like to use abalone because it’s very representative of native Northern California cuisine,” says AQ’s Chef Mark Liberman. “I grew up eating wild abalone, and it’s a flavor that I have always loved.” The abalone of Liberman’s childhood was diver-caught, an option no longer available. Over-fishing, disease, and poaching have decimated the wild abalone populations in the United States, and commercial sale of wild abalone is now illegal. But San Francisco’s proximity to Monterey Bay, where the shellfish are farm raised, provides some of the best, sustainable stateside abalone (with a thumbs up from the Monterey Bay Aquarium).

Abalone has a subtly sweet, buttery flavor. “I love using local abalone because, when it is properly prepared, it has a silky texture and mild clean ocean flavor,” says Chef de Cuisine Daniel Gomez Sanchez of Mountain View’s Madera. Achieving that “properly prepared” state can be tricky—the shellfish is often mishandled and cooked incorrectly, rendering chewy, tough product. Storage is paramount to the integrity of abalone. The mollusks are delivered shell-on and raw and have a shelf life of 24 to 48 hours. To preserve freshness, Liberman keeps abalone cool and covered, and he shucks at the last possible moment.

Sanchez takes a different approach, lightly pounding abalone, sealing them in a vacuum bag, and storing on ice. “We only open the bag and score as we need it,” he says. Chef Marty Cattaneo, formerly of Dio Deka, follows a similar routine, letting the abalone rest 24 hours after cleaning and then storing them in vacuum bags. “Since they come from so close, we are able to get a delivery twice a week, which allows us to always have a super fresh product on hand,” says Cattaneo. “The key is to always keep them very cold.”

Because of its delicate flavor, the shellfish is often paired with subtle flavors and added fats. In the West, it’s classically sautéed with brown butter, lemon, and capers, and in the East gently poached in dashi broth. At Madera, Sanchez serves the latter preparation, cooking the abalone sous vide and pouring a matsutake mushroom bouillon over shaved baby turnips and puffed rice. “The goal is a light fragrant soup that balances elements of the ocean, the earth, and the sky,” says Gomex Sanchez. “The ocean comes through from the abalone and the dashi base of the bouillon, the matsutakes add an ethereal perfume, and the two are balanced by earthiness of the turnip.”

Cattaneo opts to cook his abalone in flavor-packed bacon consommé. Paired with slightly sweet scallops and crispy farro, the consommé adds an earthy flavor to the abalone—an elegant dish that tastes hearty, thanks to the slight smokiness and added fat of the bacon. “I like it with pork and pork fat because it provides a bit of richness to the abalone without overpowering it,” he says. “For me, it is also important to cook the abalone with some acid to balance out the sweetness of the shellfish.”

At AQ, Liberman’s fall rendition is presented as a stew of abalone, squashes, and salsify. A creamy nettle-onion purée provides smooth richness, and herbed breadcrumbs add necessary crunch. “I really wanted to combine the ocean and the farm, and a lot of roasted root flavors,” he says.

Whether sautéed, cooked sous vide, or served raw, abalone connects diners with tastes and history of San Francisco. “It's something that maybe a lot of our guests have not had the opportunity to taste,” says Liberman. “It isn't on everyone’s menu, and while it's a luxurious ingredient, it’s very much a Northern California tradition.”