Seared scallops with a delicious lemon garlic sauce. For maximum flavor and texture, I brine them first. After a brief sear, I make a simple pan sauce using all the amazing flavors leftover. It’s a gourmet meal all made in one pan!
Let’s forgo expensive restaurants and make elegant seared scallops right at home. Often times it can be a bit intimidating to tackle seafood, but I’m going to break down the process and show you how to do it. It’s not as hard as it seems. I’ve added in one extra simple step to ensure that scallops are super flavorful and don’t dry out.
I find that a brine enhances the naturally sweet and light saltwater flavor of scallops. To get a nice caramelized surface, we’re going to thoroughly dry the scallops then sear in a hot pan without moving them. A creamy lemon garlic sauce is made right in the same skillet for extra flavor to drizzle on top.
How to cook seared scallops
- Brine scallops in salt water.
- Dry scallops with paper towels.
- Heat a large pan with olive oil.
- Sear scallops for 3 minutes.
- Flip and baste with butter.
- Remove scallops and saute garlic.
- Add lemon juice and zest.
- Turn off heat, whisk in mustard and cream.
- Garnish with dill and pepper.
Why do you brine scallops before cooking?
Brining scallops in a salt solution helps to more deeply season them inside, not just on the surface while retaining moisture. They are very lean in protein with little fat. Without the insulation, there’s a greater chance for them to become rubbery and dry. The saltwater adds a little extra insurance, and only take 10 minutes.
How do you get a golden color on the scallops?
To achieve the attractive caramel kissed surface, the scallops must be as dry as possible. 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. Further drying them uncovered in the refrigerator can also help remove extra moisture.
I found that stainless steel or cast iron gives a nice deep color, however, nonstick pans work well too but should not be used over high heat. Basting the scallops in the final minutes of cooking with butter adds a little extra boost of vibrancy. The milk proteins and lactose in the butter brown which sticks to the outside for an irresistible crust.
Purchasing wet vs. dry
Wet scallops are soaked in additives called sodium tripolyphosphate to help extend shelf life, keep them whiter in color, and they soak up more moisture. Dry scallops have no chemicals added, just shipped on ice, and I prefer to use them. They have a pinkish or ivory hue, feel stickier, and smell like the sea.
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.
How do you thaw frozen scallops?
There are two methods to use to defrost scallops without negatively impacting their texture. 1) Defrost them overnight in a single layer on a plate covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. 2) Place scallops in a resealable plastic bag, air removed and using a bowl, run cool water over them until defrosted, this could take about 30 minutes per pound.
How do you know when seared scallops are fully cooked?
Scallops are very lean, so they cook within minutes in hot oil and on high temperatures. They should have a golden crust and the interior should be opaque in color. The texture should be firm, yet easy to cut through with a fork or knife with little resistance.
What do you serve with scallops?
- Angel hair noodles like this lemon caper pasta
- Cauliflower mashed potatoes
- Zucchini noodles
- Spaghetti squash
How does a salty brine make scallops more tender?
The saltwater solution dissolves and reshapes some of the protein in the scallops. The protein is then able to create a gel that likes to trap water inside keeping it tender after cooking.
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Pan Seared Scallops with Lemon Garlic Sauce
- ⅓ cup kosher salt
- 1 cup hot water
- 4 cups ice cubes
- 1 pound 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
- Combine salt and hot water in a medium bowl, stir until the salt is mostly dissolved. Add ice cubes, once the water is cold add scallops. Brine scallops for 10 minutes.
- 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 of scallops, gently pressing until each piece is dry. The drier the scallops, the better the sear.
- Allow scallops to sit for 10 minutes at room temperature before cooking. Right before cooking, lightly season both sides with salt.
- Heat a large 12-inch pan over medium-high heat. Add olive oil. Once hot, add scallops to the pan in a single layer. Gently press on them with a spatula so they make direct contact with the pan. Pan sear until golden brown on the surface, not moving them, about 3 minutes.
- Add butter to the pan and allow it to melt. Flip scallops over, use a spoon to baste with butter, 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.
- 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 remove any browned bits and stir into the sauce, cook for about 1 minute. Turn off the heat and whisk in Dijon mustard and heavy cream. If needed, add in some water to the sauce if you want a thinner consistency. Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.
- Add scallops back to the pan, and warm over low heat, 2 minutes. Garnish with chopped dill and black pepper, serve warm.
- 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 the scallops over.
- Using Wet Scallops: If you don’t have the option to purchase dry scallops, just add about 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to the brine and that will help remove some of the chemicals and mask the soapy taste.
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