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What Is a Scallop?
Scallops are molluscs, like mussels, oysters, and clams. They’re unique in that they’re the only bivalve that can swim: Scallops use their large central muscle (called the adductor) to clasp their shells shut, shooting water out one end and propelling forward in the other direction. This big muscle is the part of the scallop that we eat. This muscle cooks quickly and is naturally tender, with a mild, sweet ocean flavor, like a seafood marshmallow. A brief sear on the stovetop is the most common way of preparing scallops, which are high in free amino acids and sugars that easily form a deep golden brown crust.
Types of Scallops
The scallop family includes about 400 species ranging in size from a few millimeters to three feet in diameter, but most of the scallops we eat are the sea scallop and the bay scallop.
- Sea scallops are of the species Pecten and Placopecten and are dredged from deep waters year-round. They’re larger than bay scallops, and great for grilling and searing.
- Bay scallops (aka calico scallops) of the species Argopecten are dredged or hand-gathered closer to shore during a specific season. They’re small and delicate, ideal for sauteing or ceviche.
- Frozen scallops. Because their shells don’t close tightly, scallops are typically shucked immediately after harvest, which means that quality starts to deteriorate before scallops hit the market. To preserve their freshness, scallops are often frozen directly on the boat, or soaked in a solution of polyphosphates, which helps preserve their moisture and turns the scallops glossy white.
- Wet-packed scallops. Chemically treated scallops are called wet-packed scallops at the market, because they take on water more easily. While plump at market, wet scallops shrink when cooked and can have off flavors from the polyphosphates.
- Dry-packed scallops have not been treated with additives. They’re beige or off-white in color, sometimes with pink or orange tones. Dry scallops are generally superior in flavor and can be sold fresh or frozen.
Can You Buy Fresh Scallops?
Truly fresh scallops are generally only available near the coast. If you buy frozen scallops, defrost overnight in the fridge, over a colander, making sure the scallops don’t sit in their own moisture. In China and Southeast Asia, scallops are preserved by drying. These true dried scallops are then rehydrated and added to seafood soups.
6 Ways to Cook Scallops
- Stovetop is generally the preferred method for cooking scallops because it allows you to get a quick sear on the scallop in a hot pan, avoiding overcooking.
- Bake scallops in a casserole dish with seasonings—try butter, dry white wine, and lemon juice—at 350°F. To test for doneness, use an instant-read thermometer. The internal temperature should be 115°F.
- Grill scallops over medium-high heat for beautiful char marks and a smokier flavor. Before cooking, toss scallops with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill scallops until lightly charred and just cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Use a fish spatula or your hands to flip, or line scallops up on skewers so they’re easier to handle. Jumbo and giant scallops are good choices for grilling, since they take longer to cook.
- Broil scallops, dipped in melted butter, on a baking sheet until golden brown on the outside and opaque white on the inside, about 6-10 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet halfway through for even cooking.
- Poach. Since scallops cook so quickly, you can also poach them in hot liquid right at the table. Try serving a bowl of raw scallops alongside a pitcher of steaming-hot consommé so you can watch the scallops cook.
- Ceviche. Scallops can be served raw, tenderized by the acidity in scallop ceviche.
3 Creative Ideas for Scallop Dishes
Since scallops are mild, meaty, and quick-cooking, there are tons of easy recipes highlighting their unique flavor. Once you’ve mastered pan seared scallops, try:
- Lemon butter scallops: Use the method for pan seared scallops above, and serve them with a quick lemon butter sauce. Melting 2 tablespoons butter, then add minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve seared scallops with lemon butter sauce and garnish with chopped parsley.
- Bacon-wrapped scallops: Wrap scallops in thin pieces of bacon and secure with a toothpick. Broil, rotating halfway through cooking, until bacon is cooked through, about 10-15 minutes.
- Bay scallop ceviche: Cut bay scallops into ½-inch pieces and let sit in a bowl of lime juice for one hour. Mix with cucumber, avocado, jalapeño, and thinly sliced onion, and serve with tortilla chips or lettuce leaves.
4 Tips for Cooking Perfect Scallops at Home
- When choosing scallops, large, dry sea scallops tend to be the sweetest and most flavorful.
- Most scallop recipes call for gently pinching off the “catch” or side muscle before cooking. The catch is a small piece of muscle tissue on the side of the scallop that locks the shell in place when the scallop is in danger. It’s tough and opaque, like the tendons in a chicken leg, and the fibers run perpendicular to those in the rest of the scallop. It’s safe to eat, but a little chewy.
- Since scallops cook quickly, make sure the rest of your meal is ready to go before the scallops hit the pan.
- Don’t leave scallops in the pan after they’re done; they’ll continue to cook and get tough and chewy.
Perfect Pan-Seared Scallops RecipeEMAIL RECIPE
- 1 ½ lbs dry-packed sea scallops (about 16-20)
- Kosher salt to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil (or other high–smoke point oil)
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Remove catch muscle if needed. Rinse scallops under cold water and thoroughly pat dry with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. Season with salt and pepper.
- Heat grapeseed oil in a large stainless steel, non-stick, or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Test the pan’s heat by sprinkling a tiny bit of water in it—if the water evaporates on contact, the pan is ready.
- Place scallops in the pan in a single layer, leaving about an inch of space between each one and working in batches if necessary. The first scallop should sizzle on contact with the pan; if not, wait a few seconds for the pan to get hot before adding the rest.
- Cook scallops until golden brown on the bottom, about 2 minutes, then flip using tongs. (If the scallop doesn’t release easily, give it a few extra seconds in the pan.) Add butter, and swirl to coat scallops.
- Cook the scallops until both sides are seared golden brown and sides are fully opaque, about 2-3 minutes more. The scallops should feel firm but tender. Serve immediately.
How to Serve Seared Scallops
Cooked scallops go great with bright, tangy flavors that contrast their meaty sweetness, or creamy, nutty dishes that emphasize their richness. Try them:
- On top of pureed cauliflower, parsnips, or other creamy vegetables
- With pasta, garnished simply with lemon, olive oil, and herbs
- On top of couscous (or rice for a gluten-free option)
- Alongside a tangy, fresh corn salad with avocado and lime
- With a quick browned butter sauce and a big, green salad