Scallops are a highly prized shellfish for their delicate texture and taste. When cooked properly, like a quick sear in a hot pan, they are deliciously sweet and tender, needing very little fat or added flavor. Whether larger sea scallops or the small bay scallops, just a few scallops on a plate turn dinnertime into quite a delicacy.
What Are Scallops?
Scallops are a bivalve mollusk of the Pectinidae family and are related to clams, mussels, and oysters. There are many varieties of scallop, but the most common is the tiny bay scallop, found in East Coast bays and estuaries, and the larger sea scallop, which exists in the deep cold waters on the ocean floor. Bay scallops are most often less expensive than sea scallops, especially when the sea scallops are very large. No matter the type, the scallop should be a pale pink or light beige color with a soft texture.
How to Cook Scallops
It is important that you don't overcook scallops or else they will become rubbery. Luckily, scallops cook quickly, which makes them perfect for an easy weeknight dinner. The best way to cook scallops, both sea and bay, is in a hot pan on the stovetop. First, if the side muscle is still intact, remove it from each scallop. Then pat them dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat a little bit of olive oil or butter in a skillet and then add the scallops. Cook 2 minutes per side and serve immediately. (This means you need to prep the rest of your meal beforehand.)
What Do Scallops Taste Like?
Scallops, although somewhat delicate, are actually sweet. When raw, they should smell like the ocean (in a good way), and when cooked, have hints of this brininess. Keep in mind they are pretty rich, meaning you won't need to eat too many—good news considering they are on the expensive side. When cooked properly, scallops are smooth and tender and will melt in your mouth.
Varieties of Scallops
The two varieties you will encounter most often are the small bay scallop and the larger sea scallop, both of which are somewhat irregular in shape. The bay scallop is actually the adductor muscle, that hinges the two shells, which is why it is so small. The remaining part of the bay scallop is the coral (ovary or roe) and is inedible. A typical bay scallop is about half an inch wide.
Sea scallops are more than three times larger than bay scallops and can be up to 2 inches in diameter. They are a little chewier than bay scallops but still tender.
You may notice diver sea scallops as a seafood specialty on restaurant menus. A diver scallop is a sea scallop that is harvested by hand by a scuba diver instead of being dredged by a machine. This justifies the higher price tag, especially since diving is better for the environment—there is no machine disturbing the undersea flora and fauna.
Even though the cooking technique is somewhat simple, that doesn't mean you can't introduce a few interesting flavors to your scallop dish. Scallops are found on menus around the world, so you can enjoy recipes from a variety of cuisines.
Where to Buy Scallops
Whether you choose bay or the sea variety, scallops are usually sold by the pound, either in packages or loose in the seafood case. The packaging is marked with the letter U and a number (or range of numbers) indicating how many scallops are per pound. The "U" stands for "under." So a package of large sea scallops might say, “U-10,” meaning there are 10 or fewer scallops per the pound, giving you a point of reference for how large the scallops actually are. In contrast, a package of bay scallops might be labeled “U-30/40," which means you would get 30 to 40 bay scallops in a pound.
Pre-packed scallops may also be distinguished by the terms “wet-packed” or “dry-packed. Dry-packed is what it sounds like: you are getting just the scallops and nothing more—no water or preservatives (and they will feel sticky). The flavor is more pure and concentrated and likely the freshest. The downside is this type has the shorter shelf-life.
Wet-packed indicates that the scallops are sitting in a brine solution meant to extend their shelf-life, and will be somewhat slick. The downside is that the scallops absorb water and plump up, giving them a less pure flavor and a tougher texture. In most cases, dry-packed are preferred, but if wet-packed is all that is available, give the scallops a good rinse before using to get rid of the brine and preservatives used in the packaging.
Because scallops are a prized type of shellfish that can reach $30 a pound, there are, unfortunately, some shops that will try to sell fake scallops. These can be less expensive sea scallops cut up and sold as bay scallops with a higher price tag, or even pieces of shark meat under the guise of sea scallops. To make sure you don't get taken, remember that since scallops are an animal, each individual scallop is not shaped exactly the same—they are slightly different in size, and will not be perfect cylinders. Fake scallops, however, will look identical to each other as they were made using something like a round cookie cutter. A fake scallop will also appear to be more solid and dense.
How to Store Scallops
It is best to cook and eat the scallops the same day as purchase, but if you need to, you can store for a day or two in the refrigerator. Put the scallops in a zip-top bag and place on a bag of ice until ready to use. Alternatively, you can also freeze scallops if you need longer storage; wrapped in plastic the scallops will last up to three months.
Nutrition and Benefits of Scallops
Like other shellfish, scallops are highly nutritious, low in calories and fat, and full of beneficial minerals and vitamins. A 3-ounce serving has just 94 calories and 1.2 grams of fat with a high level of protein at 19.5 grams. Scallops are also a good source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids; one serving has 333 milligrams.
Scallops are high in zinc, copper, and vitamin B12, all of which assist in brain development reducing the risk of mental decline and mood issues. They are also an excellent source of selenium, which promotes proper thyroid function and a healthy immune system.