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How to Cook Scallops

Pan Searing Scallops in Butter
June 3, 2020

This recipe and photography were provided courtesy of local cookbook author and chef, Carla Snyder. Learn more about Carla and discover her recipes at Ravenouskitchen.com. 

Scallops might seem like a fancy dish that only Julia Child would prepare at home, but Julia would tell you that scallops are one of the easiest and simplest of seafoods to prepare. The truth is, they take about 5 minutes to cook and require little-to-no prep. Just a little salt and pepper (maybe a squeeze of lemon) and they are at their most delicious. Before we get cooking, a little scallop lore is in order.

What are Scallops?

Scallops are a type of bivalve mollusk, much like oysters, mussels and clams. Bivalve mollusks have an interior muscle which is surrounded by two shells. Inside the shell there’s a white adductor muscle which opens and closes the shell. The muscle is round and tender when cooked properly and tastes sweet and briny. Unlike oysters, mussels and clams, you will rarely find scallops in their shell, which is wide and flat. Because scallops are mobile (they swim), they don’t keep as well while alive in the shell and out of water and are therefore removed from the shell for better storage. There are two types of scallops: bay scallops and sea scallops. While the bay variety are smaller and more tender, sea scallops can grow as big as two inches wide.

Bay Scallops vs. Sea Scallops

Bay scallops are found in bays and shallow waters on the East Coast and are usually about 1/2-inch wide. Though the bay scallop population has dwindled in recent years, efforts to boost this delicious marine animal has shown great promise. In contrast, sea scallops are found in deep, cold ocean waters all around the world. In the U.S. they are typically caught in the Northwest Atlantic down to North Carolina.

Scallop meat is usually sold by the pound either frozen in packages or loose in the seafood case. Like shrimp, the packaging is marked with the letter U and a number indicating how many scallops are in the package. The U means under so a package of “U-10” large sea scallops means there are 10 or fewer scallops per pound. This gives you a point of reference as to how large the scallops are. Conversely, a package of bay scallops could be labeled “U-40” meaning there are under 40 scallops in a pound. Bay scallops are less expensive than sea scallops, especially the larger sea scallops, but they both should be firm, light pink to pale beige in color and with no fishy odor.Raw Scallops

Jumbo sized, ocean fresh sea scallops ready for preparation in your favorite recipe.

Wet-Packed vs. Dry-Packed Scallops

Scallops can also be distinguished by the terms “wet-packed” or “dry-packed”. Wet packed scallops sit in a brine solution that extends shelf life. As the scallops sit in the solution, they absorb the water and plump. As they cook, wet-packed scallops will ooze liquid instead of browning, making it difficult to get that deliciously-seared surface. Dry packed scallops are usually fresher with a purer and more concentrated flavor, but they do have a shorter shelf life, so they should be cooked the day you buy them. You may have noticed “diver sea scallops” or “day boat scallops” on restaurant menus. These scallops have been harvested by hand by scuba divers instead of being dredged by a machine. The price tag for these beauties will be higher, but it may be worth it to you as the diver doesn’t disturb the seafloor (making it a more ecological choice) and the scallops are usually sold the day they are caught. Buy them when you see them as these are the freshest of the fresh.

Scallop Cooking Methods

Scallops are ready to cook as is, no marinating or special flavoring necessary, but if you bought them frozen, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator the day before you plan to cook. Never thaw seafood on the kitchen counter as bacteria can grow. Also, if you bought ‘wet’ scallops, give them a rinse to freshen them up and remove the briny solution.

The most common way to cook scallops is to pan fry or grill them, but no matter which way you want to cook them, scallops need to be patted dry. This is probably the most overlooked step and it’s the most crucial step if you want to sear the scallops to luscious brown perfection. Drying the surface of the scallop allows the sugars in the meat to caramelize. A wet scallop will just simmer in the juices and will not brown correctly, so pat them dry between paper towels before salting and peppering.

The next step is to get the grill or skillet really hot. If grilling, brush the grate and scallop with oil so it doesn’t stick and skewer them so they don’t fall through the grate. Use a mix of half butter and half vegetable oil if pan-frying. The butter adds flavor and the oil keeps the butter from browning too quickly.

The most heinous thing you can do to a scallop is to overcook it, making it rubbery. It’s a good idea to undercook instead of overcooking, so keep that in mind when cooking scallops. Two minutes on each side just about does it every time for perfectly cooked, velvety-textured scallops. If the scallops are small, an even shorter cooking time is a good idea. Scallops turn opaque when cooked and should spring back when pressed lightly.

How to Serve Scallops

That’s really just about all there is to cooking scallops. I like to pair them with a simple salsa or use them to top a plate of pasta or risotto. I even serve them as an appetizer on a skewer if they aren’t too large. Dipping sauces are always a good idea and now that it’s grilling season, I can see an entire meal including scallops cooked on the grill. Grilled corn and scallops anyone?

Scallop Recipes

My favorite scallop recipes include Grilled Scallop Kebabs with Mango Habanero Salsa. I used large dry-packed scallops for this main dish, but if you use the smaller bay scallops you can serve this recipe as a summertime appetizer. The salsa is fresh and fast to assemble and I love the addition of hot jelly as it makes the salsa even sweeter and spicier. The habanero chile is one of the hottest chiles, so be careful when handling it and avoid touching the seeds and membranes. Just a touch of this pepper will add all the heat you’re looking for and if by chance you are heat adverse, just leave it out. The hot jelly might have enough spice for you. You can always add more after tasting.

 Grilled Scallop Kebobs with Mango Habanero Salsa

The second recipe is Fettuccine with Scallops, Carrots and Ginger-Lime Butter Sauce. Citrus and ginger liven up the buttery carrots and embellish the noodles in a lime tinged, carrot flecked sauce with perfectly-cooked scallops perched on top. Speaking of simple, this dish is surprisingly basic. Once you assemble the ingredients, you’re just a few steps away from dinner in no time flat.

Scallop Fettuccine

As with cooking most seafood, it’s just a matter of making it a few times and you’ll wonder why you haven’t been cooking seafood more often. So, if you like to order scallops in restaurants, you must try cooking them at home. You too can make a scallop dish to rival the best restaurant’s offerings. Julia and I said so.

By Carla Snyder
Carla has spent the past 30 years in the food world as a caterer, artisan baker, cooking school teacher, food writer and author of 6 cook books including the James Beard nominated Big Book of Appetizers. Her passion is sharing fresh, cooked-from-scratch weeknight meals that cut prep time and practically eliminate that nightly sink full of dishes.

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