In my opinion, scallops are one of the most underrated proteins you can eat. And the fact that you can make perfectly cooked scallops in under 6 minutes makes them that much better. Whether you serve them on their own or on top of pasta or a vegetable mash, knowing how to make pan-seared scallops to perfection is a skill you must know. In this blog post, we’re going to get into the right pan to use, the difference between sea and bay scallops, and unique ways to elevate your scallops. Let’s get started, shall we?
Picking the Right Scallops
When buying scallops, you have some options—wet vs. dry scallops and sea vs. bay scallops.
Wet Vs. Dry Scallops
Wet scallops are soaked in a formula of phosphates, resulting in plumper scallops, but don’t be fooled. These scallops are larger due to added water-weight, so when you cook them, the water will evaporate, leaving you with a tough end product. No good.
Dry scallops are not soaked in phosphates and are as natural as you can get. They’re better for searing and have a more natural taste to them. If you can find dry scallops, get them.
There are also two sizes of scallops: a bay scallop and a sea scallop. Sea scallops are larger than bay scallops and are found all over, versus the smaller bay scallop, which is most commonly found on the east coast. For this post, we’re going to focus on the larger sea scallop. Not to say that bay scallops don’t have their place because they most definitely do. Toss in some flour, brown them in a hot pan and remove. Deglaze with white wine, reduce that wine, add butter, thyme, and some shallots, and you have perfectly cooked scallops with a butter sauce that lend themselves beautifully on their own or as a condiment to some spaghetti.
But let’s going to get into more depth on cooking sea scallops.
Preparing the Scallops
Since scallops are small, they benefit from a quick sear on both sides, and that’s about it. You don’t want to overcook them, as they can result in a rubbery texture. If you don’t like scallops, the odds are that you’ve had overcooked scallops.
First, start by removing the side muscle on the scallop. It’s tough and doesn’t lend itself well to the rest of the scallop. I’d imagine you can save them and toss them into a seafood master stock (this is your daily reminder to keep all your vegetable scraps and seafood shells for the most decadent risotto, paella, cioppino, etc.).
Preheat your Pan
Carbon steel, non stick, or stainless clad all work perfectly. A cast iron skillet could work, but just be sure not to overheat it. Preheat your skillet over medium high heat and if you choose to use non stick, make sure to preheat it with oil or butter in it.
Next, pat the scallops dry. Moisture is the mortal enemy of a good sear, so use a paper towel or kitchen towel to ensure there is no moisture on the scallops’ surface. Once dry, add oil to your pan and let that heat up for a minute.
Achieving the Perfect Scallop Sear
Season with salt and pepper, and then sear the scallops in a single layer. Don’t overcrowd your pan, as this will not deliver the browning you want. Scallops only need two minutes per side, so now isn’t the time to set the table or make a cocktail. If you go to flip the scallop and it isn’t releasing from the pan (stainless and carbon users), then let it be! If the scallop naturally releases from the pan, then a golden brown crust is formed, and you can flip.
Flip all the scallops, and then add a couple tablespoons of butter to the pan, along with your aromatics of choice. Bay leaves, thyme, shallots, or garlic all make sense. Baste the scallops like your life depends on it. The thyme, shallots, and garlic butter will impart flavor as the scallops get bathed. While there are many different scallop recipes, I always find myself relying on this method, as it is simple and lets the flavor of the scallops shine.
Once the scallops have been cooked for two minutes on the second side, take them off the pan and top with some freshly squeezed lemon juice. Bonus points if you use a fully-vitrified serving platter! Serve them on their own, over some pasta, or with some simply sautéed vegetables for a complete and balanced meal. Enjoy!