How to Sear Scallops

No need to wait for a fancy dinner invitation to enjoy a plate of juicy scallops.

pan seared scallops
Photo: Linda Pugliese

If you like to incorporate seafood into your weeknight dinners, give scallops a try. You don't need to wait for an evening at a high-priced restaurant to enjoy succulent, seared scallops; ready in just minutes and paired with pasta, rice, or grilled vegetables, scallops can add a touch of elegance to a midweek supper. Before we start cooking, let's talk about how to buy the right scallop.

How to Buy the Right Scallop

You will find both jumbo scallops and bay scallops at the market. Jumbo, or sea scallops, are up to three times larger than bay scallops and have a sweet, delicate flavor. Bay scallops, while delicious in soups and salads, are so small they tend to overcook before getting a good sear. You will also find scallops marked "dry-packed" and "wet-packed." Whenever possible, choose dry-packed scallops. Wet-packed scallops have been soaked in a preservative solution to extend shelf life and add water weight. This causes the scallops to absorb more liquid, alter the texture of the meat and, when cooked, they water out and don't brown as pretty as dry-packed scallops. Wet-packed scallops, usually not as fresh as dry, can also absorb a strange flavor from the preservatives. If, however, wet-packed is all you can find, give them a thorough rinse and pat dry with a paper towel before cooking. Dry-packed scallops are much fresher and have not been treated with any chemicals, additives, or solutions. They are darker than wet-packed scallops (a beige color, whereas the wet scallops are whiter), and they have a much better flavor. So, what did we learn? For the best, seared scallop, choose jumbo, dry-packed scallops.

Now, let's get cooking.

How to Sear a Scallop

Aside from seasoning, there is very little prep when searing scallops. The first thing you will do, and this is probably the most important thing, is to pat the outside of the scallops dry with a paper towel (if using wet-packed scallops, you will have already rinsed and dried them). Why must the scallops, or any meat for that matter, be dry before searing? Glad you asked. Searing is when you brown meat quickly by subjecting it to very high heat – either in a skillet, under a broiler, or in a very hot oven. This method seals in the meat's juices; if the outside of the meat is wet it will create steam instead.

Choose a skillet, one big enough so the scallops aren't crowded and touching each other – this might create steam and restrict the browning process. A large cast-iron skillet is ideal since it can handle and retain super-high temperatures. Season the scallops by sprinkling some sea salt and cracked black pepper on just one side. Add butter and/or oil to the pan on high heat and, once the fat begins to smoke, place the scallops in the skillet, making sure they do not touch each other. A word of caution: leave them alone once they hit the pan—scallops will stick to the skillet at first, then release once they sear.

Sear the scallops for 1 1/2 – 2 minutes on the first side, turn them, season the second side, and add a small pat of butter to the pan while the scallops finish cooking. The scallops should have a golden, caramelized crust on each side while still being translucent in the center. Immediately transfer to a platter (do not leave them in the pan or they will continue cooking) and serve immediately.

WATCH: Grilled Sweet-and-Sour Scallops

Reheating Scallops

Scallops can be reheated but you have to be careful not to cook them further. Heat until they are just warm enough to eat.

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