What Are Scallops?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Raw scallops on a cutting board with lemon, garlic, parsley, and olive oil

Shana Novak / Getty Images

Scallops are shellfish that are highly prized 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 large sea scallops or 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 deep, cold waters on the ocean floor. Bay scallops are usually less expensive than sea scallops, especially when the sea scallops are very large. No matter the type, the scallops 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 they will become rubbery. Luckily, scallops cook quickly. Prep the rest of your meal beforehand because you'll need just four minutes to cook the scallops—and you must serve them immediately. The best way to cook scallops, both sea and bay, is in a hot pan on the stovetop. If the side muscle is still intact, remove it from each scallop, pat them dry, and season with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil or butter in a skillet and cook the scallops two minutes per side. Alternatively, breading and deep-frying, baking, grilling, and broiling are also great options for cooking scallops.

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, they should still 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

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 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 two 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 as there is no machine disturbing the undersea flora and fauna.

Scallop Recipes

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

Scallops are usually sold by the pound, whether you choose the bay or sea variety. Most upscale markets carry scallops, but a safer bet is to go to a fish market. The packaging of scallops is marked with the letter U (for "under") and a number or range of numbers indicating how many scallops there are per pound (like "U-10," meaning you're getting under 10 scallops per pound).

Prepackaged scallops may also be distinguished by the terms “wet-packed” or “dry-packed." With dry-packed scallops, you get just the scallops and nothing more, with a more pure and concentrated flavor, fresher, and with a shorter shelf life. Wet-packed scallops sit in a brine solution meant to extend their shelf life and will be somewhat slick (give the scallops a good rinse before using to get rid of the brine and preservatives used in the packaging).

Make sure you're getting the product you're paying for: All scallops should look slightly different in size, like all animals of the same species do, and not be perfect cylinders. However, fake scallops will look identical to each other as they were made using something like a round cookie cutter. Fake scallops will also appear to be more solid and dense; they are likely made of shark meat.

Four easy ways to determine if a scallop is fake
The Spruce / Hugo Lin

Storing Scallops

It is best to cook and eat the scallops the same day they are purchased, but if you need to, you can store them for a day or two in the refrigerator. Put the scallops in a zip-top bag and place it on a bag of ice until ready to use. Alternatively, thoroughly wrap the scallops in plastic if you need longer storage in the freezer, they will keep for 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. They are also high in zinc, copper, and vitamin B12, all of which assist in brain development, reducing the risk of mental decline and mood issues. Finally, they are an excellent source of selenium, which promotes proper thyroid function and a healthy immune system.