Best Way to Cook Scallops

    Last Updated on August 18, 2020

    scallops dish

    If you love seafood, you probably know that scallops are unmatched in terms of texture and taste. It doesn't matter if you fancy the tiny bay scallops, or prefer the larger sea scallops; just a few pieces of well-cooked scallops on your dinner plate is enough to send your taste buds into an overnight frenzy. 

    Unfortunately, there are countless recipes on how to cook almost every type of fish, but when it comes to scallops, most of the content you'll find are either incomplete, or too shallow. And this actually sucks as scallop is one of the most expensive foods, and a lot of people have inadvertently experienced loss and disappointments when preparing this meal.

    So, the aim of this post is to show you the best ways to cook scallops. But first, wouldn't it be nice to also learn how to select, handle and store them too?

    How to Select The Best Scallops

    Scallops only taste nice when they are fresh. And unlike other types of meat, freezing messes up the flavor in bivalves, and thus, you should set your shopping date the same day you plan to cook them. And while at it, here are some things you need to consider:

  • Harder is Best - if you buy fish on the regular, you would know that soft fish is wack. This is even more true where scallops are concerned. The best scallops have a hard and firm outer shell, so you may want to press the mollusks on offer before buying.

  • Wet is Worse - I know it's ironic to say this about an aquatic organism, but avoid buying (or cooking) any wet or shiny scallops. If you can't find dry ones at your fishmonger, try the grocery stores and purposely look for the ones labeled "dry packed". The reasoning behind this is the wet scallops are HARD to sear, and may mess up your oil and seasoning when the moisture is excess.

  • It's All In the Smell - Ideally, raw scallops shouldn't smell like scallops. Instead, they should have a distinct seaweed, or saltwater smell, like any other fish. This smell is more pronounced when the fish is fresh.

  • Harder is Best - if you buy fish on the regular, you would know that soft fish is wack. This is even more true where scallops are concerned. The best scallops have a hard and firm outer shell, so you may want to press the mollusks on offer before buying.
  • Notably, there are 3 types of scallops sold throughout the U.S (and most of the world), namely: bay scallops, diver scallops and sea scallops. When doing your shopping, you need to know the type of scallops that you're buying, and thereby stick to the recommended size designations for that particular type. 


    These designations, usually denoted in the form U/n, where n is an integer and U represents "under". For example, some reviews may describe some scallops as "U/15", which means a pound should ideally contain 15 or less scallops and the individual scallops will therefore be much larger than in a type marked "U/20".

    Now, let’s learn more about the various types of scallops: 

  • Bay Scallops aka Cape Scallops - They are harvested from the shallow waters in bays and most of the East Coast. Moreover, they are cheaper and significantly small compared to the deep water bivalves. 

    Bay scallops range from 1/2 to 3/4 inches in size, and it typically takes between 70 and 120 of them to make a pound (also denoted as 70/120). And while naturally very sweet and tender, they can turn tough and chewy very fast when pan-seared so if you're not a pro chef, you are better off sautéing them. 

  • Sea Scallops - If bay scallops are on one side of the size spectrum, sea scallops are on the opposite end. They have an average diameter of between 1 1/2 and 2 inches, and they usually fall in the 10/30 range. Sea scallops are suited for all types of cooking methods, especially pan-searing, where they can achieve a deliciously crispy outer crust when cooked under high heat. 

  • Diver Scallops - Unlike the above two, diver scallops are not a physically distinct type of scallop, but are called so because they're hand-collected by sea divers. Most diver scallops are, in fact, sea scallops.
  • However, they are often larger than normal sea scallops due to the fact that most divers tend to pick the biggest fish they come across. As you would expect, this type is relatively expensive with the flip side being their size designations, usually ranging between Under 10/20. 

    To be honest, buying a scallop is hardly the easiest job - on the contrary. There's simply too much information to process and remember, especially if you're not a "fishy" person. However, seeing that you will be paying a premium for your scallops, it is only right that you get the best of them. 

    Scallop Handling and Storage

    As mentioned earlier, fresh scallop should be your first option as they don't require any fancy preparation or storage. However, if you don't leave near the coast, you may have to do with frozen or dry-packed scallops, both of which require exceptional storage to maintain their flavors.

    For frozen scallops, overnight thawing (in the fridge) is enough to keep them fresh and juicy. Note that you shouldn't use a microwave at any point, unless you have a thing for dry, crusty scallops. (Hint: They're not fun). If you've bought frosted scallops, you will need to defrost them before cooking, which is quite easy. Just wrap and seal them up in a plastic zipper bag and let some cold tap water run over them.

    Dry packed scallops can survive a bit longer in the fridge as long as you wrap them tightly in a moisture-proof material, such as a plastic wrap or kitchen foil before storage. Otherwise, you can place them in the freezer, as long as you cook them within 2 days.

    Ways of Cooking Scallops

    They may be a pain in the backside to buy and handle, but in the kitchen, scallops are the easiest fish to cook. What more, there are so many ways to prepare scallops, meaning you can still enjoy a taste of our beloved bivalves even when you are a rookie in the culinary acts.

    There are 4 main ways of cooking scallops depending on the taste and texture you want to accomplish, and the amount of time you have on your hands. These are further explained below, starting with my personal favorite...

    1

    Sautéing 

    Using the oven is one of the fastest and safest ways to reheat your whole brisket. Considering the shorter cooking time, the oven won’t expose your brisket to high temperatures. This means the chances of drying your brisket are very minimal. 


    Moreover, by reheating your brisket in the oven, you will be able to  retain all the flavor and freshness of the meat. You may also add additional cooking juices to the leftover au jus, for a more delicious outcome.

    Here's by quick sauté recipe:

    1. Pour about 2 (or more, depending on the amount of scallop) tablespoons of olive oil, or butter on a non-stick pan and place it on high heat.


    2. When the pan gets VERY hot (smoking hot at that), add your scallops one after the other, taking care not to crowd the pan. When you add scallops to a pan that's not super hot, you are more likely to overcook them, as the heat deficit means they have to stay a bit longer on the pan. 


    3. Sprinkle your seasoning on the cooking scallops. I prefer the good ol' salt and pepper combination, but you can always try different spice blends. The only rule is to first season one side, wait for about 2-3 minutes, then turn your scallops and do the other side.


    4. As the scallops are cooking, resist the urge to keep touching and turning them around the pan to allow for uniform caramelization. Ideally, you should only turn them once (after seasoning) and that's after they get a nice crust.


    5. On average, scallops sauté in a maximum of 6 minutes on moderate-high heat. You, therefore, need to keep a stopwatch nearby to keep you alert. 


    6. Serve as soon as you get them off the pan. Reheated scallops are usually stringy, and not as rich in flavor. 


    PS: If you've never cooked scallops before, I suggest you start with sautéing, and thereafter, progress to the next methods.

    2

    Grilling

    Scallops have a distinct and delicious butter texture, which is greatly enhanced when combined with the char flavor that comes with grilling. There are many ways of grilling scallops, but I like to use skewers since they give me more control of each scallop. To this end, my usual recipe looks like this:

    1. Pat the scallops dry with paper towels to ensure they're completely dry and ready for the grill.


    2. Preheat the grill to medium-high heat.


    3. Lay the scallops on a tray, and generously sprinkle some olive oil and seasoning on them. Just like with normal meat, adding a bit of lemon pepper to the usual salt and black pepper will make the final product much more sweet and fresh. 


    4. Skewer the scallops and place them directly on the grill. You may thread multiple scallops on one skewer (But not more than three) as long as there's at least 1 1/2 of space between them. 


    5. Let each side cook for 3-4 minutes before flipping the skewers and/or touching them. Once your bivalves are well grilled, they will turn opaque throughout.


    PS:If you don't have metal skewers, you can use rosemary sprigs, which I found to enrich the taste and smell of my roast scallops.

    3

    Broiling

    Broiling is a quick-cooking technique that is especially effective with the miniature and exceptionally tender bay scallops. Of course, you can also broil sea scallops if you wish, but you'll need to be more careful about it. There is a preference for bay scallops because they differ with sea scallops in terms of cooking.

    Here's how to broil scallops:

    1. Turn your broiler to high. 


    2. Get a shallow baking dish and coat all its sides with olive oil. 


    3. Spread out your scallops on the dish and brush the top sides with olive oil, or butter. Ideally, the mollusks should be in a single layer, with adequate space between the pieces.


    4. Place the scallops in the broiler and let them cook for about 5-7 minutes, or until they achieve a uniform golden-brown crust. For the larger sea scallops, you may want to flip the pieces halfway through the process to attain a good sear. 


    When broiling, it's best to wait until the scallops are out of the broiler before adding seasoning. By doing so, you will avoid exposing the spices to the heat in the oven, which may otherwise affect their smell and flavor. In addition to your regular seasoning, a coating of browned butter on each scallop will do wonders for your tastebuds.

    4

    Baking

    There's truly nothing better on a Sunday afternoon than a plate of baked sea scallops served with coconut rice or pasta. Again, the larger sea scallops are the most suitable for this method, particularly when dry and fresh. This is because baking makes things shrink and large, dry scallops are more likely to maintain their size when baked, thus getting fresh is better than store-bought scallops, which usually contain additives and moisture which makes them susceptible to shrinking.

    Here's how I make my baked sea scallops:

    1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees 


    2. Mix together bread crumbs, sea salt, black pepper, 2 tbsp soy sauce, lemon juice on a bowl. 


    3. Paint each scallop in browned butter then dip and roll them in the mixture above. 


    4. Place the buttered scallops on a baking dish and season with chili flakes or paprika. 


    5. Place the bowl on the preheated oven and let it cook for at least 30 minutes. Serve immediately. 


    To be honest, I really love baked scallops, and the only reason I don't bake them more often is due to my chronic impatience when it comes to culinary matters. That's about the only reason why this method comes last on my list.

    Conclusion 

    Can we conclude that scallops are not THAT hard to cook, and you shouldn't really be spending a lot of cash in self-proclaimed "king of seafood" restaurants? Yeah, things may blow up on your face on the first try, but it surely gets a hell lot better in subsequent tries, I promise.