This post is sponsored by Omaha Steaks rest assured all opinions are my own
I probably get more questions about scallops over any other seafood I cook. But why is that? If I’m being honest, when I was a kid, I wasn’t a fan. I realize now however, that it wasn’t the scallops that I didn’t necessarily like as much as how they were being prepared. Writing a guide on how to cook and buy scallops was definitely necessary.
Have you ever gone to a restaurant a received a plate of scallops that were bland in color and just kind of uneventful? Well that is pretty much how my family cooked them. I assure you though, with a few helpful hints and just a few minutes, you can make scallops that will wow your family and friends. But first, let’s talk about the differences in scallops available and what you should be looking for.
What is a scallop actually?
Scallops are bivalve mollusks that can be found in saltwater environments around the world. The part we eat or consider a scallop is actually the adductor muscle which it uses to open and close it’s shell and propel itself through the water.
There are hundreds of different species of scallops which encompass the Pectinidae family. A scallop shell can range in diameter from 1-8 inches and some can live up to 30 years.
How to buy scallops: dry vs wet (soaked, treated) scallops
“Wet” scallops are scallops which have even soaked in a bath of sodium tripolyphosphate (STP) for the purpose of adding water weight. Why does this matter? The added phosphates cause the scallop to swell up and absorb water. The heavier the scallop, the more you pay for it, and the more money the processor makes.
In the cooking process, that water comes out making it more difficult to get a good sear, the scallops tend to shrink, and they also tend to be tougher and less flavorful compared to dry scallops.
Flavor and appearance
Speaking of flavor, those phosphates often contribute to a less than desirable flavor. Wet scallops also tend to appear more white and glossy in appearance. “Dry” scallops is the industry term for natural, untreated scallops. They typically have slightly tan, beige, or even slightly gray appearance.
Sadly, the majority of scallops in the marketplace are wet scallops. If they look really white and plump and aren’t labeled as dry-scallops, chances are they are wet scallops. Look at the ingredient list if buying a bag of scallops in a store.
Male vs female scallops
Yes, it’s true scallops can be both male or female. But does it matter? No, not at all. Male scallops tend to be more white in color and female scallops are a pink-peach color. Long before I knew any better, I thought something was wrong with the ones that weren’t white. But have no fear, they all taste exactly the same.
Beware of Fake Scallops
As if it isn’t bad enough that processors are injecting scallops in order to get more money off of us, there are also “scallops” on the market that are not scallops at all! There are people that are passing off skate, stingray, or shark as scallop meat. But how do you tell the difference?
When processors cut their fake scallops they often have a perfect cylinder shape to them. Real scallops have distinct grains or fibers running lengthwise, and a fake scallop will have fewer fibers and upper more solid and dense.
It is always great to have a fishmonger you can trust, or buy from a reputable online source. Because I do not have any seafood shops where I live, I love that I can get on my phone or computer and buy dry scallops online and have them in my house in no time.
Sea scallops vs bay scallops
Sea scallops (giant scallop, ocean scallop, deep sea scallop and sometimes diver scallops) are much larger in size compared to bay scallops. They are typically less expensive than bay scallops, are found in deep waters, and are fished year round.
Because of their large size, they hold up very well to searing and grilling. Bay scallops are typically sweeter than sea scallops, are found in shallow water like harbors and bays and have a much shorter life span compared to sea scallops. Because of this, their supply is limited.
What have we learned?
We know know to look for dry scallops from a reputable source such as these giant sea scallops from Omaha Steaks, and to stay away from wet scallops. Big sea scallops are my personal preference because I love how you can get beautiful caramelization on them which provides incredible flavor. No joke, the first time I tried the Colossal Scallops from Omaha Steaks I was hooked.
I had received a gift card from a friend and immediately purchased another pack. Their scallops are clean, raw, and never treated, and sourced from a small family owned supplier that is MSC certified for sustainability and a charter member of the American Scallop Association. There are no preservatives or flavorings added of any kind. These colossal scallops are U-10 meaning there are approximately 10 scallops per pound! They are by far the largest scallops I ever had.
How to cook scallops
The following procedure is how I prepare sea scallops. The Colossal Scallops from Omaha Steaks will arrive frozen. To thaw, you may refrigerate them for up to 24 hours prior to cooking, or alternatively, thaw in a sealed bag under cold running water (approximately 30 minutes) then rinse lightly. Do not refreeze scallops once defrosted. Once your scallops are defrosted, the next step is critical to getting a great sear on your scallop.
Place the scallops between two paper towels and pat the surface dry
I cannot stress the importance of drying the surface of your scallop enough. A dry surface will sear better than a wet surface. I place my scallops in between the paper towels for a couple minutes as my pan is heating up and then pat them one last time with another dry paper towel.
As for cooking methods for scallops, there are plenty! You can cook them on the stove, broil them, cook them in the oven, poach them, sous-vide them, fry them, or grill them. My personal preference is in a good old cast iron pan. Is cast iron necessary, of course not. Use what you prefer.
Common mistakes people make when they cook and buy scallops:
Those are the 3 most common mistakes people make when searing scallops: Not drying the scallops, not pre-heating the pan appropriately, and flipping them too soon. There is no need to be intimidated when cooking scallops.
Once you know the basics, the sky’s the limit as to how you choose to season them. As for my family, simple pan seared scallops basted in butter is always our favorite. For the ultimate surf and turf, pair it with a great steak from Omaha Steaks as well.
Looking for a great steak to cook with your scallops for surf and turf? Check out my guide “How to Cook a Perfect Ribeye by Different Methods”
Basic Pan Seared Scallops
- 1.5 lb package Omaha Steaks Colossal Scallops
- 2 tbsp ghee, clarified butter or oil of your choice with high smoke point to sear
- 3 tbsp salted butter to baste
- salt & pepper to taste
- 1 lemon optional
- Defrost scallops, rinse lightly, then pat dry between paper towels.
- Preheat pan to medium-high heat (ideal temp about 450F (232C)
- Add ghee or desired oil to hot pan (*note: the milk solids in butter will burn at high temperatures, smoke like crazy, and not taste good. Save the butter for basting at the end)
- Season scallops as desired (I prefer just a sprinkle of sea salt)
- Place scallops in hot pan. Do not crowd them. (If needed, cook in batches, wiping the pan surface, and adding new oil for each batch)
- Resist the urge to flip them for 1-2 minutes. Look at the edge of the scallop and you will begin to see it browning. Give a little peek and when browned to your liking, flip the scallops over. Usually the initial side will take 2 1/2 -3 minutes depending on the temperature of your pan.
- Continue to cook scallops for an additional 1-2 minutes. Turn heat down to medium and add butter to pan. Baste scallops with butter until sides are firm and the centers are opaque.
- If using an instant read thermometer to measure doneness, pull scallops from pan when they are approximately 115F and place in a warm plate or bowl and cover until all are cooked. Scallops should carry over to an ideal finished temperature of 130F.