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A slice of butter, a smattering of parsley, a quick pan sear—there’s a lot to love about a fresh batch of scallops. But as every coastal cook knows, not all scallops are created equal. Dive into the difference between these two bivalves, and learn how to pick the freshest catch.

By Mary Tomlinson

What’s the Difference?

Putting aside the obvious size difference—three times larger than bay scallops, to be exact—sea scallops have a chewier texture as well. These mollusks are caught in waters up to 200 meters deep off the East Coast year round, though are most readily available in the fall and winter.

The petit bay scallops live in the sea grass beds of estuaries, bays, and harbors along Atlantic coastal waters, from New Jersey to the Gulf of Mexico. You can also dive for these sweeter mollusks July-early October in Northwest Florida and harvest a few bags for a seafood feast. Just pay attention—bay scallops cook quickly, so keep an eye on the pan to avoid a rubbery texture.

Related: The Ultimate Fish Fry

How to Buy Scallops

Both bay and sea scallops are sold by the pound, so don’t panic when you see labels like “U-10” or U-30/40.”  These merely signify the number of scallops it takes to make a pound. With U-10 scallops for instance, you’d get around 10 scallops to a pound (most likely sea scallops, if they’re that large!), where U-30/40 means it takes 30-40 scallops to make a pound. Bay scallops can get as small as 60-100 per pound.

Other labels you may encounter in your fish market research are “wet packed” and “dry packed” scallops.  “Wet packed” means the scallops come pre-brined in a preservative solution to extend shelf life and add water weight. Dry packed is a much fresher product, but if you can only find the former, give them a thorough rinse before cooking. 

Romona Robbins Photography/Getty

Dive for Your Own Scallops

Ensure the freshest scallops by diving for your own, a popular activity in Port St. Joe, Steinhatchee, and Crystal River, Florida. Just purchase a saltwater fishing license (only $17 for 3-day nonresident) and harvest up to 2 gallons of whole bay scallops by hand or dip net.  

Keep your wits about you while harvesting—scallops, unlike oysters and clams, can swim. And don’t be surprised if your dinner seems to stare back at you: scallops have up to 60 bright blue eyes lining their mantle!

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Let’s Get Cooking

Now you know how to buy (or catch!) the freshest scallops available. So pick out a new scallop recipe to try and share your newfound knowledge.

Photo: Jennifer Davick, Recipe: Julia Rutland

Our Favorite Sea Scallop Recipes

Fun fact: Sea scallop meats can turn orange colored through the maturation process, promoting nicknames such as “salmon scallops” in the north and “pumpkins" in the south. 

Steak and Scallops with Champagne-Butter Sauce

Scallop Skillet with Bacon, Edamame, Basil, and Creamy Grits

Scallops With Celery Root Salad

Photo: Greg Dupree; Styling: Lindsey Ellis Beatty 

Our Favorite Bay Scallop Recipes

Fun fact: Bay scallops are the official state shell of New York.

Grilled Scallop Tacos with Smashed Avocado and Charred Corn Pico

Pan-fried Scallops

Grilled Scallop Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette