How to Sear Scallops
Cooking scallops at home is not nearly as challenging as you may think. In fact, searing scallops is one of the easiest things you can make and it also perfect for dinner parties and entertaining because it takes a fraction of the time to cook as other types of food.
Pan Seared Scallops at home are easy to make. Learn how to prevent your scallops from sticking and get restaurant quality crust every time!
Let’s start with the reason why people don’t make scallops at home. I am sure a few of these will sound familiar.
They shrivel up and aren’t as large as the ones at the restaurant.
My scallops are tough.
My scallops stick to the pan.
My scallops don’t taste good.
All of these scallop cooking mistakes come down to a few simple techniques that will have you searing scallops like a pro in no time at all.
The first thing you want to do is buy the right scallops. By now you are asking “aren’t they all the same?” The answer is no.
Scallop Fact: Scallops don’t burrow or dig like clams and mussels, so their shells are lightweight and thin so they can swim better.
There are wet scallops and dry scallops. Wet-packed scallops are drowned in water, presumably to help them remain juicy. Simple osmosis plumps up the scallops making them appear larger, but also muting their flavor.
When you cook a wet-packed scallop there will be a lot of residual moisture (which interferes with the perfect sear) and they will shrink considerably.
Scallop Fact: Scallops have eyes on their shells, but they can only detect light and movement.
Dry packed scallops are not packed in water, only pressed up against themselves. Therefore they have minimal shrinkage while cooking and don’t emit excess moisture. They will also have better flavor.
How to do you know if your scallops are wet packed or dry packed? Ask! If the person running the seafood counter doesn’t know, then presume they are wet-packed. In fact, the majority of scallops are.
People who do sell dry-packed scallops know that they have the good stuff and will be proud to promote it. I’ve also had good luck with frozen scallops being dry, too much water would just be a gross scallop ice cube.
Scallop Fact: The bay scallop is the official shell of New York. Yep, some states have official shells, who knew?
I buy my dry-packed scallops at the local Whole Foods. You can call around to your grocery stores to figure out who has them.
The next step is one I only recently found out about thanks to our friends over at The Food Lab and America’s Test Kitchen and that is to further expel liquid by drying out your dry-packed scallops.
Do this by placing them on a paper towel lined large plate, salting them well or leaving on a plate, uncovered, in the fridge for a few hours. It made perfect sense. We blot and salt meat to give it a nice sear, why not scallops too?
Scallop Fact: There are more than 400 species of scallops found around the world. The Atlantic Sea Scallop is the most popular in the states with the majority coming from Massachusetts and New Jersey.
You also want to remove the small muscle on the side of the scallop. It looks like another segment, just gently tear it off with your fingers and discard it. Some might have already loosened and fallen off.
The next thing you need to make perfectly pan seared scallops is a ridiculously hot, hot, HOT pan. Like “set the fire alarms off”, to the point of smoking pan. For me, that pan is a nicely seasoned cast iron skillet, but others might choose a stainless steel skillet.
Add just enough canola oil (higher smoke point) to coat the bottom of the pan and then wait for it to start smoking. Literally, you don’t want it to pool at all. When I use cast iron, I don’t even add additional oil, only the oil sheen left from the last time I oiled it.
Some folks add butter, however butter had a low smoke point, so it burns faster. If you plan to make a pan sauce and think butter is what you need, try using clarified butter or ghee, butter with milk solids removed.
PRO TIP: To make a pan sauce, use browned bits, remaining butter or olive oil and whisk with white wine and lemon juice. Allow to reduce and finish seasoning with salt and pepper. This is a thin sauce, don’t expect it to thicken up. You can also serve lemon wedges on the side.
You can also use olive oil, but it has a lower smoke point than canola as well. In all honesty, I find a dry, well seasoned cast iron to be your best bet.
If you are using a dry pan, you need just the bare minimum. Less is better in this case.
At the moment your pan starts to smoke, add your scallops.
Make sure your pan is large enough that they aren’t crowded or touching. They need space to allow them to cook evenly and let the heat circulate around them. There still might be some liquid coming off of them even if you let me dry and purchased dry packed scallops. Don’t panic.
If it is just a little, let it be and it will evaporate off. If it is pooling, try your best to spoon it out of the pan. The cooking process is so swift, you really can’t waste time taking it off the heat to try and correct the problem. Just do the best you can.
Scallop Fact: Each ring on a scallop shell represents a year of growth (like trees!), although a ring might also record a stressful incident in the scallop’s life.
After you set them down, DO NOT TOUCH. You must wait 1 1/2 to 2 minutes for that yummy, nutty crust to form. Just take a quick peek to the underbelly to check, then proceed on flipping. You’ll be tempted to overcook them, but you must trust your gut here.
Repeat on the opposite side.
Overcooking scallops seems to be the biggest mistake when cooking at home. Keep in mind that the size will vary and therefore the cooking time will also vary. Looking for that nice crust will be the best indicator.
Scallop Fact: In early Christian times, the scallop shell was often incorporated into baptismal fonts as a symbol of rebirth. While you rarely see scallop in-shell, their shells are the most iconic of all sea shells.
Even large scallops don’t take more than 2 minutes each side as long as you have heated your skillet over medium high heat. And for goodness sake, remember some people at them raw. The centers should be translucent, sweet and tender, not tough and rubbery.
When removing from the pan, place on a paper towel lined plate to remove any extra oil. Then plate and serve!
Let’s review how to cook to scallops at home, the pan seared scallop method:
Buy dry-packed scallops.
Dry them further by blotting, salt or refrigeration.
Remove small muscle on the side.
Sear them in a smoking hot pan.
Do not overcook your scallops.
Allow a nice crust to form before flipping.
Do not overcrowd the pan.
Remove to a paper towel lined plate.
Of course, like many kitchen skills, practice makes perfect. So find some good scallops and practice, practice, practice!
FUN FACT ABOUT ME: I love scallops! That is all, LOL.
Tools for making seared scallops:
Heavy Bottom Frying Pan– this will be one of your most used kitchen tools. Having something that is heavy bottom will distribute heat better and prevent burning whether you are using an electric or gas range.
Cast Iron Skillet– Yes they are heavy, yes they take a little extra TLC. Are using cast iron pans worth it? YES!!! Just buy one and you’ll thank me later! I have both pre-seasoned and unseasoned. I like them both for different reasons.
Tongs– If you don’t have some, you need some!Pan Seared Scallops at home are easy to make. Learn how to prevent your scallops from sticking and get restaurant quality crust every time!
- 1/2 pound large sea scallops
- Canola oil
Use a large skillet or cast iron pan over medium-high heat.
Add just enough canola oil (higher smoke point) to coat the bottom of the pan and then wait for it to start smoking. Literally, you don't want it to pool at all. When I use cast iron, I don't even add additional oil, only the oil sheen left from the last time I oiled it. If you are using a dry pan, you need just the bare minimum. Less is better in this case.
At the moment your pan starts to smoke, add your scallops.
Make sure your pan is large enough that they aren't crowded or touching. They need space to allow them to cook evenly and let the heat circulate around them.
After you set them down, DO NOT TOUCH. You must wait 1 1/2 to 2 minutes for that yummy, nutty crust to form. Just take a quick peek to the underbelly to check, then proceed on flipping. You'll be tempted to overcook them, but you must trust your gut here.
Repeat on the opposite side.
Remove and serve immediately. If you need to keep them warm to plate the rest of the meal, remove the pan from heat and allow to sit in the hot pan for no longer than 4-5 minutes before serving.
If you've tried this recipe, come back and let us know how it was!