Scallops – How to Cook Scallops

May 23, 2011 20 Comments

How to Cook Scallops

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?

Answer: Quickly

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.

Cooking Scallops

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.

Grilling Scallops

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.

Broiling Scallops

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.

Pan Frying Scallops

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.

Scallops – How to Cook Scallops

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Scallops – How to Cook Scallops

Ingredients

1 and 1/2 pounds bay scallops

1/2 pound sliced mushrooms

1 Tablespoon butter

2 sprigs fresh thyme

Pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup dry white wine

4 oz. grated mild cheddar cheese

4 Tablespoons butter

4 Tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups whole milk

1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

Several strips of bacon

How To Prepare At Home

Place the scallops in a buttered 1 and 1/2 quart casserole dish.

Sauté the mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of butter along with the fresh thyme, pinch of salt and pepper.

Add the white wine, and continue to cook until all the liquid is evaporated. Set aside to cool. Remove the thyme stems, and then spread over the scallops.

In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, heat 4 tablespoons of butter until melted and bubbly.?Add the flour and salt and cook, stirring constantly, for two minutes.

Add the milk, all at once and stir until the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer until thickened.

Add the Old Bay seasoning. Off the heat, stir in the cheese, a little at a time. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

Pour the sauce over the scallops and mushrooms. Cover with strips of bacon, and bake at 350F for about thirty minutes.

Let cool slightly before serving.

Last modified on Fri 4 April 2014 11:43 am

Comments (20)

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  1. Bjorn Flesaker says:

    Hi,
    I agree with everything above, although I think it is worth pointing out that no salt goes onto the scallops until they are done cooking. The salt will draw out liquid which inhibits the caramelization, and the next thing you know you have steamed scallops. Also, the process of removing the side muscle (aka foot) is most easily done by just pulling them off by hand. No knife needed.
    Bjorn

    Hi Bjorn, thanks for the tips and comments. I’m aware that salt does draw out liquids in foods but I’m not sure I agree that you shouldn’t season the scallops before cooking. Almost every cookbook I’ve looked at say to season them first but they don’t say why. I’m going to research this and learn more about the pros and cons of seasoning foods in general before cooking. Thanks for bringing this point up. – RG

    5/26/11 Followup – Hi Bjorn, I did a little research and can now say I don’t agree you shouldn’t salt scallops before cooking. In fact, I plan to write a post about when to salt foods in general. There’s a lot of information on the Internet about salting foods before you cook but not much on why so I went immediately to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. About presalting fish and shrimp before cooking, he says, “Japanese cooks briefly presalt most fish and shrimp to remove surface moisture and odor and firm the outer layers. This is especially useful for getting fish skin to crisp and brown quickly when fried.”

    I then called a chef friend and asked him about salting scallops before cooking and he said if you dry the scallops first and make sure your pan is at the right temperature, very little liquid will escape and the scallops cook so fast, you don’t need to worry about them drying out when presalted. Overcooking, he said, is another thing. – RG

    • bill depp says:

      Absolutely no salt nor pepper till done. Johnson & Wales Culinary major. The salt draws the moisture out inhibiting maillard reaction and the pepper can burn making a bitter taste. No moving them while searing and clarified butter is the best fat to use. New Bedford fisherman eat at our restaurant and they know their scallops. You really don’t even need salt as they have a oceany brine taste…just a pinch after maybe with pepper if you like. Drawn butter and lemon are popular, the fried scallops are much more popular. We get some the size of baseballs, even here in New Bedford those fetch 25 bucks per lb!

  2. Charles says:

    We use a similar recipe to your casserole, but include shallots and dried mint which is sometimes augmented with a touch of dried fenugreek too. Try it for yourself, we think its nice.

    Thank Charles. I’m not sure what “fenugreek” is. – RG

    • bill depp says:

      fenugreek is so weird, I only had success using it in a Curry, it’s bitter sweet caramel maplely strange taste turns off a lot of folks and a little goes a long way. I think the Greeks use it quite a bit as the Indians.

  3. Bjorn Flesaker says:

    I stand corrected. As it happens, my wife had bought a pound of large local scallops today, so it was time to do a (somewhat) controlled experiment. I seasoned half of them with salt and pepper and only applied pepper to the other half. I cooked them in two separate (but equal) pans, and it is fair to say that the pre-seasoned scallops browned just as nicely as the ones that were only peppered. Tasting both of them once fully cooked and seasoned, I don’t think there was a big difference in either taste or texture, so the downside of delaying the salting is fairly limited (for what that is worth). Thinking back to the origin of my (errant) belief on this topic, my guess is that it is a mixture of having encountered STP treated scallops, which are liable to drain a lot of liquids into the pan either way, and somewhat unrelated issues with sauteeing mushrooms, which definitely have issues with prematurely releasing liquid if salted. Thanks for doing the research on this topic.

    You are very welcome Bjorn – RG

  4. Miss Emerson says:

    RG- Thank you so much!!! You are just in time. Scallops go on sale at Whole Foods this Friday for only $9.99!! I have printed your post and cannot wait to practice. I just cannot say enough about how well you write your articles. I really feel like I have an instructor right beside me explaining the product and walking me through, step-by-step, on how to properly cook an item. Also, have to add that when you explain a product to readers as you do, it really elicits a respect for that item. I also want to give a shout to Bjorn for his input.

    You are welcome Miss Emerson and thank you for your kind words. Much appreciated. – RG

  5. Kristen Hess says:

    Great informative article! Thanks for sharing your tips – I adore Scallops!

  6. Allyson Elizabeth D'Angelo says:

    Thank you for that. Now I feel a little more confident to try the larger ones. i use the little bay scallops and bay shrimp in my risottos, adding them in during the last application of stock. They come out perfect!! Thanks again.

    You are very welcome Allyson – RG

  7. John says:

    you need to write some recipes on just scallops nothing else just a recipe that has like a special sauce or something

  8. John says:

    thank you and please get some recipes on !!!!

  9. Slo says:

    Although I came upon this site a few hours too late, I will surely remember the tips the next time I cook scallops.

    Thanks!

  10. ice says:

    I just cooked scallops this evening I did not use salt or pepper. I used a egg & milk mixture with o’bay seasoning , dip scallops in that and cover with flour throw in skillet of course with oil & fry it like chicken… mmm. good.. quick & si mple..

  11. JB says:

    Hi Yr picture of scallops looks delicious, not like some I had today which were panko coated. When I looked inside, the supposed scallop was peeling apart in layers, like some thin layer of jelly crap that had been rolled and then cut into medallions to resemble scallops. I told the server I do not think this is really ascallop. She said Oh that is the texture of the cooked scallop. A more ferocious person would have made a big scene but I said thank you, paid and will never go again based on the stinky taste anyway. I bet you have never seen scallops that peel apart in distinct layers once cooked. What do you think, could she be right and they just tasted like crap but were really scallops? Thanks for yr nice blog. JB

  12. Aaron Emmett says:

    perfect. thank you.

  13. Tricia from England says:

    Just found your website and want to thank you! I love it when folk are kind enough to share their experience for the good of others. Christmas will be early this year as my adult offspring are coming to us next Saturday. It will be our last Christmas here as we are down-sizing in 2014…. Scallops will be on the menu :-) happy Christmas!

  14. bill depp says:

    Bay scallops…some people online say they are sweeter. I have never ever tasted any that were even half as sweet or tasty as Sea Scallops. We didn’t spend much time on scallops in cooking school so maybe I am buying the wrong kind..the ones they sell here are called Chesapeake Bay scallops and I don’t really like them that much, they are a lot cheaper though. They sell some in the Asian market frozen still in the shell right next to something called “Giant Water bug”, which looks like a giant roach, needless to say I have never tried neither.

  15. Gringo Fisherman says:

    Bay scallops are nasty bottom feeder type seafood-gritty and strong fish taste! Fresh SEA scallops are sweet and clean tasting. No salt no pepper EVER until after grilling or pan frying.Forget spices-scallops are very tasty all by themselves.
    Use new super coated pans-for grilling use coated skewers so they do not stick and pull apart-forget the ‘olive grease’ and ‘animal fat! Sear or brown till they are just browning around the edges-and the scallops turn ‘white-ish’ and are no longer ‘clear’ looking..
    Now for the best way to enjoy scallops in my humble opinion–BAKE THEM! Put a pound of ‘dry’ sea scallops in a baking dish-ladle on cooking sherry to moisten-next cover them with an ample dollop of honey-bake at about 350–checking frequently for ‘color’–same rule here-when they turn white-ish–eat em!

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