All About Scallops

Scallops by stu_spivack (creative commons: b27a1c119cf5)

Scallops by stu_spivack

Wild Sea Scallops 

Atlantic sea scallops (Placopecten magellanicus) are delicious, good for you, and easy-to-cook – the perfect addition to your lineup of favorite meals.  Scallops are bivalves, like oysters and clams, having two shells that are held together by the adductor muscle (the part we usually eat).  Scallops swim (unlike oysters and clams) by clapping their shells together.  Sea scallops can live up to 20 years, reaching full maturity by 4 years when females can produce hundreds of millions of eggs per year. Their smooth, saucer-shaped shells are typically four to six inches high come in a variety of colors.  Some scallops also have two sides with different shades which they can flip to camouflage themselves and appear less visible to predators, the most predominant of which are stingrays.

Atlantic sea scallops collected during the 2022 survey show the variety in coloration for this species. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

Atlantic sea scallops collected during the 2022 survey show the variety in coloration for this species. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

From Newfoundland Canada to Cape Hatteras, NC, adult scallops live on sandy or gravelly parts of the ocean floor in a depth range of 100-300 feet on Georges Bank and along the US Mid-Atlantic. Large scallops flourished along the Mid-Atlantic coast as long ago as the Miocene to Pliocene (approximately 8-3 million years ago).  Fossils of ancient scallops can be found in cliffs along rivers in southeastern Virginia (the scallop is the state fossil of Virginia) and eastern North Carolina.

Just 30 years ago, the sea scallop population had declined precipitously after decades of intense dredging in the scallop beds.  In the early 1990s, managers began to regulate gear to protect smaller scallops and other bycatch, to restrict fishing, and to limit the number of fishermen.  By 1998, the scallop biomass had increased nine-fold and by 2001, was declared rebuilt – a real success story. Scallops continue to be managed sustainably by rotating area closures.  A two-minute video posted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides a glimpse into the day of a scallop fisherman.

When shopping for scallops, you may come across a number of phrases you don’t recognize.  Here are some definitions to help you in your search:

  • U10 scallops:  means that there are fewer than 10 scallops in a pound (those are some of the larger scallops).  U20/U30 means 20 or 30 scallops per pound (smaller scallops).  
  • Bay scallops:  small scallops (80-120 per pound) from shallow waters from Long Island to Cape Cod, as well as nearshore waters of Florida’s gulf coast (also frozen Chinese bay scallops which are imported in increasing large numbers in recent years).
  • Sea scallops:  the world’s largest and most popular scallops from deeper water from Newfoundland to North Carolina. 
  • Dry vs wet scallops:  Dry scallops are those that are shucked without any water added. Wet scallops come pre-soaked in a water-and-phosphate solution to extend their shelf life. The solution can dilute the flavor of the scallop and also leave a soapy flavor, while increasing water weight of the scallop.  So be sure to look for dry (unsoaked) scallops.

What do scallops taste like?

Sweet, buttery, and slightly briny with a thick, juicy texture, scallops were once considered an expensive delicacy fit only for royalty.  According to chef David Levi of Portland, Maine's Vinland, "If there is a candy of the sea, it's scallops. Incredibly sweet and firm, winter scallops in Maine are truly one of the most delicious foods in the world, and there's very little one needs to do to prepare them."  

Health benefits of eating scallops – scallop calories

Wild sea scallops are a low-calorie source of protein, packing 23 grams of protein and only 112 calories in a 100 gram (3.5 ounce) serving.  They provide a surprisingly high amount of omega-3s and important vitamins and minerals:  vitamin B12 (which can help prevent anemia, depression, fatigue, and memory problems), selenium (which acts as an antioxidant), and zinc (which helps to maintain a healthy immune system and heal wounds). Think of these scallops as a healthy indulgence.

Preparing and cooking scallops

Scallops are among the easiest seafood items to prepare. The best way to thaw frozen scallops to remove them from their packaging, put them in a plastic bag, and allow them to thaw in the refrigerator for about six hours.  To thaw them more quickly, put them in a non-vacuum sealed bag and place it in cool water for half an hour to an hour.  No matter how you intend to cook them, you should always pat sea scallops dry.  This step is essential in being able to sear scallops and get the desired caramelization.

There are many, many recipes for scallops, from super simple (see below - pan seared in gently browned butter) to fancy (sweet and spicy scallops wrapped in prosciutto).  Here are some good scallop recipe sources:

But with sea scallops, the simplest is the best – pan seared, grilled, baked, or broiled. 

Pan Seared Scallops

Using a nonstick pan, turn the heat to medium high. Once hot, add avocado oil (higher smoke point than olive oil) and wait until it begins to glisten. Lightly sea salt and pepper your scallops and add into hot pan. Sear for 3-4 minutes and do not move the scallop while cooking (this will interfere with the caramelization process). Flip the scallops and add 1 tbsp of butter while they cook an additional 2-3 minutes.   Add a tablespoon of white wine or white vermouth if you wish. 

Grilled Scallops

To ensure easier removal from the grill, consider skewering the scallops (soak the skewers to keep them from burning).  Brush the grill with vegetable to help keep the scallops from sticking. Sprinkle scallops with salt and pepper and brush them with vegetable oil. Cook the skewered scallops for 2-3 minutes on each side.  Serve as is or add a little melted butter or fresh squeezed lemon juice. 

Baked Scallops 

Preheat the oven to 325°. Arrange sea scallops in a baking dish and sprinkle with cracker crumbs (or panko), salt and pepper, and a little grated parmesan cheese.  Pour melted butter over the scallops (about ½ cup for 8 oz of scallops).  Sprinkle with a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and/or a tablespoon of dry vermouth. Cover the dish with foil and cook for 20 minutes, remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes. To brown the top, you can turn the oven to broil and leave the scallops in for another 2-3 minutes.

Broiled Scallops 

Preheat the broiler (you may need to leave th3 oven door open when using the broiler). Put the scallops into a broiling pan. Add a tablespoon each of butter and olive oil.  Sprinkle the scallops with a dash of garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika.  Place the pan several inches from the broiler and leave for 10-12 minutes.  Turn the scallops over and broil for another 3-4 minutes.  Serve with chopped chives and parsley as an appetizer or the protein of a main course.

Wild Sea Scallops from Sizzlefish…

Delicious, sustainable, easy to cook, low calorie, high protein… Doesn’t get better than that!

  7. Stevens, M. (2022) How to buy the sweetest scallops. Fine Cooking, Issue 34.
  8. Khan, J. (2022). 8 types of scallops and what to know about them. Mashed. Aug. 5, 2022.
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