What’s the Difference Between Bay Scallops and Sea Scallops?

(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Scallops can make your dinner feel totally luxurious and indulgent, with the added bonus that they cook in minutes with very little effort. There’s a wide variety of scallop species, but what you really need to know is that this tasty bivalve is classified into two broad groups: bay scallops and sea scallops.

Size Makes a Difference

At first sight you’ll notice that size really sets these two varieties of scallops apart. Bay scallops are relatively small, while sea scallops can be up to three times larger. Their difference in size also has an effect on flavor, as well as the best ways to cook each variety.

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More About Bay Scallops

As their name indicates, bay scallops are typically found in the shallow waters of bays and estuaries along the East Coast of the United States, with a peak season during the fall.

While their shell size can be up to three inches in diameter, the adductor muscle (the edible portion) is much smaller — on average just about a half-inch wide. Bay scallops are typically purchased already shucked. You can expect to get about 100 bay scallops per pound.

Because of their small size, bay scallops benefit from a short cook and gentle method of preparation, like poaching or a quick sauté. Aside from size, there’s a big difference in the taste and texture of bay scallops. These small bivalves have pink to light beige color with a delicate, tender texture, and a sweet taste.

More About Sea Scallops

As you might guess from their name, this category of scallop is harvested from deep, cold sea waters year-round. Sea scallops are traditionally harvested by trawling boats, using chains and nets, although they can also be hand-harvested. The latter, sometimes referred to as “diver scallops,” require a more labor-intensive process; these scallops are less likely to be damaged and also come with a higher price tag. Sea scallops are also typically sold shucked, and on average you can expect to get 20 to 30 scallops per pound.

Sea scallops are up to three times larger in size than bay scallops, with some reaching up to two inches in diameter. They have a texture that’s more chewy and not quite as tender as bay scallops. Even so, the meat is still quite enjoyable, and has a sweet flavor. While sea scallops are larger, they’re still delicate and benefit from short cook times, whether they’re sautéed, grilled, or poached.

Using Bay Scallops and Sea Scallops Interchangeably

Most recipes will specify whether to use bay or sea scallops, although some may not. In that case, if there’s a photo to go along with it, use visual cues to determine which variety to use.

Because the cook time for each type of scallop varies, it’s best not to use them interchangeably. But if you insist on using a different variety than listed in the recipe, keep in mind that the cook time will need to be altered as well (lowered when swapping for bay scallops, and increased when swapping for sea scallops).

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