The first thing you need to know about California abalone is how to pronounce it. It kind of rhymes with macaroni: ab-ah-LOW-nee. Or maybe it sounds a little like someone saying: "Ab- baloney."
What Makes It So Special?
Now that you can say it, why should you care? What's the big deal and why should you eat abalone when you're in California?
Abalone is technically a mollusk, but this fact alone might not very helpful. You may not know what a mollusk is and even if you do, there are 85,000 kinds of them.
An abalone is like a clam or a mussel, but they only have one shell, not two. And they're larger. The red abalone is the largest and the most prized variety, and the only place they live is on the west coast of North America, especially in California. They cling to rocks, and when a piece of kelp drifts by, the hungry mollusk clamps down on the kelp with its foot and then munches away.
What Does It Taste Like?
But all that technical stuff aside, just think of abalone as California's answer to New England lobster - but rarer and some say even more delicious.
Inside an abalone's beautiful, red-tinted iridescent shell, is clam-like meat. When prepared and cooked well, the meat has a delicate flavor and is easy to cut with the side of a fork.
Where to Get Abalone in California
Commercial abalone fishing is illegal in California, so the only way to get it is to dive for it, get it from an abalone farm, or order it at a restaurant.
If you have a seafood allergy, you should avoid eating abalone, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
You may find abalone for sale in grocery stores, at Costco or other places, but much of it is imported. To be sure you're getting the prized, local California red abalone, ask the store or your restaurant server about their source.
To prepare a live abalone for cooking, you have to get it out of its shell. Most people remove the digestive system around the edge by scrubbing it off. At The Abalone Farm in Cayucos, they leave that gray fringe on to create a "rustic" style version.
Restaurants That Serve Abalone
Abalone appears on the menu of many coastal restaurants but may not be offered year round. A good place to start looking for it is to check the list of customers from the Abalone Farm near Cayucos. Among them is the Pacific Cafe in San Francisco, a neighborhood restaurant that serves fresh seafood, simply prepared.
Ember Restaurant in Arroyo Grande (near Pismo Beach) serves dishes using rustic abalone from The Abalone Farm.
Mendocino Abalone Cook-Off
The World Championship Abalone Cook-Off is held in Fort Bragg (Mendocino County) in October. It's open to the public free of charge, but if you want to sample and judge the dishes, you have to buy a tasting ticket.
Where to Buy
We know of four abalone farms that operate along the California coast. You can buy live abalone in the shell or buy prepared abalone steaks that are tenderized and ready to cook.
The edible portion of an abalone in the shell is about 40% to 45% of its weight. One pound of abalone steaks yields enough meat for about four to six people.
- The Abalone Farm in Cayucos only sells commercially, but you can buy their product from Giovanni's Fish Market.
- Monterey Abalone Company ships live to anywhere in the US overnight.
- You can also buy online or get abalone direct from American Abalone Farms in Davenport, north of Santa Cruz.
- The Cultured Abalone Farm in Santa Barbara takes phone orders and sells at the weekly Fisherman's Market.
Diving for Abalone
West Coast abalone are a well-protected creature, but if you know the rules - and can free dive to collect them, you can harvest your own.
In general, abalone hunting season starts in April and ends in November, but it's more complicated than that simple statement. You can't hunt for them in July. In some areas, the season starts instead of April.
Now that you know when there's also where. You can only dive for abalone north of the imaginary line that defines the center of the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. NorCal Outdoor Supply has a good summary of the places that are best to try.
The hard part of it all is that you can't use scuba gear or surface-supplied air when you're diving for abalone. Instead, you have to free-dive in the kelp beds and pry the abalone off the rocks. And make sure they're large enough (7 inches across or more). It's a dangerous activity and people die trying it every year.
If you don't have the gear or want some help learning how to dive for abalone, Sonoma Coast Divers offers abalone-diving classes, equipment rentals and picnics in Salt Point State Park.
Recipe for Abalone Gnocchi in Lemon Garlic Cream
This recipe comes from chef Eric Olson at Allegretto Vineyard Resort in Paso Robles. This is an insider dish.
Yield: 4 servings as a main course
- 1 medium-sized Idaho potatoes, peeled
- 1 whole medium eggs (cage free)
- ¾ teaspoons sea salt
- pinch of ground mace
- ⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh chives
- 4 oz. of Cayucos abalone polished and pounded cut into julienne strips
- 1 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
- Quarter the peeled brown potatoes and boil in water until fully cooked
- Cool potatoes to room temperature
- Put a pot of lightly salted water on to boil
- Rice the potatoes (or mash them with a potato mashing tool)
- Beat the egg and stir into the potato mixture
- Add the salt, white pepper, mace, tarragon, chives and abalone
- Mix all ingredients well
- Slowly add the sifted flour a half a cup at a time until mixture forms one large ball
- Divide ball into four parts and roll each one into a long "snake" about one inch wide
- Cut the dough "snakes" into two-inch-long portions, cutting at a sharp angle
- When the water boilings, adjust to a very soft boil
- Drop the cut dough pieces into the boiling water
- Cook until they start to float on top of the boiling water. This may take a minute or less
- Remove the cooked gnocchi with a slotted spoon and place them in a bowl of ice water to stop overcooking
Lemon Garlic Cream Sauce
- 1 pint heavy cream
- ½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic
- 1 whole Meyer lemon, zested and juiced
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Pinch ground white pepper
- 1 oz. fresh grated parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
- In a large, heavy saucepan combine the heavy cream, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, pepper
- Cook the cream sauce for about five to six minutes until sauce thickens
- Drain the cooked abalone gnocchi well, add to the cream sauce and continue to cook three to four minutes
Serve hot. Garnish with fresh grated Parmesan cheese and chopped chives
Recipe for Classic Western Style Abalone
In the 1920s, a Monterey chef named "Pop" Ernest Doelter invented the abalone steak, tenderizing the abalone meat and frying it in butter. His simple preparation is still one of the best, a method that shows off the abalone's subtle flavor without overwhelming it.
Ways to Coat the Abalone Before Frying
Kinch recommended tossing the abalone in flour.
Chef Neil Smith of Windows on the Water in Morro Bay goes a step further. He coats the abalone in flour, then dips it in egg wash, followed by Panko bread crumbs and another coating of flour.
At Sea Venture Beach Restaurant in Pismo Beach, the chef uses crushed saltine crackers as a coating, dipping each piece in egg and crushed saltines twice for a thicker coating.
Classic Western Style Abalone
Yield: 2 servings
- ½ pound prepared abalone steaks (8 pieces)
- 1 egg
- ½ cup breadcrumbs
- 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon Meyer lemon juice
- In a small bowl shallow and wide enough to hold one abalone steak at a time, beat the egg with a fork until slightly foamy.
- Place breadcrumbs in a second bowl.
- Dip the abalone steaks in egg, then roll in bread crumbs to cover. Do not salt.
- Heat the butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat.
- When the butter stops sizzling and begins to foam, add the abalone to the pan.
- Gently shake the pan constantly. When the butter turns hazelnut brown with a nutty aroma (about 2 minutes), turn the abalone over and sauté another minute.
- Remove the cooked abalone to a plate. Add the lemon juice to the pan and shake it to mix with the juices.
- Spoon some of the lemon juice over each serving.
- Top with a pinch of fleur de sel or sea salt.
More Ways to Serve Abalone
Classic western style abalone is the base for lots of variations. The ones below are a few of them.
Abalone and Mushroom
At Sea Venture Beach Restaurant in Morro Bay, the chef serves the abalone on toast triangles and tops it with oyster mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and quail egg cooked sunny side up. He surrounds that with garlic cream sauce and garnishes it with a few thinly sliced green onions.
Abalone With Cilantro Mint Relish
Chef Jacob Mosa of Lido at Dolphin Bay in Pismo Beach serves fried abalone with cilantro mint relish:
- ½ red bell pepper, finely diced
- ½ yellow bell pepper, finely diced
- 1 cup white vinegar
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 bunch mint leaves (approximately 40 to 50 leaves)
- ½ bunch cilantro
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- ½ cup water
- Salt to taste
- Roll mint leaves into a straw-like shape and cut as fine as possible. Set aside.
- Mince cilantro. Set aside.
- In a small sauce pot, mix the peppers, vinegar, sugar, mint, and cilantro.
- Bring to a boil.
- In a metal bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and water.
- Turn down heat and, while stirring with a whisk, pour in the cornstarch and water mixture.
- Continue cooking until the mixture thickens.
- Season with salt to taste.
Serve hot or cold. Refrigerate if not served within 4 hours.
Cayucos Ocean Rose Abalone With Uni Butter
Executive chef Neil Smith at Windows on the Water in Morro Bay fries the abalone in a mixture of oil and butter then tops it with uni butter and serves it over an Asian salad.
To make the Uni Butter:
- 1 teaspoon fresh uni (sea urchin)
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon cubed butter
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the uni, lemon juice, and cream. Pour into small sauté pan and turn on the heat. After it boils, turn the heat down to simmer and add the butter one cube at a time, constantly stirring by shaking the pan in a clockwise rotation. Once all butter has melted and blended together, add a pinch of salt. Keep warm and set aside.
Serve the abalone over a salad of Asian microgreens, Wakame seaweed salad, julienned cucumbers and sesame seeds, dressed with Lemongrass Vin made of chopped lemongrass, rice vinegar, honey, chopped basil leaves, lemon juice, and canola/olive oil blend.