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!
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.
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.
With a clean kitchen towel, pat the scallops completely dry.
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.
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.
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.
First, pat your scallops completely dry with a clean kitchen towel. After patting dry...
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.
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.