How to Cook Scallops: A Beginners’ Guide
I wrote a post called All About Scallops where I explained the different types of scallops, how they are harvested, how to buy them and how to store them but not how to cook them. Miss Emerson called me out on this in her comment when she said,
You also present the material in a simple, concise, easy-to-read way. The only information I missed is that I would have liked more written about techniques like how do you get a proper sear, should you season scallops before or after cooking, how you can tell it is done.
So in response to Miss Emerson, the question is:
How do you cook scallops?
Hear the rim shot? It sounds like a glib answer to a reasonable question. But it really is the truth. The part of the scallop that we eat is the strong, lean muscle that opens and closes the scallop’s shell so it can propel itself through the water. And lean muscle requires quick cooking.
An overcooked scallop has a very chewy texture. That’s because the proteins have cooked to the point that they squeeze out all the moisture. And there is no extra fat present in a scallop to help to mask the fact that they are overcooked.
So, what’s a beginning cook to do, when even experienced cooks can end up with over-cooked scallops? Again, the answer is speed. Also, to play up scallops’ delicate sweetness, it’s best to use dry-heat cooking methods so that the sugars and proteins on the surface can brown through caramelization and the Maillard reactions.
How Do You Know When They Are Done?
Okay, but scallops are small. How do you know when they’re done? After all, overcooked is bad. Fortunately, the scallops can show us when they’re done. As the proteins cook, they go turn from translucent to opaque. This is dramatically evident when cooking an egg–the whites turn from clear to white as the egg cooks. The same applies to all proteins, although the darker pigments in other proteins can make the change look less dramatic.
When you cook scallops, don’t walk away from them. If you are going to sear them, leave them alone. Otherwise, as for a stir fry or grilling, keep them moving. Watch for the change from translucent to opaque.
To begin with, you might have to cut one open to check for doneness, but once you know how long it takes and what they look like when they are done, you won’t have to do that anymore. Because of carryover cooking, it is best to take them off the heat and out of the pan when they are not quite done. In the case of scallops, slightly underdone is preferable to overdone.
How to Get Them Ready To Cook
To prepare the scallops for cooking, pat them dry and cut off the small side muscle, if present. This muscle will get chewy no matter what, so it’s best to just get rid of it. You can cook either the small (1/2″) bay scallops or the larger (1″-1 and 1/2″) sea scallops by any of the following methods, except where noted. If possible, purchase dry scallops for best results.
Especially when grilling bay scallops, thread them on soaked wooden skewers to keep them from falling through the grill grate, but the skewer method works just as well with sea scallops.
Dry the scallops well with paper towels. Season simply with a little salt and pepper.
Grill over hot coals, turning them every minute for even cooking, until opaque. For bay scallops, this will take about two to three minutes. For sea scallops, about five.
Skewering bay scallops is a good idea in this application because you will have to turn them all once.
Season however you like, thread bay scallops on soaked wooden skewers. Place the scallops on a non-stick broiler pan and broil about 6″ away from the heating element, two minutes for bay scallops and three minutes for sea scallops. Turn and broil an additional minute or two for bay or another two for sea scallops.
Pan Searing Scallops
This method is not suitable for bay scallops since they are not large enough to get a good sear without overcooking. Save this application for sea scallops.
Preheat a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat. Add a bit of olive oil and/or butter to the pan with a brush to make sure the fat coats the entire cooking surface.
Place the scallops in the pan, making sure they are not touching.
Leave them alone and let them cook for about 1 and 1/2 minutes. Turn carefully with tongs and cook another 1 and 1/2 minutes.
Remove from the heat. With this cooking time, the centers of the scallops will still be translucent. If you do not prefer them that way, sear them for two minutes per side.
Stir Frying Scallops
Use this method for smaller, sweeter bay scallops.
Heat a wok over high heat. Add a tablespoon of peanut oil.
Add the bay scallops along with a couple of teaspoons of soy sauce. Keep the scallops moving and cook until opaque, about two-three minutes.
Of course, you may stir fry with vegetables, too. In this case rather than cooking the scallops first, removing them to cook the vegetables and then adding them back in at the end, cook the vegetables first. Since the scallops take so little time to cook, you will have no problem keeping the vegetables warm.
What About Stews and Risottos?
The techniques above are all for cooking scallops when they are going to be the main event. But, what about when scallops are just one ingredient, and are only added for an accent, as in a cioppino (fish stew) or a risotto? Yes, it might take almost half an hour to make a risotto and even longer to assemble a good fish stew, but “quickly” is still the answer when it comes to how to cook scallops.
The simplest option is to add the raw scallops to your dish during the last three or four minute of cooking, and then serve. This is what I would recommend. If you do want a little color on your scallops, you can either stir fry or sear them for a minute or so and then add them into your hot dish after it has already come off the stove, allowing the heat of your stew or risotto to finish cooking the scallops.
Because scallops cook quickly and can overcook even more quickly, they do not reheat well. Either make just enough of a dish to serve everyone with no leftovers, or expect to have some chewy scallops the next day.
I have seen some recipes for scallop casseroles that go against the “quick cooking” rule. Most of these casseroles contain a lot of fat in the form of heavy cream or even canned cream soup. The addition of so much creamy fat can help to keep the scallops from tasting overcooked, so, as with most rules, fat-filled casseroles are the exception to the rule.