Cooking scallops at home may seem like a daunting culinary task better left to the professionals, but it’s not as difficult as one might think! With the right tools and tricks, you’ll be searing scallops like a pro, right at home.
What Kind of Pan is Best for Searing Scallops?
The best pan for searing scallops is a large, 12-inch stainless-steel skillet, like this model from Zwilling J.A. Henckels. To get a proper sear, it is essential to use a pan large enough to leave some space between the scallops. Stainless steel is an excellent heat conductor, allowing the pan to quickly heat up and evenly distribute heat, resulting in an even sear.
Be advised—even if you use the best pan for the job, you can still end up with scallops that miss the mark. Keep reading, and I’ll share with you the best cooking method and techniques that are vital to making restaurant-quality seared scallops.
What is the Best Oil to Cook Scallops?
The type of pan you use is important, but the type of oil is the other piece to the puzzle. Seared scallops must be cooked quickly over very high heat to achieve that ideal dark-golden crispy crust and perfectly cooked tender inside. Because of the high heat method, you should be sure to choose a vegetable oil with a high smoke point—about 400 degrees Fahrenheit or more. You’ll also want to choose a fairly neutral cooking oil that won’t overpower the taste of the scallops.
Here is a non-inclusive list of neutral cooking oils all suitable for searing scallops:
|Type of Oil||Smoke Point|
|Grapeseed oil||390 degrees|
|Canola oil||400 degrees|
|Sunflower oil||440 degrees|
|Corn oil||450 degrees|
|Safflower oil||510 degrees|
Be a little cautious of oils labeled “vegetable oil” as these commonly contain a blend of different oils. Typically vegetable oil is some combination of corn, canola, cottonseed, soybean and/or safflower oil, and will have a relatively high smoke point of 400-450 degrees, so you should be fine to use any “vegetable oil” you have on hand for searing scallops.
How Do You Know When a Scallop is Done?
A properly cooked scallop will be slightly firm and opaque in the center, when compared to raw scallops that are slightly translucent. And with seared scallops, you are also looking for that deep golden sear. Of course, there are different ways to prepare scallops (i.e. fried, poached) so the sear doesn’t always apply, but the inner opacity and final internal temperature should still be the same. If you opt to use a thermometer, scallops should be cooked to 130 degrees internally.
Leaving the scallops untouched for the first two minutes is crucial to developing a proper sear. Cook for about two minutes on the first side to develop color, flip, and cook about one minute more on the other side—that’s all it takes! More than this will lead to an overcooked center that is markedly tough and chewy. My favorite way to know when scallops are done is a tester scallop—sample one from the batch by cutting through the center and then taste-testing to make sure it’s up to par!
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What is the Best Type of Scallop?
Always ask for dry scallops, as opposed to wet scallops, as the latter are injected with a solution for preservation which can gives them an off-flavor. The chemical injection also helps them hold water, which makes them look plump and juicy when raw, but lose water and shrink down after cooking. Dry scallops, on the other hand, are all-natural and do not contain any additives.
In addition to asking for dry scallops, you’ll also want to specify sea scallops, as opposed to bay scallops. Sea scallops are larger than bay scallops, making them a better choice for cooking methods like grilling or searing. Bay scallops, while still delicious, are better suited for more delicate cooking methods like sautéing or curing for ceviche. If you tried to sear bay scallops, they would be overcooked inside before they have a chance to develop a sear.
An interesting fact regarding the color of scallops– some scallops are off-white while some are tinted orange or peach, but this has nothing to do with the freshness, flavor, or origin—it simply indicates whether the scallop is male or female. While male scallops are milky white in color, female scallops tend to have a slight orange hue. Some insist female scallops taste a bit sweeter than their male counterparts, but both are perfectly fine and delicious to eat.
How Do You Prepare Scallops for Searing?
An extra step for taking your scallops to the next level is removing the small side muscle prior to cooking. You’ll be able to identify it because it’s opaquer and tougher compared to the rest of the scallop, and it can be easily removed just using your fingers—since the fibers run the opposite way, it peels right off. The side muscle is safe to eat, and many people will leave it on out of unawareness or ease, but it has a bit of a chewy, unpleasant texture so I would recommend removing it.
The next thing you’ll need to do before searing is completely dry the scallops. You can use a clean dish towel or paper towels to dry the surfaces of the scallops. This is extremely important because moisture is the main inhibitor to good browning. It may seem excessive, but if you skip this step the scallops will end up steaming in the pan and you won’t get a good golden crust.
High-quality fresh scallops can be hard to obtain if you’re not near a coastline. You can sear frozen scallops, but be aware of the added difficulty and importance of fully defrosting and drying prior to cooking. Even with your best efforts, you unfortunately won’t get quite as good of a sear on a frozen scallop as you would a fresh scallop, due to the extra moisture.
What is the Best Way to Season Scallops?
When you have good quality scallops, I like to season with just salt and pepper so you can really taste the scallop. I recommend white pepper which is a good choice for seafood in general because of its milder, subtler taste compared to bold black pepper, but black pepper will work too. And when the scallops are done, serve them alongside a lemon wedge. Fresh lemon juice is the perfect accompaniment for scallops! It highlights the freshness of the scallops and gives a bit of acidity without being overpowering.
If you’re looking for a fuller presentation, there are a number of sauces to choose from that are traditionally served with seared scallops. One of my favorites is beurre blanc, which translates literally to “white butter.” It’s made from reducing white wine or vinegar with shallots, then slowly adding butter and often finishing with a splash of lemon juice.
Another simple and delicious option is brown butter. When the scallops are done, add a pat of butter to the skillet until it turns golden brown and spoon the browned butter over the scallops—so simple and imparts a delicious nutty flavor! You can also garnish your scallops with chives or capers for a nice finishing touch.