What Are Scallops? Everything You Need To Know

Learn the basics of this delicious shellfish, from what they look like to where they live, and most importantly: the best ways to cook them.

Seared Scallop Gemelli with Asparagus, Snap Peas, and Pecorino
Photo: Luca Travoto

Before throwing these beloved bivalves on the grill or completing the perfect pan sear, spend a moment mastering the basics of scallops, both bay and sea varieties. And after answering your *searing* questions about where these delicious shellfish come from and the best time of year to buy scallops, we'll share our favorite bay and sea scallop recipes.

Scallop divers fishing in Scotland
Nick David/Getty Images

What Are Scallops?

Scallops are a type of bivalve mollusk, meaning the interior muscle is surrounded by two shells similarly to oysters, mussels, and clams. Inside the shell, scallops have a white adductor muscle (the part we to eat) that opens and closes the shell, as well as a bright orange section called the coral. The muscle is round and tender when cooked, with both a touch of sweetness and briny saltiness. The coral is also edible, but is not typically consumed in the U.S. There are two types of scallops: bay scallops and sea scallops. The bay variety are smaller (about the size of a dime) and more tender, while sea scallops are larger, growing as big as 2 inches.

Live Scallop in Water showing Vivid Blue Eyes
ShaneKato/Getty Images

What Do Scallops Look Like?

The shell of a scallop has the classic fanned-out shape so symbolic of maritime décor. But watch out: Unlike their other bivalve buddies, scallops can swim across the ocean floor—quite quickly!—by clapping their shells together. Scallops also have bright blue eyes. Yes, you read that right: Scallops have anywhere from 50 to 100 small, bead-like blue eyes along the edge of their shell's opening that they use to detect dark, light, and motion. They even use their retinas to focus on light, similar to human eyes.

Chesapeake comeback, the little scallop that could,

Where Do Scallops Come From?

Bay scallops are typically found in bays, estuaries, and shallow waters on the East Coast, living in the reedy seagrasses. Many scallops that are consumed in the U.S. are imported from China and Mexico, as their domestic populations have dwindled in recent decades. Efforts to reinvigorate the population of Chesapeake Bay scallops by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and founders of Rappahannock Oyster Company have shown great promise: In 2017, they brought down 400,000 scallop seeds from Falmouth, Massachusetts, and are refining their grow-out techniques for commercial harvests. You can also dive for these smaller mollusks in Northwest Florida from July to early October.

Sea scallops are found in deep, cold ocean waters—up to 200 meters deep—around the world. In the U.S., they are typically caught in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, from Newfoundland to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

When Is Scallop Season?

Scallops reach peak harvests during late fall and winter. They're typically available year-round, but seek them out during the last few months of the year for the freshest catch.

How to Cook Scallops

When cooking scallops, it's important to note that methods differ slightly for bay and sea scallops. With sea scallops' chewier texture, they lend themselves better to searing, in order to create a just-right crispy exterior. Sweeter, more delicate bay scallops cook quickly and are best for quick sautés, broiling, and gentle poaching. Grilling yields delicious results for both bivalves; just be sure to use skewers so as to not lose any precious scallops and to facilitate easy flipping. Always pat scallops dry before tossing them on the grill, too. When prepared properly, both scallop varieties offer tender, sweet-yet-briny goodness and shine in dishes with simple preparation.

Scallop Recipes

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Seared Scallops with Lemon-Herb Rice

Seared Scallops with Lemon-Herb Rice
Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis

Recipe: Seared Scallops with Lemon-Herb Rice

02 of 03

Seared Scallops with Fresh Tomato-Basil Sauce and Orzo

Seared Scallops with Fresh Tomato-Basil Sauce and Orzo
Linda Pugliese; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke; Food Styling: Anna Hampton

Recipe: Seared Scallops with Fresh Tomato-Basil Sauce and Orzo

03 of 03

Scallops with Pesto, Corn, and Tomatoes

Scallops with Pesto, Corn, and Tomatoes
Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Ruth Blackburn; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis

Recipe: Scallops with Pesto, Corn, and Tomatoes

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are scallops good for you?

    This healthy, low-fat protein is packed with nutrients like zinc, selenium, and Vitamin B12. Scallops also contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and brain-boosting choline.

  • How often should you eat scallops?

    According to the Food and Drug Administration, scallops are one of the best choices for seafood because of low mercury levels. The FDA recommends eating scallops two to three times a week, or once a week if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

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  1. 1. Advice about eating fish (October 2021) - Food and Drug Administration. Accessed May 10, 2023. https://www.fda.gov/media/102331/download.

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