How to Cook Tender, Buttery, Melt-in-Your-Mouth Scallops

With just a few simple pantry ingredients and a hot skillet, you can master these little beauties in no time.

October 26, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland

For many of us, the thought of cooking seafood at home is a bit overwhelming, even scary. We order it in restaurants or save it for special occasions, and yet cooking seafood can be totally accessible. Scallops, for instance, involve very few ingredients and steps, ideal for weeknights. They don’t require any fussy pre-prep like marinating or salting, either—just a thorough rinse in some cold water and a good pat dry. Scallops are the perfect quick meal: little effort, simple ingredients, delicious results.

First, let's break down a few essential distinctions, so you can shop confidently at the fishmonger or market when you're ready to dive in to these new waters.

Scallops are packaged and sold in two ways: wet and dry. Wet scallops are what you’ll typically find at the grocery store, and come either fresh or frozen. Before hitting the store's seafood section, they are soaked in a preservative solution (usually sodium tripolyphosphate) to keep them shelf-stable for an extended period. This process helps the scallops stay firm, smooth, and glossy for a long time. This means they are usually not as fresh, and unfortunately, the preservatives can alter the flavor and texture, giving a rubbery result. They’re usable in a pinch, but not something I’d particularly recommend.

Instead, go with dry scallops when you can. These come fresh or flash-frozen without any of the additives or preservatives. The best way to gauge freshness is to give them a nice big sniff. They should smell like the ocean. If they smell fishy time, to throw them out!

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“PLEASE clarify the “diver” scallop. It’s HIGHLY unlikely anyone will find true hand harvested scallops on the open market. Last year 0.004% of all scallops landed in the USA were harvested via gear type of “diver” or “by hand”. The term “diver scallop” has become a new way of saying “dry”. And it’s not only disingenuous but it also suppressed the market for TRUE diver scallops.”
— Matthew V.

Scallops also typically come in two varieties: bay and sea. When you see the term "bay scallops," the market is referring to the little guys. If the scallops are labeled “sea,” it’s the larger variety. If you also see the term “diver” in front, even better. This distinction refers to the scallop harvest: Instead of being caught in big nets, these scallops are hand collected by divers. They are usually less gritty and also much more environmentally friendly—win-win.

How to Cook Sea Scallops

Now, how to cook them! Let's start with the big guys. With large, luscious sea scallops, you want to do as little as possible to let them shine. Think of a filet mignon; much like a special steak, sea scallops need minimal manipulation to be melt-in-your-mouth good.

  1. With a clean kitchen towel, pat the scallops completely dry.

  2. Grab a cast-iron or nonstick skillet and let it get very, very hot. Sprinkle your scallops with salt. Add a small amount of neutral oil to the skillet, making sure the bottom is evenly covered with a very thin layer. Carefully place each scallop into the pan, being sure not to overcrowd them. Just like steak, we want a beautiful sear, not a steam bath. Do not move them; just let them sizzle for 2 to 3 minutes. When you see them beginning to get white and opaque at the edges, carefully turn them over and allow them to sear on the other side for another 2 minutes.

  3. Transfer the scallops to a serving dish and make a speedy sauce: In the same pan, add a pat of butter, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and a bit of salt and pepper. Allow it to combine by giving the pan a nice swirl, just long enough to melt the butter. Drizzle it over your scallops and you are ready to serve.

How to Cook Bay Scallops

Now for the bay scallops. With these, you aren't getting a giant hunk of meat, but they do tend to be sweeter and turn out wonderfully when cooked in a sauce for a short time. This makes them ideal as a topper for pasta, so if you’re looking for a simple yet impressive pasta dish, these guys do the trick.

  1. First, pat your scallops completely dry with a clean kitchen towel. After patting dry...

  2. Toss the scallops in a bit of flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Again, get your skillet nice and hot and coat it with a bit of oil in a thin, even layer. Add a pat of butter and some chopped garlic.

  3. As soon as the butter melts, add the scallops and toss around for about 2 minutes. The flour will encourage browning, and the scallops will quickly cook through. Add a splash of white wine and a squeeze of lemon, and you are ready to eat. I love to serve these over linguine with a little bit of grated Parm and a lovely sprinkle of chopped parsley, or even atop a bed of rice.

With just a few simple pantry ingredients and a hot skillet, you can master scallops in no time. All it takes is a quick trip to the market, and you're already more than halfway to a restaurant-quality dish at home—so while you’re at it, grab the fancy napkins and crack open a bottle of crisp white wine to complete your fancy-pants (but simple as heck) dinner.

What's your favorite way to cook scallops? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • John Ryan Brooks
    John Ryan Brooks
  • LadyR
  • Salt Tooth
    Salt Tooth
  • Karl W Saur
    Karl W Saur
  • Matthew Van Henderson
    Matthew Van Henderson
Cookbook Author. Heirloom Kitchen.Food52 contributing editor & Recipe Tester.


John R. November 18, 2020
Any recommendations for the best neutral oil to use?
Karl W. November 18, 2020
Personally, I like grapeseed. (Not a fan of canola for any higher-heat use; off flavors, depending on the source/processing.)
LadyR November 18, 2020
Many years ago I was taught olive oil on high heat became a carcinogen. I'm not a chemist but that concerned me. I save my olive oil for salads and such and never heat olive oil. I understand many would disagree.

I keep a small container of canola oil for cleaning and re-seasoning my grill pan after I have let the pan sit for awhile filled with baking soda and plain white vinegar. I rinse the grill pan with boiling hot kettle water and let the pan sit filled with Canola. Drain and pat dry. I don't cook with Canola oil either. I read about it in the 1980s but have never cooked with it.

I mostly use unsalted butter, or mix the butter with Mazola Corn oil half and half if sautéing. I am aware of the "corn stories" and all its chemistry modifications. Having said that, Mazola is Cholesterol-free and has a high smoke point. I don't do a lot of deep-frying but when I do, I have only used Mazola in what seems like forever. For deep-frying I half fill a dutch oven enamelled cast iron pot on the stove top with just Mazola and heat to 350 F. Most things deep-fry even in a wok in just minutes.

Whether I make battered or breaded deep-fried sea food or my wonderful deep-fried vegetable salad, the crisp batter is at the same time delicate melt-in-your-mouth wonderful every time. Mazola has never let me down in all the years and doesn't change the flavour of my foods. Disclaimer: I don't get paid for naming brand names in my recipes but do so to help my gourmet newspaper column readers reproduce my recipes using products I use.

Many of my recipes are in my Kindle cookbook, complete with brand names of products with a "look-inside" dozens of recipes for reading pleasure.

Lady R
Lady Carolyne Lederer-Ralston
Toronto Canada
LadyR October 28, 2020
I forgot to add the recipe name: I call the sea scallops: "My Puff Scallops" due to using the Puff Pastry coins.

I'm new to Food52, and learning all sorts of new things. I started writing a weekly Gourmet Cooking newspaper column in 1976. Hardly anyone was familiar with the gourmet term back then. I was only 34 years old. As a result of my newspaper column I was invited to teach adult gourmet classes. I still write regular newspaper gourmet columns, and a NYC publishing house is producing my first of series cookbook in hardcover, softbound and a matching ebook. I have more than two thousand original recipes in my collection. I have five titles manuscripts named and share random recipes for my readers to enjoy. Some readers have told me they feel as though I am in their kitchens with them. What a compliment.
Lady R
LadyR October 28, 2020

Just a suggestion: Start the meal with an espresso cup on a saucer, offering a drinkable hot tester of my very special "Silky Cream of Celery Soup"

Follow with the meal plan below.

To a pound of unsalted butter, add two tablespoons of second season maple syrup in solid form, crushed. Stir in two tablespoons of coarse mustard seed Dijon.

Roll the compound butter extra long and about an inch in diameter, into log shape in cling wrap, and refrigerate to firm up. Unwrap and use a thin serrated knife to cut the log in half and half again until you have half-inch-thick coins. Re-roll the log shape in cling wrap. Freeze. When needed to enhance any recipe, simply tap off a frozen compound butter coin.

Using a metal cutter that is about an inch in diameter, not larger (a forcing bag metal tip will work), cut rounds of store-bought butter puff pastry. Brush with unsalted butter or egg wash. Bake according to package directions’ heat temperature on a parchment-lined sheet pan on the middle oven rack, just until the pastry coins puff. Remove and rest on a cake rack to let air surround as the puffs cool.

Once cooled you can store these mini-puffs in an airtight container with a small sheet of fresh white paper towel.

Next, sear large sea scallops in sizzling unsalted butter until just barely cooked. Turn only once. Sprinkle with crushed thyme and just a pinch of salt and pepper. For large sea scallops, two minutes per side should be sufficient. Don’t move the scallops once they have skillet contact. Set your smart phone timer. You want the scallops to be a golden enhanced colour when finished.

Top each individual scallop with a pre-made mini-puff pastry. On top of the pastry, place a compound butter coin of your choice or use the above maple mustard compound butter coins. Your herb compound butter coins log would work. Or even your lobster compound butter coins would be delightful atop the seared sea scallops.

Sprinkle a little fresh minced tarragon around each plate; if you have a fresh pot, you will see how the delicate baby petal-like leaves are endearing. And drizzle each plate with a little special sauce made by melting a couple of the maple mustard compound butter coins.

For an amuse bouche, serve three bite-size puff-topped scallops on each plate.

At home or if you own a bed and breakfast, this is a wonderful, easy to make starter to any meal, because everything is pre-made except the scallops. How quick and easy is this?

And it’s perhaps a dish never seen by anyone previously. Some people like to wrap scallops in strips of bacon. I wouldn’t recommend it for this dish. Sometimes plain and simple is meaningful.

ALTERNATE: You could serve it on an oversize charger plate, on a coquille shell lined with delicate fragile microgreens as a bed for each scallop, then topped as above. Place a paper lace doily under each shell to stabilize it on the plate.

If this is a starter course, a nice follow-up might be homemade pasta linguine with cream clam sauce.

Compliments of:
© Lady Ralston's Compound Butter "Coin Reserve" ~ because Butter makes it Better. A different kind of currency...
LadyR October 28, 2020
Bay Scallops in Bacardi Black Rum (Puerto Rican) and French St. Germain Sauce

Sear bay scallops in sizzling unsalted butter on medium high heat in a stainless steel sauté pan, for only one minute and turn using a malleable fish spatula to sauté the other side of each small scallop.Sprinkle with salt, pepper, minced fresh parsley, basil, mint and lemon thyme, a little of your refrigerated golden oven-roasted garlic purée. A sprinkle of kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.

Squeeze just a little fresh squeezed lime juice and remove scallops from the sauté pan. Increase heat and watch carefully to bring a cup of half and half cream to a scald. Reduce by half. Add a jigger of Black Rum and a little St. Germain cordial. The cream should coat the back of a steel spoon. The cream will continue to reduce in its own heat. Return the scallops to the thickened cream in the sauté pan. Stir gently to cover each scallop thoroughly.

When ready to serve, add a little fresh herbs to the bay scallops in cream sauce and cover with toasted homemade coarse breadcrumbs mixed half and half with toasted shredded unsweetened coconut. Rum and coconut are great flavour pals.

If you have homemade mixed candied citrus rinds in your pantry sugar jar, mince and add to the breadcrumbs coconut mix.

Serve a large scoop of the scallops in the thickened sauce in a muffin tin size lacy cheese Tuille ("tweel") with shredded arugula as a base.

A few sugared grapefruit or sweet orange segments cut from between the membranes makes a pretty plate.

If you can locate finger limes, open and top the filled Tuilles with the faux caviar pearls. They come in white, pink and various hues. A great table conversation starter. In spring the potted plants are available sometimes at Nurseries. Maybe ask your green grocer if they carry the finger limes.

You might want to sprinkle a little hand-cultured Atlantic Ocean Amagansett Sea Salt just when ready to bite into each small Tuille. Offer in a salt cellar for those who wish to try this fragile magic natural crunch.

This filling is nice in a ready made puff pastry vol-au- vent ready to eat, in your storage container for an instant gourmet treat.

Alternatively you might like to serve the bay scallops in my cognac garlic cream sauce at my shrimps recipe.

Compliments of:

© Spirits in My Kitchen: Lady Ralston - Canadian Cooking with Bouquets and Aromas; Good Food Made Better Adding Spirits
Salt T. October 27, 2020
Help! Scallops are my absolute favorite to eat and my absolute nemesis to cook. I've read countless articles about how to saute them for that perfect sear; I use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet; I make sure to get dry packed scallops and dry them even further once I get them home; I've tried using each of avocado oil and grapeseed oil because of their neutral flavor and higher smoke points; and I swear on my life, I do not try to flip them too soon - AND's a disaster every time with half the scallop left stuck to the pan. My first instinct is, okay, maybe my skillet is not as well-seasoned as I think it is. I'd like to try a non-stick pan instead but I have two hesitations: 1) most recipes stress the importance of letting the pan get screaming hot before dropping the scallops in - but I've heard that one should never heat non-stick pans that high; and 2) will the non-stick-ness prevent me from getting that coveted golden sear? Any suggestions/help greatly appreciated!!
Salt T. October 27, 2020
Just a quick p.s. I've also seen videos in which someone successfully sears scallops in a stainless steel pan but that seems even more unbelievable to I just fundamentally not understand how to keep food from sticking? lol
Karl W. October 27, 2020
A big reason to avoid wet scallops is that they simply won't sear properly - they exude too much water. You can use them in chowders, stews and, less reliably, deep-fried (but the steaming out of excess moisture will make it harder for any coating to remain stable).

And true bay scallops - from Peconic Bay (NY - that fishery is once again in deep danger), Nantucket and Cape Cad and the Canadian Maritimes - have a short season in late fall (mid-November at earliest, normally) into mid-winter - and should cost you dearly if you're getting the real thing.
Matthew V. October 26, 2020
PLEASE clarify the “diver” scallop. It’s HIGHLY unlikely anyone will find true hand harvested scallops on the open market. Last year 0.004% of all scallops landed in the USA were harvested via gear type of “diver” or “by hand”.

The term “diver scallop” has become a new way of saying “dry”. And it’s not only disingenuous but it also suppressed the market for TRUE diver scallops.