Eating a scallop with that perfect golden sear is a thing of beauty. But there often is a perception that it can’t possibly be done at home — and there’s nothing worse than a pale, rubbery scallop.
Yet scallops are actually easier and faster to make than most seafood. You just have to know a few quick tips to make them practically foolproof.
How to buy the right scallops
Cooking a scallop perfectly starts with buying the right scallops. The most important word to look for is "dry." If they aren’t specifically labeled as dry scallops, you should avoid purchasing them. Many scallops on the market are what are known as "wet scallops." In order to make them last longer (read: to sell them to you less fresh), they are treated at sea with a preservative solution and often frozen. The solution, made of water and phosphates, does prevent the scallops from going bad quickly but also changes the flavor, texture and weight. So, while you might think you are getting cheaper scallops when you buy wet, a lot of the weight you are paying for is actually just water — and that water also releases while you are cooking, which not only prevents your scallops from searing but also shrinks them in the process.
So, whatever you do, make sure you are purchasing dry scallops.
It is also important to look at other markers, not just for freshness, but sustainability. Large-scale hydraulic dredging for scallops is among the least sustainable wild seafood practices. Guy Grieve, founder of the Ethical Shellfish Company, believes that “scallops are the one seafood that it pays to be really strict on environmentally speaking," he told TODAY Food. "f you had a competition to design something that could destroy the sea bed, it would be scallop dredging.”
The most sustainable option is dived scallops — which literally means a person is diving into the water and picking up the scallop off the ocean floor. Sustainable scallop farming is also gaining popularity.
The key is to try to understand where your scallops are coming from. As Grieve pointed out, if your scallops are being harvested properly then the person selling you those scallops is going to make it known. “If the wholesaler is genuinely buying dived scallops, they will be desperate to tell you every step of the way. They'll be very proud of their connection to where they bought it. If someone is genuinely buying dived scallops they'll know what boat, and what harbor it came from.”
Another term to look for is "dayboat scallops," named such because the small boats that catch them go out and come back within the day. It is often an indication of smaller producers and of freshness.
If you aren’t sure you live near a store or fishmonger that sells good scallops, the online options are now excellent, as so many purveyors had to find a way to fill in the gaps while restaurants weren’t able to order as much seafood during the pandemic. Luke’s Lobster works directly with fishermen in Maine — one of the states with the most stringent seafood environmental policies — to ship scallops caught on boats the previous day. Two New York City restaurants’ most beloved seafood sellers, AquaBest and Fulton Fish Market, now also ship nationwide. So there is no reason not to seek out the freshest options, wherever you live.
Avoid moisture at all costs
Once you have your scallops, the prep is very minimal but it is important. It’s all about reducing the moisture so you can get that perfect crust.
Starting with your properly purchased dry scallops is the first part of the equation, but even dry scallops need a bit of help. Before you're ready to cook, make sure to blot the scallops with a paper towel.
Then, sprinkle a bit of salt and let them sit on the paper towels for a few minutes. You can even let them sit for an hour or two in the open air of the fridge, but it is certainly not necessary.
The key is to make sure that all exterior moisture has been reduced as much as possible before the scallops touch the pan.
Don't be afraid of high heat
The last essential piece of cooking scallops is to cook them fast and hot. You want a pan that is scorching before the scallops arrive. It is easy to overcook a scallop, and since they are ready within minutes, there is no way to get a sear and avoid overcooking unless your pan is as hot as can be.
Make sure you put an oil with a high smoke point in the pan — vegetable, canola or peanut oil work great. Once the oil and pan are fully heated up — and hopefully your fan is on! — then you can add the scallops.
Scallops cook for one to three minutes on each side, depending on the size. It is better to cook longer on the first side and get a great crust and then cook the other side a little less if you believe the scallop is overcooking. But if the pan is hot enough to begin with, this shouldn’t be a problem.
If you have images in your mind of butter-basted scallops, you certainly can add that touch (I always do!) but just make sure you're only doing it at the end. Butter can burn, so you don’t want to add it to the pan too early. I like to throw in some butter and a few sprigs of thyme at the end for flavor.
With properly sourced dry scallops, blotted dry and cooked on high heat, you can have perfectly cooked, restaurant-quality scallops in minutes. Here's my go-to recipe: