An Expert's Guide to Buying, Prepping, and Cooking Scallops
Make this chef’s special at home with ease.
For many home cooks, scallops are a seafood reserved for fancy meals out; however, preparing scallops at home is far easier than you one might think. Their cost may have deterred you from trying your hand at creating beautifully seared scallops yourself (no one wants to mess up a protein they shelled out $20/lb for), but once you know a few key tips, the intimidation factor will be a thing of the past.
With over 100 scallop recipes on our site, we know a thing or two about these succulent shellfish and how to best prepare them.
HOW TO BUY SCALLOPS
Scallops are harvested and packed primarily in one of two ways; they are either wet-packed or dry-packed. “Wet” scallops are treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) when harvested. STPP is a compound that preserves and encourages the scallops to absorb water and swell, increasing their overall weight. In most cases, frozen or previously frozen scallops are wet. “Dry” scallops are considered to be higher quality, and are placed into a dry container upon being harvested. They tend to be much fresher, but also have a significantly shorter shelf-life. If available, opt for dry or chemical-free scallops.
The additional water absorbed by wet scallops when treated with STPP will seep out during the cooking process, leaving you with a cloudy liquid in your pan. This means you’ll end up steaming the scallops instead of searing them to golden, beautiful perfection.
Most scallops are caught by dragging a fishing net along the ocean floor, which is considered environmentally disruptive. Diver Scallops are those that are hand-harvested by actual divers. This method of fishing for scallops has a less damaging environmental footprint; however, because this method is more labor-intensive, these are the most expensive scallops to purchase. Since diver scallops cost more to acquire, they are also typically dry-packed.
The labeling of scallops can be confusing to a first-time buyer. Just know, there are two ways that fishmongers and seafood counters typically label their scallops. In a similar way that shrimp is measured by the pound, scallops are measured by roughly how many individual scallops that it would take to weigh one pound. For example, the label 20/30 means that you will get an average of about 20 to 30 scallops per pound. Therefore, the smaller the number, the larger the scallops are.
If you see scallops labeled U-10 or U-15, this numbering also indicates the number of scallops you’ll get per pound. The “U” stands for “under,” meaning you will receive under 10 or 15 scallops per pound. The U-10 sized scallops tend to be the largest that can be purchased in the grocery stores. There are a few different scallop varieties (sea scallops, bay scallops, rock scallops), so it is most important to take a good look at the size yourself and review the printed labels.
Scallops should be firm, intact, not-slimy, and should not have a strong odor. If they look (or smell) as though they’ve been through too much, save your coins and buy them elsewhere.
HOW TO CLEAN AND PREP SCALLOPS
Scallops can be purchased fresh or frozen. If you are lucky enough to have a fresh fish market nearby, talk to the fishmonger about the availability of the scallops that they carry. If you live close to a body of water where scallops are harvested, you can find same-day fresh scallops with ease. For all those that do not live on a coast, you most likely need to stop by the seafood counter at your local grocery store or check out the frozen seafood section for scallops.
If frozen, safely thaw your scallops in the refrigerator the night before you are going to prepare them. When you are short on time, you can also thaw frozen scallops by putting them in a zip-top bag and placing the bag in a bowl of cool water. Gently rinse your fresh or thawed scallops under cool running water to clean, and place them on a plate lined with paper towels and pat dry them. If the side muscle is still intact, simply pull it off, and discard.
HOW TO COOK SCALLOPS
The most popular, and easiest, way to cook scallops is to pan-sear them. Simply heat a skillet with a few tablespoons of your preferred cooking oil to high heat. Season your scallops with a pinch of salt and black pepper and place the scallops flat-side down in the skillet for about 2 minutes on each side, making sure not to crowd the pan. The scallops will form a beautiful brown crust on the outside while remaining succulently tender on the inside. They can be served with pasta, rice, potatoes, or a leafy green salad.
You can also grill, bake, sauté, poach, broil, or fry your scallops. They cook quickly and will not take long to prepare by whatever cooking method that you choose. Just be careful not to overcook so that they should remain moist, tender, easy to chew. (Overcooked scallops have an undesirable rubbery texture that you definitely want to avoid.)
Here are our some of our favorite recipes utilizing various cooking methods:
Pan-seared: Pan-Seared Scallops with Mustard-Caper Sauce
Broiled: Scallops au Gratin