Seared Scallops

Producing crisp-crusted, restaurant-style, pan-seared scallops at home means overcoming a major obstacle: weak stovetops. We wanted sea scallops with perfectly brown crusts and moist, tender centers. Blotting the scallops dry and waiting until the oil was just smoking to add them to the skillet were all steps in the right direction. But the technique wasn’t perfected until we tried a restaurant technique—butter basting. We seared the scallops on one side and then added butter to the skillet to encourage browning. (Butter contains milk proteins and sugars that brown rapidly when heated.) We then spooned the foaming butter over the scallops. Adding the butter partway through cooking ensured that it had just enough time to work its browning magic on the scallops but not enough time to burn. We recommend buying “dry” scallops, which don’t have chemical additives and taste better than “wet.” Dry scallops will look ivory or pinkish; wet scallops are bright white. Wet scallops are dipped in preservatives to extend their shelf life. Unfortunately, these watery preservatives dull their flavor and ruin the texture. Unprocessed, or dry, scallops have much more flavor and a creamy, smooth texture, plus they brown very nicely. (If your scallops are not labeled, you can find out if they are wet or dry with this quick microwave test: Place a single scallop on a paper towel-lined microwave-safe plate and microwave for 15 seconds. A dry scallop will exude very little water, while a wet scallop will leave a sizable ring of moisture on the paper towel. The microwaved scallop can then be cooked in the skillet as is.)–Editors of America’s Test Kitchen

LC Full Disclosure Note

Seared scallops that are perfectly golden brown outside yet ever so slightly wobbly inside—Gordon Ramsay would be so proud. Although in the spirit of full disclosure, we tweaked this seared scallops recipe from the original version written by the talented and venerable folks at America’s Test Kitchen. Whereas they insist on using a nonstick skillet and heating the oil in said skillet to smoking before adding the scallops, with all due respect, we beg to differ. We rely on cast-iron skillets for nonstick cooking, and we never heat our oil to smoking, especially not in a Teflon-coated pan. The recipe below reflects our preferences, and we gotta say, these seared scallops worked really quite splendidly in our own kitchens and those of our testers. That said, as always, you can do as you wish.

Seared Scallops Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 20 M
  • 30 M
  • Serves 2

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces large sea scallops, tough tendons removed
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • Lemon wedges, for serving

Directions

  • 1. Place the scallops on a large plate lined with a clean dish towel. Place another clean dish towel on top of the scallops and gently press to blot any liquid. Let the scallops rest at room temperature for 10 minutes so the towels can absorb any moisture.
  • 2. Season the scallops with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the scallops in a single layer and cook, without moving, until nicely browned, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.
  • 3. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the butter to the skillet and, using tongs, flip the scallops. (If the scallops stick to the skillet, just let them be for a moment; this is usually a sign that they’re just not ready to be turned yet. And for the love of all things good, don’t use a plastic spatula to flip these guys, as they’re too delicate. Tongs are best, but a super skinny metal spatula—you know, a bendy flexible spatula—also works well.) Use a large spoon to baste the scallops with melted butter as you tilt the skillet and continue to cook the scallops until the sides are firm and the centers are opaque, 30 to 90 seconds. (Smaller scallops will cook more quickly than larger ones, natch.) Use tongs to transfer the scallops to plates or platters as they are done. Serve the seared scallops immediately with the lemon wedges.

Tuxedo Variation: Seared Scallops with Lemon Brown Butter

  • Cook the scallops as directed above but serve with this sauce on the side: Cook 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, tilting the saucepan constantly, until the butter turns golden brown and has a nutty aroma, 3 to 4 minutes. Add 1 minced small shallot and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley, 1/4 teaspoon minced fresh thyme, and 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Hungry for more? Chow down on these:

Testers Choice

Testers Choice
Testers Choice
Linda Pacchiano

May 27, 2014

If you follow the instructions in this seared scallops recipe, you'll get perfectly cooked scallops with a nice, crisp crust. Butter-basting is a technique used by restaurants that evenly sears the scallop while imparting flavor. The technique isn't a new one, but it works well, and adding the butter in the second half of cooking prevents the butter from burning. I didn't want to take a chance with a nonstick pan, so I used a cast-iron pan. I knew this would give the best possible crust while allowing the center to cook to the perfect degree of doneness. I turned down the heat when I added the butter to ensure that the butter would brown rather than burn. I made the variation with the lemon browned butter, which is a classic combination with the scallops. Be sure to follow the advice in the recipe and use only “dry” scallops. Also make sure the scallops are completely dry before searing them. Also make sure your pan and your oil are very hot. I agree that the oil shouldn't be smoking hot, but rather good and hot, which is indicated by the oil shimmering in the pan.

Testers Choice
M.K. Morgan

May 27, 2014

This seared scallops recipe was a real treat. I used a stainless steel pan. After the first side was seared, I added the butter, flipped the scallops, and turned off the flame. The scallops were done perfectly in less than a minute. I made the Lemon Browned Butter variation, which I prepared ahead of time and added to the skillet just before the scallops were done. This was a very special splurge for a weekday supper!

Testers Choice
Rita Reino-Kinch

May 27, 2014

These seared scallops are easy and delicious. What more can one ask from a simple Sunday dinner? This was my first time making seafood from beginning to the end, and I have to say, it's definitely a recipe I'll make again. I used a cast-iron skillet to sear the scallops, and I had no problem with the butter burning. The sauce became nicely brown, and the timing worked out perfectly. And even with the absence of lemon wedges that my mom forgot to buy, the scallops were still amazing. For the rest of the meal, I prepared a fresh green garden salad with bacon, and I served the scallops on top along with their buttery sauce.

Testers Choice
Linda B.

May 27, 2014

These seared scallops were sweet and delicious and simple. My medium-sized scallops were dry, so they didn't really need to be blotted. I used a nonstick skillet because I always have trouble with things sticking to other kinds of skillets. I heated the oil until it was shimmering and put in the scallops. The scallops browned very quickly, so I turned them after 1 1/2 minutes. I removed the skillet from the burner, added the butter, turned the heat down to medium, then put the skillet back on the burner. I basted the scallops with the butter and cooked them for 90 seconds. My butter got very, very brown. Next time I'd probably take the pan off the heat after flipping the scallops, and just baste them and finish the cooking off the heat. I transferred the scallops to a plate and squeezed some lemon over them. The scallops were nice and brown on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside.

Testers Choice
Jackie G.

May 27, 2014

Loved, loved, loved these scallops—so much so that I wanted more after eating them for dinner, woke up thinking about them, and decided that they would be dinner that next night, too. We even scrapped plans to go out to dinner in order to eat these scallops again. You know how sometimes when you have something again, it doesn’t live up to what you experienced the first time? Didn’t happen here. I should have prefaced this by saying that I like scallops that are allowed to shine on their own. These do just that. I also believe in using a cast-iron skillet to sear my scallops. I just couldn’t use a non-stick skillet. The technique of adding the butter and basting the scallops as you cook them is fabulous. No burned or blackened butter. No over-done scallops. Just succulence. And the butter that’s left in the skillet? Pour it over the scallops. We dipped the scallops in that butter. We also dipped a marvelous green rice that I had made to accompany the scallops in that butter. Oh, so delicious. While I'm waxing poetic, I'm going to mention that that these sea scallops are so very quick and easy to make. You want something really good that will cook in no more than a few minutes? This is it. You can’t heat up prepared food, whether fresh or frozen, this fast. You can’t get take-out or delivery this fast. I will also mention that even though previously frozen scallops are not ideal, you can definitely use them and get them to sear. (Scallops that are not previously frozen can be extremely difficult to find. I decided a while ago not to let that stop me from eating scallops. I defrost the scallops with paper towels under them as well as over them. I do need to change the paper towels a few times till the scallops are defrosted and "dry.") I'm now able to achieve beautifully seared scallops that I can enjoy even when fresh scallops aren't available. Wouldn’t want to be scallop-deprived.

Testers Choice
Linda M.

May 27, 2014

These scallops were fabulous—nicely browned and perfectly done. I followed the instructions as written using an All-Clad nonstick skillet, but only turning the heat to medium because my stove and skillet both get really hot. I cooked the sea scallops for 90 seconds per side and was pleasantly surprised that they were done and opaque in the center. The butter baste helped the browning and gave the scallops quite a nice flavor.

Testers Choice
Gene C.

May 27, 2014

This recipe was a home run. This is truly a recreation of what would be served in a fine restaurant and, if you're using gas, it works well for adapting to the lower BTU temps of a home stove. My stove is electric and can achieve much higher temps. That said, I would definitely not use a nonstick pan and would recommend using a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or stainless steel that can withstand prolonged high heat. There's a difference in the types of scallops mentioned and the quality is very noticeable. I found the the wild scallops from my local Walmart were superior to the ones at the local fishmonger, so I opted for them. They were all natural, very pink, and also a nice size. It's very important that there is very little moisture in them or they'll steam before they sear. A good gentle squeeze between paper towels will do it. This dish was incredible and made a nice presentation. My tasters (that is, my family) loved it. This will be made again for sure. As a note, be sure the oil is just at the smoking point, and if you're making more then 4 large sea scallops, do them separately 'cause otherwise they won't brown well. The timing will have to depend on the size of the scallops, because it took more than double the noted time for the scallops I had. In addition, especially if you're using a cast-iron skillet, remove it from the heat for a minute before adding the butter, then return it to the heat so the butter doesn't burn. I personally am not particularly fond of sea scallops, but my other half is, and as a treat I made this for her. As a result, I'm a convert. I found this to be a fun recipe, and there's room to play since the basic recipe allows for a creative approach.


Comments
Comments
  1. Dee McMorrow says:

    I’ve used the exact same method for cooking seared scallops for many years. However, first I cook several slices of bacon adding shallots in a little of the hot fat. Remove to slow oven to keep warm and when scallops are done plate all with whipped potatoes, stewed tomatoes and a green veggie. Heaven on a plate.

    p.s. I cook thinly sliced calves liver the same way (but, in the bacon fat) and add the same sides. Who could ask for anything more comforting? If only I could weave it into a blanket!

    Dee

  2. alan thayer says:

    I prepared the seared scallops as described here. I finished the dish by adding a compound butter made of blanched sorrel, shallots, and lemon. Served over a bed of fresh sorrel greens. My guests loved them!

    Seared Scallops

  3. Ellen in Providence says:

    David, thank you for subbing a cast-iron skillet for one with a chemical coating. In fact it’s heating the nonstick skillet to a high temperature that allows toxic fumes to be released and breathed in by the person cooking or everyone around them. This comes from DuPont’s own web site:

    “The fumes that are released by overheated polymer can produce symptoms referred to as “polymer fume fever” — flu-like symptoms that are relatively quickly reversed in humans.”

    But there are many studies proving that these chemicals can kill birds, and quickly at that!

    • David Leite David Leite says:

      Ellen, yes. We always use a cast iron skillet. I have three–count ‘em, three–hummingbirds. I’m not about to kill them off because of dinner.

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