Bay Scallops vs Sea Scallops: What's the Difference?

Avoid label intimidation by knowing your scallops before heading to the market. 

Scallops can instantly turn a simple pasta dish into a restaurant-worthy indulgence. But, a quick trip to the fishmonger will tell you: there's no one type of scallop.

Scallops come in a number of varieties including sea scallops, bay scallops, and more. Here you'll learn the difference between these types of scallops, and find more information on how to buy the right scallops for your recipe.

What Are Scallops, Exactly?

You might know them as those white, tender little nuggets from your favorite seafood restaurant, but scallops are actually bivalves, or mollusks, with two hinged shells. The abductor muscle — the muscle that opens and closes the shell — is the part we eat.

Bay Scallops vs. Sea Scallops

In general, you'll find most scallops to fall under one of two umbrellas: bay scallops or sea scallops. You're likely most familiar with sea scallops. They're both the largest and most popular type of scallop, and they're what you'll most commonly find in restaurants.

Sea scallops are caught year-round up to 200 meters deep in cold sea waters, and normally range between 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter. A pound of sea scallops is typically made up of about 20 to 30 scallops. They're a little more chewy than tender bay scallops, but they still do best with a short cooking time. Read our guide to cooking scallops for more information.

Bay scallops on the other hand are caught in the cold, shallow waters of East Coast estuaries and bays. They are about a third the size of sea scallops, averaging about ½ inch in diameter and can range in weight from 50 to 100 scallops per pound. But with this smaller size comes more tender meat and a sweeter flavor. And more good news: they're less expensive than jumbo-sized sea scallops.

Other Types of Scallops

Calico Scallops

Although sometimes labeled as bay scallops, calico scallops are harvested from the warm waters of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of Florida and down to Central and South America.

They're even smaller than bay scallops (100 to 200 calico scallops are equal to a pound) and can be further distinguished by their patchwork red and pink coloring on the shell. Calico scallops are the least expensive of the bunch.

Patagonian Scallops

I recently came across these frozen Greenwise Patagonian Scallops at Publix and chose to buy them over the substantially more expensive frozen sea scallops. They're small, sweet, and tender, much like bay scallops (which I substituted Patagonian scallops for in Chef John's Bay Scallop Chowder).

After some research, I learned these are harvested from the icy-cold Antarctic waters just off the coast of Argentina. The more you know!

Shopping for Scallops

Yes, there's still more to know when it comes to shopping for scallops. Buying the right type is a great start, but do you want fresh or frozen, wet- or dry-packed? We'll break it down here.

Fresh vs. Frozen Scallops

So, do you head over to the fishmonger for fresh scallops or the freezer section for scallops? As with all seafood, buying frozen scallops is actually the surest way to certify they're fresh. This is because unless you live near a coast, your "fresh" seafood was probably previously frozen and then thawed once it reached the store. Frozen scallops have been preserved at their absolute freshest, making them the better choice for those who aren't lucky enough to have fresh, local seafood on the ready.

Wet- vs. Dry-Packed Scallops

If you can, try to only buy dry-packed scallops, and here's why: Wet-packed scallops have been soaked in a phosphate solution to whiten them and cause them to absorb more water (making them last longer). This means you're paying more for, ehem, water. Even worse, this water will escape during cooking, shrinking your scallops to a fraction of the size once seared.

This is also said to make them tougher and less flavorful. For cheaper and overall higher quality scallops, always look for the words "dry-packed" or "chemical-free" on the label.

Diver and Dayboat Scallops

Don't let these terms trip you up — if you see the term "diver" or "dayboat" scallops, this is literally referring to how the scallops were harvested. Diver scallops are hand-harvested by divers. Although this is considered the more sustainable method because it's more selective and does less damage to the ocean floor, it's also the more expensive option.

Dayboat scallops are the result of another distinctive scallop harvesting method. Any scallops categorized this way were caught on a boat that was returned with fresh scallops within 24 hours of departing. These scallops are immediately sold, guaranteeing peak freshness. Like diver scallops, dayboat scallops are some of the most expensive on the market.

However, most commercially-sold scallops are harvested by "trawling," or scraping the ocean floor for scallops that are then immediately frozen to preserve freshness.


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