A New Day for Abalone

The endangered mollusk gets a second chance to thrive, thanks to aqua farmers on California’s Central Coast

Red abalone is one of the West Coast’s true aquatic treasures, adored by sea otters and humans alike. The mollusk’s iridescent shell cradles exquisitely delicious meat prized for its delicate favor and silky texture.

The largest and most coveted variety, red abalone was once plentiful in California’s coastal waters, where the crustaceans could be found clinging to rocks by the thousands. During World War II, California abalone was so easy to come by that it was canned and shipped overseas to feed American soldiers, but by the 1970s, over-fishing had caused its population to plummet. In the 1980s and `90s, a disease called “withering syndrome” took a devastating toll on the state’s wild abalone, and environmental impacts caused their main food source—kelp—to disappear. The abalone began to starve in huge numbers, prompting a ban on commercial abalone fishing in 1997. Recreational abalone diving continued until 2017, when the California Fish and Game Commission deemed it off limits. The ban is set to continue through the spring of 2021.

“Farmed ‘reds’ are an excellent and sustainable alternative.”

Luckily, this didn’t diminish the determination of local aquaculturists, who developed techniques to sustainably farm red abalone on the California coast. One of the top purveyors is American Abalone Farms, located in Davenport, inside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Along with live and shelled red abalone, the farm ships oysters, sea urchin and Dungeness crab around the world.

“American Abalone Farms provides Jordan with perfectly sized abalone year-round, fed entirely on harvested wild local kelp,” says Jordan Winery Executive Chef Todd Knoll. “We purchase them at just under three ounces, with shells—an optimal size for a luxurious focal point on the plate.”

Knoll likes to cook abalone low and slow, so the meat is approachably soft, but still has some textural bite to it. “For a red abalone carpaccio, the shelled abalone are cooked sous vide for six hours at 180 degrees with Jordan Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil, estate honey, ponzu and fennel pollen from our garden,” he says. “Then, the abalone are chilled and frozen to allow for careful, thin slicing. Layered with Périgord truffle, the dish is finished with a brush of Meyer lemon-infused olive oil and limu seaweed collected from the Hawaiian island of Molokai.”

Abalone shell and live abalone

He also showcases red abalone in tiradito, a flavorful Peruvian dish similar to ceviche, accented with cilantro, spicy serrano peppers and makrut lime juice. For a creative take on ahi tuna poke, Knoll gently poaches abalone with chardonnay, soy sauce, ginger, and kombu, then combines the meat with apples, sea beans and briny olives. He’ll sometimes use both poaching and searing techniques to impart different flavors and textures to the abalone.

Knoll hopes that, one day, the population will rebound and Sonoma’s brave freedivers are once again permitted to collect wild abalone along the rugged North Coast. Until that day, he’s grateful for the sustainably farmed delicacies provided by California’s skilled abalone farmers. “Abalone aquaculture has been extremely successful,” he says. “Farmed ‘reds’ are an excellent and sustainable alternative.”

Abalone Carpaccio

Sliced abalone carpaccio with truffles and Jordan Chardonnay

This refreshing abalone carpaccio featuring ponzu, fennel pollen and Meyer lemon-infused olive oil is delightful with a glass of Jordan Chardonnay.

How to Clean Live Abalone

Preparing abalone for cooking may seem like a daunting process, but it’s actually fairly simple. Just follow these step-by-step instructions and you’ll soon be prepping like a pro.

Rinse abalone under cold water to remove any sand or small pieces of shell.

To separate the abalone from its shell, carefully slide a sharp, short-bladed knife (an oyster or clam knife works well for small abalone) between the shell and the muscle, following the contours of the pearlescent shell. Use your hands and a blunt knife to gently pry the flesh from the shell.

Use a paring knife or scissors to cut away the viscera, the dark skirting from the edges of the meat (be careful not to rupture the organs, as the result can be messy), and remove the viscera with a quick pull.

Rinse the abalone under cold running water and give each a final scrub with a small, sanitized brush.

To tenderize the abalone before cooking, make small horizontal or vertical slices in the meat and cover it in plastic wrap to hold it in place. Slowly pound it on both sides with a kitchen mallet or large daikon radish until it feels silky (1-2 minutes). Reserve for poaching.