How to get that awesome crust on your seared scallops.
This is a bit of a how-to, educational kind of post. I don’t write too many, but I feel like this is an important one. Have you ever ordered seared scallops in a restaurant and they arrive at your table with a dark, crusty, caramelized top, almost like a creme brulee? Well if you didn’t get them like that, scratch that restaurant off your list because they must be having issues. Seared scallops are fantastic additions for all sorts of dishes, like pastas, risottos, and stir fry, but they ain’t cheap and it sucks to overcook them.
A scallop is a bivalve, which means it has two movable pieces connected by a muscle. Other bivalve examples are mussels, oysters, clams and basically anything you might have to pry open to eat. Many of the scallops we get in the U.S. come from Japan, China, and other parts of the world. But without sounding like a scallop snob, we could actually pull big plump scallops from our own waters, from the east coast to Alaska. My big scallop gripe (and this goes for any other seafood) is that a lot of fisheries will add water and chemicals to the fish once it’s been processed.
Phosphate is a preservative that makes scallops absorb more water. This not only makes it taste funky, it also makes them weigh more and you end up paying more on an already pricey piece of seafood. Scallops like this are called wet scallops. The scallops which are phosphate free are called dry scallops, and they are caught, shucked and frozen at sea without anything else being added. If you see scallops in your local seafood department and they look bright white, these are probably phosphate impostors. Dry scallops will look a little on the duller/brown side. As always, sniff your seafood and try to smell the ocean. Dry scallops are usually sold in higher end markets but I found a bag in Trader Joe’s recently and was very happy with them. If in doubt check the ingredients and they should just list scallops and nothing else.
Searing scallops has to be done fast! They’ll take a few minutes on either side, and they’ll still cook a little when you take them off the heat. When you cook a wet scallop, you’ll notice bubbles will appear around the scallop. This is the water that was absorbed being released. Now, the scallop is steaming when it should be searing.
You’ll keep cooking it and looking for that gorgeous dark color, but it just won’t happen no matter how high you crank up the heat. If you buy dry scallops, get ready for some fun! Try to use a cast-iron skillet or a good non-stick pan because you’re going to get it really hot. Also, make sure to have a towel close by…not to wipe up spills, but to wave furiously at your smoke alarm when it goes off halfway through cooking. Bring your thawed (if previously frozen) scallops out of the fridge and let them rest on some paper towels for 10 minutes. Heat your pan over a high heat and drop some canola oil, which has a high smoke point, into it. Season the scallops with some salt and pepper and place into the hot pan. Don’t touch them for at least two minutes, and then carefully check the color. Once they have that nice sear, flip them over and give the other side 1.5- 2 minutes. Take them off the heat and transfer them to a plate.
Serve at once with your chosen main dish, I grated some orange zest over these and added a sprinkle of fresh rosemary.
*This post has been updated with new text and photography*
Easy lesson on how to get that perfect scallop sear!
- 8 ounces dry North Atlantic scallops
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- Sea salt
- Black pepper
Take the scallops, thawed if frozen, and place them on a paper towel. Lightly season with salt and pepper and let rest for 5 minutes at room temperature.
Heat a cast iron skillet or non-stick pan over a high heat.
Once the pan is very hot, add the oil.
Place each scallop carefully into the oil and cook untouched for 2 minutes.
Turn the scallops over and cook for a further 2 minutes and each side is a deep golden brown.
Serve at once with a side salad, pasta, or your favorite risotto dish.