Scallops are a type of shellfish known as bivalves. The part commonly eaten in the United States is the muscle that is used to open and shut the shell, but in other parts of the world, the orange-fleshed coral, or roe, is frequently eaten as well. The two most commonly sold types of scallops in the United States are bay scallops, which are small and sweet-tasting, and sea scallops, which are larger.
Scallops, unlike clams, mussels, and oysters, die quickly when harvested and thus are usually sold shucked and frozen. If you are fortunate enough to find live scallops in the shell, they should have a clean ocean smell (not fishy), and open shells should shut when tapped, a sign that the scallops are alive.
However, it is more likely that you will encounter frozen scallops at the seafood counter. Frozen scallops should not be mushy or dry. Bay scallops should be a light pink to light orange, and sea scallops should be cream-colored or light pink.
Another consideration when purchasing scallops is whether to purchase "dry-packed scallops." Most scallops are soaked in a phosphate solution that makes them look whiter, but also causes them to soak up a considerable amount of water (some estimates are as high as 30 percent by weight). In addition, the solution has a soapy flavor that sometimes remains even after cooking, owing to the fact that it's a component found in detergent. So if possible, look for dry-packed scallops.
If concerned about the environment, one might also want to consider looking for "diver" scallops. These are considered superior for sustainability reasons. Instead of using a dredge that damages the ocean floor and results in by-catch, scuba divers harvest the scallops one by one, and attempt to select larger, more mature scallops, thus preserving the habitat and allowing the population to recover better.
Scallops are often served raw, seared quickly over high heat, or baked in the shell. It is known as hotategai in sushi bars, and the raw flesh has a sweet, clean, slightly briny flavor with a delicate texture. Scallops are also often paired with pork products, such as chorizo or bacon.
Avoid cooking scallops for an extended time, as this will turn the flesh tough and rubbery. If searing scallops, make sure to get the pan nice and hot and to make sure the scallops are as dry as possible before adding them to the pan; otherwise, they will steam instead of achieving the coveted brown crust. Scallops are also often grilled — when placed on skewers and grilled briefly, they make for a delicious treat that's a great alternative to traditional kabobs. (Photo courtesy of iStock/Boblin)
Whether they are incorporated into salads, simply seared, or baked into a rich gratin, scallops are a delicious and versatile seafood choice that anyone can cook at home.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.