What Are Scallops?

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Key Takeaways

  • Scallops are an edible shellfish.
  • There are two main categories of scallops, those that come from the bay and those that come from the sea.
  • Properly preparing scallops can be a delicate business, but it’s also not very complicated.

Have you ever seen “scallops” on the menu in a seafood restaurant and wondered what they were? If you don’t live or vacation at the beach, then it’s understandable that you may not be intimately familiar with this shellfish.

The good news is that you’ve come to the right place! Let’s learn all about scallops, including what they are, where they come from and how to prepare them. When you’re done with this article, you’ll be able to discuss scallops with even the saltiest old sea dog.

What Are Scallops?

Though you may not realize it, you probably already know what a scallop’s shell looks like. Shaped like a fan with delicate ridging, the shell frequently is seen in ocean-inspired décor and some recipes.

For our purposes, it is what’s inside that matters. The scallop is a bivalve mollusk that counts claims, mussels and oysters among its closest relatives. The term “bivalve” refers to the two shells that surround the scallop’s interior muscle.

This white muscle is the part that is most frequently consumed by people. If you were to open up a scallop’s shell, the white adductor muscle would be immediately apparent as would an orange component that is known as the coral. Although the coral sometimes is consumed in other parts of the world, this typically is not the case in North America.

When the white adductor muscle of the scallop is cooked, it becomes tender. The flavor is sweet with just a bit of brine thrown in for good measure. Although the adductor muscle typically is white, it is not unusual to see coloration that ranges from a light pink to a pale beige.

If you are buying scallops at the store or are ordering them from a menu, then you may notice that they are described as either bay scallops or sea scallops. Bay scallops are the smaller variety, with most specimens being equivalent in size to a dime. Sea scallops may grow to as large as two inches across, but their meat tends to be not quite as tender as that of the bay scallop.

Where Do Scallops Live?

Shallow waters on the East Coast of the United States, especially bays and estuaries, are home to bay scallops. Frequently, these scallops are found among the reedy sea grasses. However, their population has been in decline for many years in this region, which means that most bay scallops that you find in the U.S. today have been imported from Mexico or China. 

Academic institutions like the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and businesses like Rappahannock Oyster Company are engaged in efforts to bring back bay scallops on the East Coast. Scallop seeds from Falmouth, Massachusetts were introduced to the Chesapeake Bay in 2017 with the intention of boosting production, and results so far are promising. 

By contrast, the sea scallop is found only in the cold, deep waters of the ocean. They may be discovered in many regions of the world, and in the United States, they are most frequently harvested in the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland in the north to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in the south. 

In general bay scallops are less expensive because they are easier to obtain and tend to be smaller. Sea scallops, especially the particularly large specimens, can be quite expensive. 

Is There a Scallop Season?

From the late fall and through the winter, the scallop harvesting season is at its peak. Nonetheless, it generally is possible to obtain scallops in any season, just realize that you’ll be able to sample the freshest catch in the fall and winter.

Tips for Cooking Scallops

Before you begin cooking, it is critical to ascertain whether you are working with bay scallops or sea scallops. Sea scallops have a chewier texture, which makes them better suited to searing so that you can achieve that ideal crispy outside and tender inside. Bay scallops are more delicate and sweeter. It is essential that they be cooked as quickly as possible, making gentle poaching, sautéing or broiling excellent choices.

Grilling can be an ideal cooking method for either type of scallop, but be certain to use skewers so as not to lose any scallops while cooking. 

If you take the time to prepare them properly, scallops will be tender, sweet and briny, and there’s no need for fancy preparation or accompaniments.

Always keep in mind that scallops cook fast. It is wise to prepare all of the rest of your meal before you start cooking your scallops. That’s because most scallops can go from raw to cooked in just four minutes. Also, it’s best to serve them immediately.

Whether you are working with bay or sea scallops, try this super-simple cooking method to see how quick and easy scallop preparation can be.

Begin with a hot pan on the stove top. Remove the adductor muscle from each shell, then pat the muscles dry. Season them to taste with salt and pepper. Heat butter or olive oil in the hot pan, and cook the scallops for two minutes on each side. Serve them immediately for a quick and easy dose of protein with any meal.

For reheating scallops, we have a whole post for that.

A Taste for Scallops

Are you still a little unsure about trying scallops? Maybe you’re worried that you won’t like the taste.

Have no fear, because scallops are among the most delicately flavored and prized of all shellfish. Their overall flavor is sweet, but you’ll definitely notice hints of the saltwater in which the scallop lived. Scallops also have quite a rich flavor, which means that you probably won’t want to overindulge. With scallops tending to be on the more expensive side, you probably won’t want to buy too many anyway.

When properly prepared, you’ll find that scallops pretty much melt in your mouth. They are smooth, tender and very easy to eat. 

Where To Get Scallops

Are you ready to try cooking scallops yourself? You can probably find them at just about any grocery store at the counter where fish and shellfish are sold. Scallops typically are sold by weight, so you might purchase a pound of them for a family meal.

However, you might get a better, and fresher, deal on scallops if you go to a fish market. These most frequently are located in cities or towns that are close to the ocean, so this may not be feasible for you.

You may notice that a package of scallops has a label for with “U” for under and a number that indicates how many scallops you are buying per pound. For instance, you may buy a package with U-10 on the label, which symbolizes that you are buying about 10 scallops per pound.

If you buy pre-packaged scallops, then they may be either dry packed or wet packed. Dry packed scallops tend to be fresher, which means that the flavor will be purer and more concentrated. Wet-packed scallops are sold in a brine solution that extends shelf life and can affect the flavor of the scallops. The brine solution makes the scallops slippery, so you may want to rinse them before you begin cooking.

How to Store Scallops

Eating scallops the same day on which they are purchased always ensures the best in freshness and flavor. However, if you need to store scallops, make certain that you keep them in the refrigerator and only for one or two days. Place the scallops in a bag with a zippered top, and then place that bag on top of a bag of ice. It also is possible to wrap scallops in plastic and freeze them for as long as three months.


What are diver scallops?

Sometimes, you’ll see “diver” scallops on a menu or on the label in a grocery store. This simply means that the scallops were hand-gathered by a scuba diver rather than being dredged up by a machine. This more labor-intensive harvesting method accounts for the higher price that’s typically associated with diver scallops.

Are there really fake scallops?

Yes, many stores sell “scallops” that are actually shark or other fish meat. You can tell the difference because the fake scallops all look identical in terms of size and shape. Genuine scallops will have slightly differing sizes and shapes.

Should I buy dry packed or wet packed scallops?

It really depends on your personal preference, but if you want to experience scallops at their freshest and most flavorful best, it’s wise to opt for the dry packed variety.

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