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What are Scallops? Characteristics, Types and Recipes

what are scallops

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Scallops are a type of shellfish that are prized for their delicate, sweet flavor and tender texture. They are found in oceans all over the world and are a popular ingredient in many cuisines, from Italian to Japanese. In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the world of scallops, exploring their history, biology, culinary uses, and much more.

What are Scallops?

Scallops are a type of bivalve mollusk, which means that they have a hinged shell that is divided into two parts. The edible part of the scallop is the muscle that holds the two shells together. This muscle is white and tender, with a sweet, slightly briny flavor.

There are two main types of scallops: bay scallops and sea scallops. Bay scallops are smaller and sweeter than sea scallops, and are typically harvested in shallow waters near the coast. Sea scallops are larger and meatier, and are found in deeper waters farther offshore.

History of Scallops as a Food Source

Scallops have been an important food source for humans for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence shows that scallops were consumed by ancient civilizations in Greece, Rome, and China. In medieval Europe, scallops were a popular dish among the nobility, and were often served as a symbol of wealth and prestige.

Scallops were also an important part of the diet of Native American tribes living along the eastern coast of North America. The Wampanoag tribe, for example, used scallops as a trade item and as a source of food.

Today, scallops are a popular ingredient in many cuisines around the world. They are enjoyed in a variety of preparations, from raw sushi to pan-seared scallops with butter and garlic.

Many species of scallops are highly prized as a food source, and some are farmed for aquaculture. The word “scallop” also applies to the meat of these bivalves, the adductor muscle, sold as seafood. The adductor muscle of scallops is larger and more developed than those of oysters because scallops are active swimmers. Some species of scallops are known to move en masse from one area to another.

The brightly colored, symmetric, fan-shaped shells of scallops with their radiating and often fluted ornamentation are valued by shell collectors. These shells have been used since ancient times as motifs in art, architecture, and design. In scallops, the shell shape tends to be highly regular, and it is commonly used as an archetypal form of a seashell. The meat from the adductor muscle of these bivalves is particularly prized, and the word “scallop” often refers to this part of the creature when sold as seafood​.

Types of Scallops

Scallops can be classified into different types based on their size, habitat, and the way they are farmed. Some of the types are:

  • Bay Scallops: These are smaller in size and are often considered to have a sweeter taste. They are mostly found in the shallow waters of bays, estuaries, and the lower courses of rivers. Bay scallops are known to live for about two years.
  • Sea Scallops: These scallops are larger and are found in deeper ocean waters. Sea scallops are known for their delicate flavor and tender texture.
  • Farmed Scallops: Scallop aquaculture is the commercial activity of cultivating scallops until they reach a marketable size. This type of farming is conducted under controlled conditions, and the scallops are typically harvested after 2-3 years.

In addition to these two varieties, there are also several other types of scallops that are less commonly eaten.

Calico scallops, for example, are found in the Gulf of Mexico and have a distinctive brown and white striped shell. Pink scallops are found in the Pacific Northwest and have a delicate, slightly sweet flavor. Blood clams, which are native to Southeast Asia, have a bright red interior and a slightly chewy texture.

How to Select and Store Scallops

When selecting scallops, look for ones that are plump and firm, with a slightly sweet smell. Avoid scallops that have a strong fishy odor or are slimy to the touch.

Fresh scallops should be stored in the refrigerator and used within two days. If you’re not going to use them right away, you can freeze them for up to three months. To freeze scallops, rinse them under cold water and pat them dry with a paper towel. Then, place them in an airtight container or freezer bag and store them in the freezer.

Preparing Scallops

Scallops can be prepared in a variety of ways, including grilling, pan-searing, and baking. One of the most popular ways to prepare scallops is to sear them in a hot skillet with butter and garlic.

To prepare scallops for cooking, first remove the muscle from the shell. If you’re using fresh scallops, this can be done by gently pulling the muscle away from the shell. If you’re using frozen scallops, you may need to use a knife to cut the muscle away from the shell.

Scallop Recipes

Here are a few delicious scallop recipes:

Pan-Seared Scallops with Lemon Butter Sauce


  • 1 lb sea scallops
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Fresh parsley, chopped


  1. Pat the scallops dry with paper towels and season them with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  3. Once the oil is hot, add the scallops to the skillet, making sure they are not touching each other. Cook for about 2-3 minutes on each side, until they are golden brown and crispy.
  4. Remove the scallops from the skillet and set aside.
  5. In the same skillet, melt the butter and add the minced garlic. Cook for about 30 seconds, until fragrant.
  6. Add the lemon juice to the skillet and stir to combine.
  7. Return the scallops to the skillet and toss them in the lemon butter sauce.
  8. Serve the scallops hot, garnished with chopped parsley.

Scallop Ceviche


  • 1 lb bay scallops
  • 1/2 red onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Juice of 3 limes
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Tortilla chips, for serving


  1. In a large bowl, combine the scallops, red onion, red bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, and cilantro.
  2. Add the lime juice and stir to combine.
  3. Season the ceviche with salt and pepper, to taste.
  4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or until the scallops are opaque.
  5. Serve the ceviche cold with tortilla chips.

Grilled Scallops with Mango Salsa


  • 1 lb sea scallops
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 mango, diced
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime


  1. Preheat the grill to medium-high heat.
  2. Pat the scallops dry with paper towels and season them with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  3. Grill the scallops for 2-3 minutes on each side, until they are cooked through and slightly charred.
  4. In a separate bowl, combine the mango, red onion, red bell pepper, cilantro, and lime juice.
  5. Season the mango salsa with salt and pepper, to taste.
  6. Serve the grilled scallops hot, topped with the mango salsa.

Learn More About the Scallops

Scallop Habitats and Distribution

Scallops are a cosmopolitan family of bivalves found in all of the world’s oceans, never in freshwater. They inhabit all the oceans of the world, with the most significant number of species living in the Indo-Pacific region. These creatures prefer relatively shallow waters from the low tide line to 100 m, but some prefer much deeper waters. They are found living within, upon, or under diverse environments such as rocks, coral, rubble, sea grass, kelp, sand, or mud. Most scallops begin their lives as byssally attached juveniles, and some retain this ability throughout their lives, while others grow into free-living adults.

Unique Characteristics of Scallops

One unique aspect of scallops is their mobility. Unlike many bivalves, scallops are primarily “free-living,” capable of swimming short distances and even migrating some distance across the ocean floor. They achieve this by clapping their shells together, creating jet propulsion. Another exceptional feature of scallops is their well-developed nervous system, with all scallop species having a ring of simple eyes situated around the edge of their mantles. This complex nervous system allows them to sense the presence of predators such as starfish and attempt to escape by swimming swiftly but erratically through the water.

Scallop Anatomy and Shell Design

The shell of a scallop consists of two sides or valves, a left valve and a right one, divided by a plane of symmetry. Most species rest on their right valve, which is often deeper and more rounded than the left valve. An intriguing feature of the scallop family is the presence of a comb-like structure called a ctenolium located on the anterior edge of the right valve. This feature is unique to scallops and does not exist in any other bivalve. The ctenolium is present in scallops at some point during their lives. The shells of most scallops are streamlined to facilitate ease of movement during swimming at some point in their lifecycles, while also providing protection from predators. Scallops with ridged valves have the advantage of the architectural strength provided by these ridges, known as “ribs”.

Scallop Diet and Feeding Mechanisms

Scallops are filter feeders, mainly consuming plankton. They lack siphons, which are common in many other bivalves. Water moves over a filtering structure where food particles become trapped in mucus. The cilia on the structure then move the food toward the mouth. The food is then digested in the digestive gland, an organ sometimes misleadingly referred to as the “liver.” Waste is passed on through the intestine and exits via the anus.

Scallop Nervous System

Although scallops lack actual brains, they have a complex nervous system controlled by three paired ganglia located at various points throughout their anatomy. These include the cerebral or cerebropleural ganglia, the pedal ganglia, and the visceral or parietovisceral ganglia. The visceral ganglia are by far the largest and most extensive of the three, and they occur as an almost-fused mass near the center of the animal. From the visceral ganglia radiate all of the nerves which connect the ganglia to the circumpallial nerve ring that loops around the mantle and connects to all of the scallop’s tentacles and eyes. The visceral ganglia are also the origin of the branchial nerves which control the scallop’s gills.

Scallop Locomotion

Unlike many bivalves, scallops are capable of active movement. They have the unique ability to swim rapidly over short distances and migrate across the ocean floor. They achieve this by clapping their shells together, creating a jet of water that propels them through the water. This ability to move actively allows them to escape predators and, in some cases, move en masse from one area to another. The active lifestyle of scallops also results in a larger and more developed adductor muscle than that found in other bivalves, such as oysters.


Scallops are a delicious and versatile seafood that can be enjoyed in a variety of preparations. Whether you prefer them grilled, pan-seared, or raw, there’s a scallop recipe out there for everyone. With their delicate flavor and tender texture, scallops are sure to be a hit at your next dinner party or family meal.

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