How to Make Pan-Seared Scallops

Scallops with a golden brown sear on one side
The Spruce / Danilo Alfaro
  • 01 of 05

    Dry Scallops Before Seasoning With Salt and Pepper

    Dry your scallops and season them with Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
    The Spruce / Danilo Alfaro

    The reason it's so important to dry your scallops is that excess liquid will interfere with the searing of the scallops. Instead of tender, golden-brown scallop, you'll wind up with a tough, pale, steamed one.

    A related issue is that most scallops you buy at the store have been soaked in a liquid solution that keeps them looking white. So you'll need to drain and rinse them thoroughly, then pat them dry with paper towels before you season them.

    If you're lucky, your seafood purveyor carries "dry-packed" scallops, which haven't been treated with this liquid. If so, you don't need to rinse them—just season they and they're ready to cook. Note that scallops have an adductor muscle (sometimes called a "foot") on the side. It's a tough little tab of meat that you should pull off before cooking because it can be kind of chewy.

    What about frozen scallops? We'll tell you the truth: frozen scallops are not the best type of scallops for searing, again because of the moisture issue. But it can be done. You're going to have to thaw them overnight in the refrigerator, on a rack with a pan underneath it to catch the liquid that drains out. A colander will also work, but not as well because the scallops will tend to want to clump together because of its curved interior. A flat rack will keep them separate, with space between them.

    Once your scallops are dry, season them with a sprinkle of Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. 

    Continue to 2 of 5 below.
  • 02 of 05

    Get Your Pan Nice and Hot

    Hot pan with bacon fat, grapeseed oil and whole butter
    The Spruce / Danilo Alfaro

    Heat a nonstick sauté pan over high heat and add a tablespoon of clarified butter (or raw, unsalted butter) and a tablespoon of vegetable oil. The oil/butter mixture needs to be very hot before you add the scallops—you should actually see just a tiny bit of smoke.

    One of the biggest mistakes home cooks make is not getting their pan hot enough before cooking, and this is especially a problem when it comes to making pan-seared scallops. Cooking scallops require a smoking-hot pan so that the scallops actually sear rather than steaming in their own juices.

    We browned some diced bacon in the pan in the photo above, then set aside the bacon but left the rendered bacon fat in the pan. Then we added a couple of tablespoons of grapeseed oil, which is terrific for high-heat cooking, and then some butter. 

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  • 03 of 05

    Place Scallops in a Hot Pan and Don't Move Them!

    These scallops are almost ready to flip
    The Spruce / Danilo Alfaro

    Place the scallops flat-side down (in other words, not on their edges) in the hot pan. Don't overcrowd the pan or the pan won't stay hot enough to give the scallops a good sear. If you have a lot of scallops, it's better to work in batches.

    Another important tip: Once you've placed the scallops in the pan, don't touch them. If you give in to the temptation to move the scallops around the pan, all you'll be doing is preventing them from forming the nice brown crust that you want. Yes, moving things around makes it feel like you're "cooking," but sometimes with cooking your job is to just sit tight and let the hot pan do its thing. Be strong!

    The scallops shown here have been cooking for two minutes. They'll need about another minute or so.

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  • 04 of 05

    Flip Scallops After About 3 Minutes

    Scallops with a golden brown sear on one side
    The Spruce / Danilo Alfaro

    Because of variations in scallop thickness, pan temperatures, and so on, it's not easy to pinpoint an exact cooking time. But after a couple of minutes, it's okay to peek underneath. If you see a scallop has a nice, caramel-colored crust on the underside, it's ready to flip. This might not happen to all the scallops at once, but they should all achieve optimum brownness within a minute or so of one another.

    Overcooking your scallops is one of the easiest things in the world to do, so once you've flipped them, it's time to be careful. Again, it's impossible to set an exact time, but you want to brown the other side without overcooking the whole thing. But better to have the bottoms a lighter brown than to cook them too long. That's why we worked so hard to get the tops seared just right. Think in terms of "presentation sides." The nicely seared sides go face-up on the plate.

    You'll want to remove the scallops from the pan and serve them while their centers are still slightly translucent (you can check this by viewing them from the side) because they'll continue to cook after you take them off the heat.

    They should still be quite springy if you press them with your thumb. If they are very firm or stiff, they're already overcooked.

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  • 05 of 05

    Serve Scallops Right Away

    Pan-seared sea scallops with corn grits, bacon and sliced green onions
    The Spruce / Danilo Alfaro

    Scallops start to turn rubbery if you wait too long to serve them, so get them on the plate right away. And be sure to serve them with the beautiful caramel-colored crust facing up!

    Here you can see the scallops are served with some yellow corn grits, the diced bacon that was mentioned earlier, and garnished with some sliced green onions, and, the coup de grace, a couple of shakes of Old Bay, which is basically paprika and celery salt. Something about the celery salt produces magic when it hits the scallops. Unlike the salt and pepper, though, the Old Bay should go on after cooking, not before.