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.

By Mary Tomlinson
May 17, 2019
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 Shells
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 two inches.

Related: Our Best Scallop Recipes

A close-up of a live scallop with 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, similarly to human eyes.

Bay scallop cages in Cockle Creek, new Chincoteague Island, Virginia
Elizabeth Cecil

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 as to not lose any precious scallops and to facilitate easy flipping. Always pat scallops dry before tossing on the grill, too. When prepared properly, both scallop varieties offer tender, sweet-yet-briny goodness and shine in dishes with simple preparation.

Sea Scallop Recipes

Photographer: Jennifer Causey, Prop Stylist: Lindsey Lower, Food Stylist: Chelsea Zimmer

Sea Scallop Risotto
For the perfect pan-seared scallops, pat dry beforehand, add to a smoking hot cast-iron pan and avoid flipping under the flesh is opaque. The result? Caramelized tender perfection. And the bed of creamy homemade risotto doesn’t hurt, either.

Photo: Con Poulos

Curry-Citrus Cauliflower Soup with Seared Scallops and Crispy Shallots
Think of this soup as your go-to comfort food for the last few months of the year, a.k.a. peak scallop season. Dredging scallops in flour adds an extra nudge of crispiness in addition to fried shallots among a spoonful of creamy curry goodness.

Bay Scallop Recipes

Photographer: Tara Donne, Prop Stylist: Thom Driver, Food Stylist: Torie Cox

Scallop Pasta with Catalan Romesco Sauce
Coming from the Catalonia region of Spain, Romesco is a versatile sauce made from nuts and red peppers. It’s a natural for this Spanish-inspired pasta adorned with shaved Manchego cheese, slivered almonds and scallops flash sautéed with butter and shallots.

Photographer: Tara Donne, Prop Stylist: Thom Driver, Food Stylist: Torie Cox

Bay Scallop Fritto Misto
Deep fried, but hors d'oeuvres worthy? Done and done with Italy’s perfect antipasto, fritto misto. It’s a mixture of deep-friend vegetables and seafood (here, bay scallops). Bonus: It’s super easy to swap veggies for what’s freshest and in-season.

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