Chef Notes: Scallops

Chef Notes: Scallops

“This could be the start of a beautiful love affair with the scallop.” ~ Eric Ripert I love scallops too. If they’re on a restaurant menu, chances are that’s what I’ll be ordering. I like scallops on the half shell, scallop ceviche, scallop carpaccio, fried scallops, baked scallops, grilled scallops, sautéed scallops, smoked scallops, poached scallops, scallop confit. Do I sound like Bubba from Forest Gump yet? No? Let me keep going then. I like them in po’boys and on salads. I put them in bouillabaisse, paella, risotto, pasta. Hell, I’ve even made scallop pizza. I like the little bay scallops and the really huge sea scallops. It doesn’t matter to me. There’s something about the texture and the sweetness that I just can’t get enough of. The problem is, they can be a little intimidating to make at home. They tend to be one of those foods that we love to order out but the idea of trying to reproduce those results ourselves scares the crap out of most home cooks. For one thing, they are expensive. Who wants to pay $15.00 per pound for something and then screw it up. I certainly don’t. 

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Scallops are marine bivalve mollusks. Unlike their cousins the oyster, clam, and mussel they cannot close their shell and therefore cannot live outside of water.  Because of this, they are usually shucked, cut, and frozen immediately. In other parts of the world, everything inside the shell is eaten, just like the oyster or clam, but you will rarely see scallops on the half shell in the United States. We generally eat only the muscle here. I’ve been lucky and have had them on the half shell twice. They are outstanding.

There are bay scallops and sea scallops, the major difference being their size. Bay scallops are smaller, about ½ – 1” in diameter and generally 50 – 90 per pound. Sea scallops are larger, usually 2-3” in diameter and 20 – 30 per pound. Bay scallops tend to be more tender and have a sweeter flavor. Bay scallops are sold ready to cook but virtually all sea scallops come with the “foot” attached. You will want to remove this chewy, rubbery little appendage before cooking. It’s easy to locate on the scallop and it just peels right off.

Both bay and sea scallops are sold either “dry packed” or “wet packed”. What you find in the grocery store is usually “wet packed”. This means that the scallops have been treated with sodium tripolyphosphate which causes them to absorb moisture prior to freezing. Scallops are about 75% water already but when treated can be as high as 91% water. Dry packed scallops are a little harder to find and more expensive but you will get more for your money, the flavor is significantly better, and they will not produce a milky watery substance when cooked that practically ensures that you will not get the crispy, beautiful sear that you see at better restaurants. Be sure to read the package or ask so that you know what you are dealing with.

If you can’t find or afford dry packed, don’t despair, I know a trick for drying the wet packed enough so that you can get that gorgeous, golden brown sear that we all love so much. The trick is to lay the scallops in a single layer over a couple of paper towels, sprinkle generously with kosher or sea salt, and then place uncovered in the refrigerator for a few hours (2-4 is sufficient as you don’t want to completely dry them out). Just before cooking, dab well with a paper towel to remove any residual surface moisture and prepare as planned. You should follow this procedure even if you will be tossing them into a bouillabaisse or poaching, as you want to tease out as much of the solution as possible. If left as is, not only will you not be able to get a good sear but if you’re cooking them within a liquid they will release the solution into your dish possibly discoloring and definitely increasing the liquid. One last buying tip, be sure they are fresh. Scallops should smell sweet NOT fishy. If frozen, there should be no ice crystals.

Perfectly Seared Scallops with Pan Sauce

Dry packed scallops (or follow the method described above on wet packed
Clarified butter or ghee (you need a higher smoke point than unclarified butter can provide
1 small shallot, finely minced
1 small garlic clove, finely minced
Juice of ½ lemon
1 cup White wine or fish stock
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons parsley, basil, chives, tarragon or other mild herb
Kosher or Sea Salt
Black Pepper

Method

Preheat oven to 250. Heat a large heavy bottomed or cast iron skillet over medium high heat until hot. Add enough butter to coat the bottom of the pan. Do not add too much or you will not get a good sear. Quickly add a single layer of scallops. Do not overcrowd the pan. You want there to be about ½” – 1” of space between each scallop. Sear until the scallops naturally unstick from the bottom of the pan and are a medium/dark golden brown. Flip and sear the other side for just a few seconds.  Move to an oven safe dish and toss into the oven to finish.  Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté until beginning to lightly brown. Deglaze your skillet with the lemon juice and wine. Reduce to about half. Remove from heat and stir in butter and herb. Stir in any juices that have since cooked out of the scallop and serve immediately.

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1 Comment

  1. Ade Fraioli
    May 23, 17:14 Reply

    Saw gorgeous, plump sea scallops just today and almost bought them. Now that I have a recipe I’m going back to get them.

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