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How to choose and sear scallops

(article, Hank Sawtelle)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] [%adInjectionSettings noInject=true] Can you explain how to pan-sear scallops to get a nice sear without overshooting into rubbery chew toys? Also, some ideas on seasoning/flavors to use to encrust them?
— Ed G., Louisville, Colorado

The secret to perfectly (or even adequately) seared scallops is very high heat for a short amount of time. In a well-meaning effort to avoid the chew-toy result, you may be tempted to cook them on medium or low-ish heat, but don't. I will elaborate. But first, some preliminaries. 

Scallops are unique among culinary mollusks (clams, oysters, etc.) because in the U.S., we eat only the adductor (shell-closing) muscle. This muscle is huge in scallops because they use their shells to swim. While clams and oysters dig under the sand to avoid predators, scallops rapidly clap their shells together to expel a jet of water and scoot away. I know it sounds like a Benny Hill episode, but I swear I am not making this up.

Large sea (or “diver”) scallops come in two market forms: “dry” and “wet.” Wet scallops are packed in a non-delicious chemical solution called STP (not motor oil, but still gross). STP prolongs shelf life and causes the scallops to absorb liquid. That means wet scallops weigh more, which increases profits. In addition, all that extra liquid the scallops absorbed will pour out when you try to sear them, so they'll simmer in chemical water instead of searing. 

Please, don't buy wet scallops. If the fish-counter person doesn't know (lame, don't shop there), you can usually tell by the appearance of the scallops. Wet scallops are plump and bright white and often clump together in milky blobs, while dry scallops have more natural beige or pink hues.

When preparing your dry scallops for cooking, you may notice that each large scallop has a small, opalescent segment loosely attached to its side. As food-science writer and national treasure Harold McGee explains, this small tendony doo-dad is the freakishly strong “catch” muscle that the scallop uses to keep its shell closed for long periods of time. Unlike the large, tender, swimming muscle, the catch muscle is tough and should be removed. It's easy to peel off with your fingers.

This next step is definitely optional, but I usually give my scallops (and most other seafood) a quick dip in a fish brine before cooking. I'm not sure how common this is, but they did it at a restaurant where I worked, and I liked the results. It gently seasons and firms the flesh, and ensures a fresh, clean flavor. 

Fish brine won't bring spoiled seafood back from the dead, but I've found it will chase off any slightly funky notes that may have developed on the trip home from the store. It's worth a try if you have a few extra minutes. 

[%image brine float=right width=400 caption="Brine your scallops for three minutes."] 

To make a fish brine, dissolve 60 grams (2 ounces) of non-iodized salt (roughly 3 tablespoons of table salt, 4 tablespoons of Morton Kosher, or 6 tablespoons of Diamond Crystal Kosher) into a liter (quart) of cool water. Cool the mixture down with a few ice cubes if it's warm out, then add the scallops and set a timer for three minutes. After three minutes, drain and rinse the scallops thoroughly, then pat them dry with paper towels.

Now for the cooking. To avoid overcooking, you need to sear the scallops quickly in a very hot pan. High heat might seem counter-intuitive, but it creates a crust on the outside before the inside has a chance to toughen. It's not high heat that makes scallops rubbery, but rather prolonged exposure to heat that drives out moisture and tightens the proteins. Don't worry about undercooking the insides; scallop flesh is very delicate, and the heat of searing will cook it.

[%image firstsidesear float=right width=400 caption="Sear scallops in a hot pan."]

To sear, turn on your kitchen exhaust fan (mine is lame) and heat a steel or iron pan (anything that's not Teflon-coated, to avoid potentially harmful fumage) on high heat for a minute or two. 

Add a thin film of heat-tolerant oil (canola, grapeseed, peanut — save the extra-virgin olive oil for another project) and then place the scallops in the pan. Don't crowd the pan, or the scallops will steam instead of searing; work in batches if necessary.

Once you've put the scallops in the pan, don't touch anything for a full minute. Go do something else if you have to. Check Twitter, open the wine, whatever. Resist the temptation to shake the pan, peek at the bottom of the scallops, etc. Your beautiful crust is forming now as the sugars in the scallop are browned by the intense heat of the pan, and you don't want to interfere. 

After a minute, use tongs to peek at the first scallop. If you see a nice brown crust, turn the scallops over. If not, give them another 30 seconds and check again. It may take up to two minutes. (The scallops will cook faster in a heavier pan, which has more saved-up heat energy.) Give them about the same amount of time on the other side, then remove them from the pan. 

If you have to do another batch, you can keep them for a few minutes in a warm oven, but don't overdo it, as they will start to leak juice.

You can season with salt right before or right after cooking. As for flavorings, the blackened seafood craze is pretty 1980s, so I don't recommend putting any herbs or spices on your scallops before cooking. The high heat would burn or obliterate any flavors that were there, and the delicate flavor of scallops wouldn't stand up well to strong seasonings anyway. Fresh scallops taste great on their own. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Scallops taste great on their own."] 

Subtle flavors like butter and white wine complement scallops well, and you can make a quick sauce out of them if you want to impress. Just wipe the hot, empty pan carefully with a paper towel to get rid of any burned stuff, then add some white wine (about one fluid ounce per serving) and a spritz of lemon juice. Crank the heat to quickly reduce it by at least half, then kill the heat and and swirl in a few pats of butter (about one tablespoon per serving) until melted, and season to taste with salt. (Don't look now, but you just made a beurre blanc sauce, Mr. Fancypants.)  

Plate your non-rubbery scallops (I like mashed potatoes or puréed sunchokes as a landing pad), spoon your pan sauce over them, top with chopped Italian parsley, and you're an instant hero.

p(bio). Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.

brine, l

second side sear, l

reference-image, l

firstsidesear, l