Seared Scallops with Lemon Garlic Sauce

4.68 from 223 votes
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Savor the elegance of perfectly pan-seared scallops, each golden crust giving way to a succulent, tender interior. This dish is elevated with a zesty lemon garlic sauce, infusing each bite with a harmonious blend of bright citrus and aromatic garlic.

Seared scallops with lemon garlic sauce cooking in a pan.

Ready to make delicious pan-seared scallops at home and skip a trip to an expensive restaurant? It may seem intimidating to tackle this type of seafood, but rest assured, I will show you how to do it perfectly with excellent results.

I find that a brine enhances scallops’ naturally sweet and light saltwater flavor. We will thoroughly dry and sear the scallops for a lovely caramelized surface. For extra flavor, a creamy lemon garlic sauce is made right in the same pan.

“I’ve made this twice now and it’s fabulous, as are all of Jessica’s recipes. I especially love that she explains and demonstrates each step. I think the brine and the extra drying are crucial to the success of the scallops.”—Jeannie B.

Recipe ingredients

  • Brine: A solution of kosher salt, hot water, and ice cubes.
  • Scallops: Purchase dry scallops for the best flavor and crust formation. Select jumbo scallops sold in 8 to 10 pieces per pound, about 2 ounces in weight. Remove the side muscles so that there are no chewy bites.
  • Fat: A high smoke point fat like olive oil is used to develop a golden brown crust on the scallops. Butter is used for basting to add richness to the lean seafood.
  • Sauce: A quick pan sauce is made with lemon juice, zest, Dijon mustard, and heavy cream.
  • Herbs: Fresh dill adds a delicate grassy flavor, complementing the lemon sauce.

See the recipe card below for all ingredients and measurements (US and metric).

Brine the scallops

Raw scallops in a bowl of ice water.

Step 1: Make a brining solution of ⅓ cup kosher salt and 1 cup hot water for one pound of scallops. Most granules will dissolve, but it’s okay if some remain on the bottom. Cool the mixture with ice cubes; you don’t want the scallops to cook! The brining step only takes 10 minutes.

Pro Tip: The saltwater adds more savory flavor and a little extra insurance to prevent the seafood from drying out.

Rinse and dry the surface

Scallops lined up on paper towel drying.

Step 2: The scallops must be pat dry to achieve an attractive caramel-kissed surface. Use plenty of paper towels to soak up the moisture after brining. This ensures the scallops will brown instead of steam when they hit the hot pan.

Pro Tip: Further drying them uncovered in the refrigerator can also help remove extra moisture.

Step 3: Since the scallops will be ice cold, let them sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes to ensure even cooking. Season the surface with a little bit of salt.

How to cook seared scallops

Scallops searing in a stainless steel pan with two pads of butter.

Step 4: Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, then warm the olive oil. Add the scallops in a single layer, pressing down for better contact and crust formation. They will develop a golden crust on the first side in about 3 minutes.

Pro Tip: Stainless steel or cast iron yields the best surface color. However, nonstick pans will work but should not be used over high heat.

Baste the scallops

Spoon basting melted butter over a pan of scallops.

Step 5: Basting the scallops in the final minutes of cooking with melted butter adds a little extra boost of vibrancy. The milk proteins and lactose in the butter brown and stick to the outside for a flavorful crust.

The scallops are ready when the interior is opaque. The texture should be firm yet easy to cut through with a fork or knife with little resistance.

Make a pan sauce

Metal spoon mixing together mustard, minced garlic, and fond from the scallops.

Step 6: Saute minced garlic, then stir in lemon juice and zest. Turn off the heat and whisk in the mustard and heavy cream. Give the sauce a taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Pro Tip: After searing the scallops, flavorful fond (buttery brown bits) will remain in the pan. Don’t let it go to waste! Use it to make a simple pan sauce.

Step 7: Return the seared scallops to the pan to warm in the creamy sauce. Right before serving, garnish with fresh dill and freshly cracked black pepper.

Flavor variations

  • Scallops: You can buy scallops that are 1 ounce in size; just adjust cook time. Dry scallops will have a better flavor than wet scallops, which taste slightly soapy. Bay or sea scallops can be used.
  • Citrus: Orange or lime can be substituted for lemon juice when making the sauce.
  • Dairy: To make the dish dairy-free, use margarine or coconut oil to baste the scallops. The scallops will not be as golden in color. Canned coconut milk can replace the heavy cream but will make the sauce less thick.
  • Herbs: Dill, chives, tarragon, green onions, basil, or parsley work well for garnish.

Serving suggestions

Frequently asked questions

How do you thaw frozen scallops?

There are two methods to defrost scallops without negatively impacting their texture. Defrost them overnight in a single layer on a plate covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Alternatively, place them in a resealable plastic bag, air removed, and use a bowl and run cool water over them until defrosted; this could take about 30 minutes per pound.

What’s the difference between wet vs. dry scallops?

Wet scallops are soaked in additives called sodium tripolyphosphate to extend shelf life, keep them whiter, and soak more moisture. Dry scallops have no chemicals added; they are shipped on ice, so I prefer to use them. They have a pinkish or ivory hue, feel stickier, and smell like the sea.

What’s the downside to wet scallops?

Sometimes, they have an unpleasant chemical soapy taste and release too much moisture in the pan, which prevents a nice golden crust from forming. If you’ve ever tried caramelizing scallops and it never seems to happen, this chemical could be the culprit.

What’s the difference between bay scallops and sea scallops?

Bay scallops are harvested in shallow bays and estuaries. They are smaller in size, sweet and tender, and more affordable. Sea scallops are harvested from deep ocean water. They tend to be larger, less sweet, slightly more chewy, and higher in price point.

Why do you brine scallops before cooking?

Scallops are a lean protein with little fat. Brining them in a salt solution seasons them while helping them retain moisture. Without the insulation, there’s a greater chance for them to become rubbery and dry.

Seared scallops in a pan with lemon garlic sauce and garnish with dill and zest.

A brine makes scallops more tender

The saltwater solution dissolves and reshapes some of the protein in the scallops. The protein can then create a gel that likes to trap water inside, keeping it tender after cooking.

Pan Seared Scallops with Lemon Garlic Sauce

Pan seared scallops with lemon garlic sauce is a gourmet meal. The seafood is brined first for extra flavor and tenderness as is cooks in the hot pan.
4.68 from 223 votes
Prep Time30 minutes
Cook Time10 minutes
Total Time40 minutes
Servings 4 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine American

Ingredients 
 

Brine

  • cup kosher salt
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 4 cups ice cubes
  • 1 pound scallops

Scallops

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon chopped dill
  • black pepper, as needed for seasoning

Instructions 

  • Brine the Scallops – In a medium bowl, combine salt and hot water. Stir until the salt is mostly dissolved. Add ice cubes, and once the water is cold, add the scallops. Brine for 10 minutes.
  • Rinse and Dry the Scallops – Drain and rinse the scallops under cold water. Transfer to a sheet pan lined with paper towels. Place another sheet of paper towel on top and gently press until each piece is dry. The drier the scallops, the better the sear.
  • Season with Salt – Allow the scallops to sit for 10 minutes at room temperature before cooking. Right before cooking, lightly season both sides with salt.
  • Cook the Scallops – Heat a large 12-inch pan over medium-high heat. Add olive oil. Once hot, add the scallops in a single layer. Gently press on them with a spatula so they make direct contact with the pan. Sear until golden brown on the surface, not moving them, about 3 minutes.
  • Baste the Scallops – Add butter to the pan and allow it to melt. Flip the scallops and use a spoon to baste, tilting the pan as needed. Cook until firm but tender, about 1 to 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and transfer to a clean plate.
  • Make a Pan Sauce – Using the same pan to cook the scallops, turn the heat up to medium. Add in garlic and saute until fragrant, 30 seconds. Add in lemon juice and lemon zest, scrape the pan to move any browned bits, and stir them into the sauce, cook for about 1 minute. Turn off the heat and whisk in Dijon mustard and heavy cream. If needed, add some water if you want a thinner consistency. Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.
  • To Serve – Add the scallops back to the pan and warm them over low heat for 2 minutes. Garnish with chopped dill and black pepper, and serve.

Recipe Video

YouTube video

Notes

  • Scallop Selection: Dry sea scallops are used for their sweet and briny flavor and ability to form a golden brown crust. 
  • Using Wet Scallops: Add about 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to the brine to remove some of the chemicals and mask the soapy taste.
  • Scallop Size: Use jumbo scallops, 8 to 10 pieces per pound (about 2 ounces per scallop), or smaller scallops that are 14 to 16 per pound (about 1 ounce per scallop). Adjust cooking times based on size after flipping them.
  • Storing: Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 4 servings
Calories 151kcal (8%)Carbohydrates 4g (1%)Protein 13g (26%)Fat 8g (12%)Saturated Fat 3g (15%)Cholesterol 39mg (13%)Sodium 489mg (20%)Potassium 232mg (7%)Vitamin A 145IU (3%)Vitamin C 3.5mg (4%)Calcium 7mg (1%)Iron 0.5mg (3%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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66 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Patti says

    This looks so good but I wonder. I’m not a scallop fan, do you think it would work with shrimp? Why not?!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I think you could definitely use shrimp for this recipe, just must sure to not overcook the pieces as they cook very quickly. I would also skip the brining step. Let me know how it goes!

  2. Michele Hyson says

    I made this three time! The first was not awesome… They didn’t have “dry” scallops. What a different. The scallops would not dry and were super mushy.
    The second time, I only bought four scallops because I wanted to try again without the expense 🙂 My son, with two on his plate, was okay, because I served it with halibut. But then after he tried it – he smiled and said – “give me your scallops!” So the third time was indeed a charm. Thank you for this recipe! It’s truly amazing!

  3. Jeannie Bee says

    I’ve made this twice now and it’s fabulous, as are all of Jessica’s recipes. I especially love that she explains and demonstrates each step. I’ve been a home cook for over 50 years but she takes each dish to a new level. I think the brine and the extra drying are crucial to the success of the scallops. Thank you, Jessica!

  4. Toni says

    So delicious. My scallops were smaller, so I should have adjusted the cook time. Definitely a recipe I will make again. Even company worthy!

  5. Jack says

    Hi

    im just wondering why you didn’t remove the muscle before cooking the scallops

    I have been an executive chef for several years and it’s one of the first thing you would teach someone who doesn’t have any experience cooking scallops.

    Other than that , everything looks good

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