Food & Drink

Get over your fear of scallops with this dead-simple, seared version

Caramelized Sea Scallops With Beurre Blanc. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post.
Caramelized Sea Scallops With Beurre Blanc. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post.

Maybe you’ve had a less than stellar experience with scallops. Either they were hard as pencil erasers or so mushy they collapsed under your fork?

If so, please try again. Not only are scallops easy to cook, but they are so mild, they can be the perfect foil for a variety of cooking styles and sauces.

The key to cooking scallops in not overcooking them. As Sam Sifton, food editor at the New York Times, once wrote: “Indeed, there is almost no such thing as an undercooked scallop.”

In his new cookbook “See You on Sunday” (Random House, 2020), Sifton includes a dead simple recipe for caramelized scallops: The extra-large sea scallops are given a dark sear in a neutral oil or clarified butter, so both sides end up with a golden-brown crust.

The path to getting that perfect sear is to dry the scallops well, have the fat hot - close to smoking - and avoid overcrowding the pan. For his recipe, Sifton even recommends cooking them in more than one pan to prevent overcrowding and have them all ready at the same time.

He finishes the scallops with a generous hit of fresh lemon juice, or he gets Sunday-dinner fancy by draping them in the classic French beurre blanc.

Finding the freshest, untreated, dry-packed scallops is also a key to success.

“Wet” scallops are chemically treated with a solution of water and sodium tripolyphosphate so that they stay moist longer.

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This can make the scallops mushier, and some folks say they can taste a chemical-like flavor when they cook them. Fresh seafood enthusiasts will tell you to visit a reputable market and ask for freshly shucked “dry” scallops so that you get a pinkish scallop with firm edges.

If you’re like me, however, you buy your weeknight dinner ingredients at a neighborhood grocery, so you can check the fresh seafood case and ask if they have dry scallops. Or, consider that frozen scallops may be the best way to go. I tried buying them fresh and sampled a couple of frozen varieties when testing Sifton’s recipe. They all turned out well.

To defrost scallops, transfer them from the packaging to a large bowl. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.

If you can find only wet scallops, several sources recommended putting them in a brine before cooking.

Sifton suggests a brining method for even the dry-packed scallops, so we tried making them brined and unbrined. The brining did result in tender scallops that stood a bit taller and firmer, but it wasn’t essential to success.

If you want to try brining, here’s what Sifton recommends: Combine 2 cups of kosher salt in 2 cups of boiling water and stir until the salt dissolves. Then, add 8 cups cold water. Stir again and let the brine cool to room temperature. Add the scallops and brine for 10 minutes. Then, rinse the scallops under cold running water, dry them well, and place them on a clean paper-towel-lined large plate or baking sheet. Cover the scallops with a towel and refrigerate for at least 1 hour but no longer than 2, or, he said, the scallops will turn salty. If you brine the scallops, you will not need to salt them later when cooking.

On a weeknight, however, I’d skip that brining process and spend more time on the saucing. Scallops take less than 10 minutes to sear on both sides, which leaves plenty of time - even on a hectic evening - to make this classic, luscious French sauce. If you’ve never prepared beurre blanc, which is made with wine, vinegar, shallots and lots and lots of butter, it can seem intimidating, but it requires only about 15 minutes of your attention, a pan and a whisk.

First, minced shallots, vinegar and wine are reduced until the liquid nearly evaporates. Then, cream is added and, with the heat on low, pats of butter are whisked into the mixture.

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At the end of that constant whisking, you’ll have a creamy emulsion that turns those golden scallop disks into a luxurious entree. In his cookbook, Sifton recommends finishing the meal with a “neat spoonful of rice and a delicate thatch of roasted asparagus, on a table covered with a cloth and a few low candles winking off the wine glasses. Fancy!”

Fancy, indeed.

CARAMELIZED SEA SCALLOPS WITH BEURRE BLANC

Active: 25 minutes | Total: 35 minutes

8 servings (2 extra-large scallops)

Serve with a steamed asparagus and a green salad.

Make Ahead: Brine the large sea scallops before making this dish. That process will result in more tender scallops that stand taller. If you’ve got the time, here is the process: Combine 2 cups of kosher salt in 2 cups of boiling water and stir until the salt dissolves. Then, add 8 cups cold water. Stir again and let the brine to sit until at room temperature. Add the scallops and let them to sit in the brine for 10 minutes. Then, rinse the scallops under cold running water, dry them well, and place them on a clean towel-lined baking sheet. Cover the scallops with a towel and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, but no longer than 2, or the scallops will turn salty. If you brine the scallops, you do not need to salt them when cooking.

Storage Notes: Best if eaten right away, but can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 days.

FOR THE SCALLOPS

4 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed, or clarified butter, divided

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

16 extra-large sea scallops, preferably dry-packed, the tough muscle on the side removed

FOR THE BEURRE BLANC

1/4 cup dry white wine, such as a chenin blanc or albarino

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 medium shallot, peeled and finely minced (about 2 tablespoons)

1/3 cup heavy cream

Pinch of kosher salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces, chilled

Make the scallops: Heat a large, stainless-steel saute pan over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil and swirl to coat the pan. When the oil is shimmering and close to smoking, sprinkle a little salt and pepper on the scallops. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, place the scallops in the pan, making sure they do not touch.

Cook, undisturbed, until the bottoms of the scallops are a dark golden brown, about 3 minutes, then, using tongs, carefully turn each scallop and allow the other side to cook until golden, an additional 2 minutes or so. Repeat with remaining oil and scallops. Place the cooked scallops on a platter and keep warm.

Make the beurre blanc: Combine the wine, vinegar and shallot in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Let the mixture to cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until the liquid has nearly evaporated, about 5 minutes.

Add the cream and salt and bring to a boil for about 1 minute.

Reduce the heat to low, add a pat of butter, and use a whisk to mix it into the sauce. Repeat with the remaining butter, adding a few pats at a time, whisking constantly and removing the pan from the heat occasionally to allow the sauce to cool. (Too much heat will break the emulsion.) Remove the sauce from the heat. For a classic beurre blanc, strain the sauce before serving and discard the minced shallot, or serve as is.

Transfer 2 scallops per person to warmed plates, drizzle with the beurre blanc and serve.

Nutrition | Calories: 350; Total Fat: 33 g; Saturated Fat: 19 g; Cholesterol: 90 mg; Sodium: 135 mg; Carbohydrates: 2 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 0 g; Protein: 10 g.

Source: Adapted from “See You on Sunday” by Sam Sifton (Random House, 2020)

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