How to Sear Scallops Perfectly
Learn how to sear scallops perfectly and get the recipe for an easy and delicious sauce to go with them.
Scallops are an amazing treat to have for an appetizer or as part of a dinner. The trick is to get a good sear on them. You want a perfect brown crust, right? So how do you sear scallops perfectly? Here’s how!
Which Scallops to Choose
When it comes to searing, I like the scallops to be as big as I can find. Why? The bigger they are, the longer they take to cook, and so the longer time they have contact with the pan, and so the darker and crunchier you’re able to get them. Small scallops are going to be way overcooked by the time you let them get really browned.
How to Prep Scallops for Searching
A lot of scallops sold at stores have been treated with a water solution that makes them wet. So the first thing you need to do is to put them between some paper towels and press to get out as much moisture as you can. You can even put them on paper towel, sprinkle both sides with salt and let that salt drain out some extra moisture. If you do this, ignore the step in the recipe below that says to salt the scallops. That would be too salty.
Should Scallops be Cold Before Searing?
It has happened to me that my scallops end up seared on the outside but still very raw in the middle. Not good. For more even-cooking, and for that center to cook more quickly, take the scallops out of the fridge 30 minutes before cooking. Don’t put them in the sun or in a warm place. Just room temperature. If you’re doing the salted drying thing mentioned above, you can do that after the scallops have been out of the fridge for 15 minutes.
What Kind of Pan to Use for Searing Scallops
You don’t want the scallops to be crowded. If there are too many in the pan, they’ll bring the pan temperature down when you add them. That combined with their proximity to each other will make them steam instead of sear. In a 10 inch skillet, I do no more than 10 scallops. You’re better off using a bigger pan than you think you need so err on the side of large.
I use a cast iron skillet for this. You want something nice and thick that holds heat well and evenly so that all your scallops are cooking in approximately the same amount of time.
What Kind of Fat or Oil to Use for Searing Scallops
You can’t use straight-up butter for this. It’ll burn at the temperature you need it to get to, and the burned milk solids will look (and taste!) terrible. You can use clarified butter if you have some, because it has a higher smoking point than regular butter. But, I rarely have any and can’t be bothered to make it.
I don’t like to use olive oil for searing scallops because its flavor is strong.
Instead, I go with a neutral-flavored oil with a high smoking point like grapeseed oil. Vegetable oil works too though.
How to Sear Scallops
Once you’ve got the above covered, you’re reading to cook the scallops. Here’s what you do.
You really want the pan and oil smoking hot. Pour a good couple of tablespoons of the fat into your big pan. Use a spatula to spread it around well so it’s an even coating. Put the pan over high heat and let it sit there until it’s lightly smoking. Yes, really. THAT hot.
I turn the pan 180º around halfway through heating and jiggle it around to stir the oil a bit to make sure that it’s heating evenly too.
Then you add the scallops and leave them alone!
Put the scallops in the pan as spaced out as you can. And then, DO NOT touch them. You can rotate the pan 180º every now and then to keep that even heat thing going on. Leave them for a good minute or two and then just check underneath one of them. Do not flip it until it’s really dark and crusty underneath. This will take between 90 seconds to 3 minutes.
They might not all get brown at the same time, depending on how evenly your pan and stove top cook, so check each one before flipping it. Just because one is ready to flip doesn’t mean you have to flip them all.
And note, just because they’re stuck to the pan doesn’t mean you have to flip them. In fact, if they’re stuck, there’s a good chance they’re not ready to flip. Depending on your pan, and on your luck in life, the scallops (or any firm meat, really) will stick to the pan at first. Then, once the real caramelization happens, they’re more easily released from the pan. So sticking can be a sign that they’re not ready to flip.
If it’s taking longer than expected for the scallops to brown on the first side, that’s o.k.. You only need one side to be really brown. So if the first side takes forever to get there, then you’ll flip them and cook for less time on the second side.
How to Know if Scallops are Cooked
I don’t know what anyone else does to see if scallops are done. What I do is to cook one more than I plan to serve. When they’re really brown on one side and have been on their second side for about a minute, I cut that extra one in half. If it’s cooked through. I eat it and get all the scallops out of the pan. If not, I leave it and then cut it into quarters a minute later. It’s almost always done by then. Take them all out of the pan at that point.
Caring for Your Scallops After Searing Them
Transfer the scallops straight from the pan to some clean fresh dry paper towels to blot off extra fat. In general, the top side (the side that was on the pan first) will be your nicest side so keep that side up when blotting and when serving. Don’t put a bit paper towel over the scallops. That will start steaming them and remove a bit of that crust.
Instead, just use a corner of the towel and lightly touch the top of each one.
Put the Sauce UNDER the Scallops, Not Over Them
You’ve spent all this time getting that perfect crunchy sear on your scallop, now don’t do anything (anything!) to ruin it. If you put a sauce on top, it’s going to wet that crust and make it softer. If you’re eating them immediately, and I mean like instantaneously, then it won’t matter so much. But honestly, just the time it takes the sauced scallops to get from your kitchen to the table is enough to start steaming that crust off.
Instead, put sauce on the plate and then the scallops on top.
There you have it. Perfectly seared scallops. Looking for a great sauce to serve under them? The one below is killer. You’re going to love it so much. Promise.
I hope you enjoy this seared scallops recipe and sauce!
- 4 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1/2 tsp sriracha
- a pinch of table or kosher salt
- 16 large scallops
- coarse salt, like kosher salt or coarse sea salt
- 2 tbsp vegetable or canola oil
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
- Remove scallops from the fridge 30 minutes before cooking so that they can come to room temperature. Do not put them in the sun or in a warm place.
- Put the butter into a microwave-safe bowl. Heat it in the microwave for 20 seconds at a time until melted. Stir in the honey, lime juice, sriracha and the pinch of salt. Set aside.
- Using some paper towels, pat the scallops dry. Measure the oil into a large skillet (I use a cast iron one). Heat it over high heat until smoking hot. While it’s heating sprinkle the tops of the scallops with the coarse salt (one little pinch of salt per scallop).
- When the oil is smoking add the scallops, salted side down. Sprinkle the top of each scallop with another little pinch of salt and then leave the scallops alone until their undersides are well-browned, about 2-3 minutes. If you try to lift a scallop and it’s stuck to the pan, it means it isn’t ready yet. It should release fairly easily if it has well-browned.
- Flip the scallops over and cook until the other side is browned as well. Cut into one scallop to make sure it has cooked through. If so, remove the scallops from the pan and put them on a plate lined with paper towel to drain off some of the oil. Keep them with the first side that touched the pan facing up since that it likely your browner nicer side. Blot the top of each scallop lightly with a corner of paper towel.
- Warm the sriracha-lime butter in the microwave for 20-30 seconds, just until heated through.
- Spoon sauce onto plates and top with scallops. Sprinkle with the cilantro.
This post was originally published in September, 2012 but was completely re-written in February, 2016 and then republished in January, 2020.