Do you make a beeline for the scallops dish every time you eat at your favorite seafood restaurant? Well, lucky for you, it's not very difficult to replicate those perfectly pan-seared scallops at home. And depending on the recipe, you can cook and eat scallops in 15 minutes or less.
Scallops are part of the mollusk family, same as octopi, mussels and oysters. While they may look a little intimidating for the average home cook, selecting them and prepping them is easier than it seems.
Where Can You Buy Fresh Scallops?
The U.S. has the largest sea scallop fishery in the world. But not every U.S. city has the benefit of a local fishmonger to teach us about sustainable seafood — and pick the best scallops for us. So if you're not close to the beach, pick up fresh scallops at your local farmers market or even your local grocery store.
When you're choosing scallops, stay away from those that that look extremely dry, and choose fresh scallops and skip the frozen, if possible.
"Scallops should be firm with a very faint sweet smell," Brandon Chavannes, executive chef at The Betty, a supper club in Atlanta, says. "You can tell if they've been in a container for a long time. If they are floppy, they've been dead too long," Ask the fishmonger at the store to clean them, if necessary. Sometimes scallops will have tiny muscles that need to be removed before cooking; if the muscle remains, it can become very tough when cooked.
What's the Difference Between Wet and Dry Scallops?
When purchasing your scallops, you want to look for dry scallops. Dry is the industry term for scallops that haven't been treated with any chemicals — most notably phosphates. They're superior to wet scallops and are usually a beige color and have sweeter, more natural flavor. (Note: The scallops aren't actually "dry;" that's just the term used.)
Wet scallops, on the other hand, have been soaked in a preservative solution that helps them absorb more water and often appear pale white in color. Wet scallops are the most common available at major grocery store chains, so carefully check when purchasing. The extra water will evaporate when you cook them, so the scallops will actually shrink and toughen up compared to dry scallops.
"Many scallops have been dipped in a preservative called sodium tripolyphosphate that bleaches them to help extend shelf life, which sucks out the flavor, can make them waterlogged, and impossible to sear," Chavannes says.
Sea vs. Bay Scallops
Bay scallops are caught in the shallow waters of bays and estuaries. The meat is high-quality, but they are very small (you can expect about 100 pieces in 1 pound [0.45 kilograms]), so they are less common than sea scallops in many stores.
"Bay scallops are generally sweeter than sea scallops, says Adam Evans, chef of Birmingham's Automatic Seafood and Oysters. "When they are in season, I highly recommend buying the bay scallops. The texture is similar; [they are] obviously smaller in size, but better in flavor."
Chavannes suggests buying domestic bay scallops during their peak season, which runs between November and February. They are best served raw, he says.
Sea scallops are more widely available year-round and have a sweet, rich, briny taste.
How to Cook Scallops
Despite how fancy we feel when we eat scallops, they're not very difficult to cook. It's all about paying attention. When you unwrap them, make sure to check for any muscles — it's that small rectangular-like tough tag on the side of the scallop we mentioned earlier. You can just pinch it and pull it off. It is edible but tough when cooked.
Next, lay the scallops out on a cutting board and pat them dry on both sides with a paper towel and season with a bit of salt and pepper. "The biggest rule of thumb is to keep it simple. Don't add powerful flavors that are going to cover up the ingredient you are paying so much for," Chavannes says.
Now simply add a bit of flavorless oil with a high smoke point — grapeseed oil or olive oil are ideal — to a hot cast iron skillet and sear the scallops. "I like to use a little more oil with scallops than I do with fish," Evans says. "The reason for that is the natural sugars that are in the scallops caramelize and produce a sweet flavor and crust on the outside."
Be sure to leave enough space between the scallops. Sear for about two minutes on one side until they brown slightly. Avoid the urge to move them while they're cooking. Then flip them.
It's optional, but here you can add a tablespoon of butter to the skillet for flavor. Allow the flip side to brown and caramelize. Once done, remove from the pan and serve immediately. Perfectly cooked scallops will have a caramelized crust on the outside and remain tender and sweet inside.
Scallops pair very well with grains like couscous, grits or polenta. Evans also recommends adding them to your surf and turf. "I love it with smoked beef brisket or a Spanish style dried chorizo," he says.
Chavannes shared one of his easy recipes for scallops on the grill:
- First, chop your scallops, load into a scallop shell with a generous pat of good French butter, like Échiré, and some pine nuts.
- Put the shell on the grill and cook until the butter is bubbly and the scallops are warmed.
- Finish with a couple of sprigs of fennel and a squeeze of charred lemon. Serve immediately.