Pan-Seared Scallops with Lemon Butter makes an impressive yet simple meal when you feel like cooking something really, really special. You’ll fall in love with this classic preparation, which uses a brown butter lemon sauce that makes the sweet ocean scallops sparkle.
Who says romance is dead? As a snack beforehand, serve some homemade Olive Tapenade spread on heart-shaped crackers or toasted baguette, and have a Strawberry Spinach Salad waiting in the wings. Maybe some Easy Frosted Valentine Cookies for dessert…. or perhaps something decadent and chocolatey? Browse all the best chocolate desserts right here.
When your favorite restaurant is booked, don't give it another thought. Instead, head to the fish counter and ask for the biggest, sweetest scallops they have, and bring them home. Then celebrate the one you love with a splendid dinner of perfectly seared diver scallops, swimming in a nutty, citrusy brown butter sauce that would make any chef jealous.
This recipe takes the mystery out of cooking scallops. Once you figure out where scallops are for sale nearby, the rest is a breeze. They cook up in a hot skillet in only a few minutes. And the brown butter sauce is just as easy, made with just a handful of ingredients. Which means that you can keep your mind on the important things, like opening a good bottle of wine and lighting a candle or two.
Making Pan-Seared Scallops for the most opulent dinner party ever? Click and slide the number next to “servings” on the recipe card below to adjust the ingredients to match how many you’re feeding—the recipe does the math for you, it’s that easy.
Where do scallops come from?
As a bivalve (a mollusk with two hinged shells), scallops are related to oysters and clams. The little muscle inside the two shells that contracts to propel itself around in the ocean is what we know (and love) as the scallop.
Bay scallops vs. sea scallops:
Although there are hundreds of species of scallops living in bays and oceans all over the world, most of us never see them. The most commonly found at a fish market are sea scallops and bay scallops.
Sea scallops, the larger variety, are usually available year-round. They range in size from about 1" to 1 1/2” in diameter, and are sorted and packaged according to their size. (More on that below.) This is the variety that is called for in this recipe.
Prized for their sweet and tender meat, sea scallops are harvested along the Atlantic Ocean, Peru, Japan, and even Russia. They’re the ones you see on restaurant menus, where they are seared, sliced thinly, or eaten raw. Another term for sea scallop is “weathervane scallop.”
Bay scallops are smaller, but just as sweet and delicious. Considered a delicacy from Long Island to Cape Cod, bays usually are available seasonally, from fall to early winter. Although frozen bay scallops from China have been introduced into the market, these usually aren’t as delicious. Bay scallops are always small, usually about 1/2” in diameter.
Wet vs. dry scallops:
Fresh scallops are sold either “wet” or “dry.”
For instance, wet scallops means that the scallops have been treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, or STP, a salt solution to rehydrate the delicate scallop after harvesting. The soaking process makes the scallops heavier (and therefore more expensive). Most importantly, the extra moisture makes it difficult to properly sear scallops in a pan.
As the wet scallops cook, they release the water and sort of steam in the skillet—not exactly what you want. However, if wet scallops are all that’s available, you can still make it work.
The best way to prepare to sear wet scallops is by placing them on several layers of paper towels and gently pressing. This blots up the extra moisture and dry them out as much as possible before cooking.
In contrast, dry scallops are more difficult to find, but very worthwhile. They haven’t been treated with any chemicals and sear beautifully.
How do you tell the difference between dry and wet scallops? First of all, wet scallops are almost always pure, bright white. Dry packed scallops are more of a pale off-white. Like good vanilla ice cream.
By the way, Costco sells both wet and dry scallops, depending on the location and season. The individually quick-frozen sea scallops are the “wet” variety, but if you're lucky, you can find dry packed, too.
Basically, the larger the scallop, the more expensive it is. But you don’t need a scallop size chart to measure your bivalve against. Just remember the way that scallops are sorted, by size.
Sometimes scallops are labeled with a "U" before a number. U-5, one of the largest sizes of sea scallops, means that it takes 5 scallops to make a pound. Big money!
For instance, U-10 or U-15 scallops mean 10 and 15 scallops to a pound, respectively.
Other fish markets may just give a number range for scallops. For example, scallops that are labeled 20/30 are smaller. It takes 20 to 30 sea scallops to make a pound.
40/50 scallops? Even smaller, 40 to 50 scallops per pound.
Tips for buying scallops:
Like all fresh seafood, scallops are at their peak when cooked the day you buy them. If you have to shop a day ahead, store them in a container placed on top of a bowl of ice, in the coldest part of the refrigerator. (Usually, that's right above the vegetable drawer.)
However, don’t ever place scallops directly on the ice, which can damage their delicate texture. Also, never rinse scallops under running water. That washes the flavor away.
As with any fresh fish or seafood, look for scallops that smell fresh and briny, with a tinge of the ocean. The flesh should be moist but not cloudy.
Additionally, avoid scallops that have a white, almost powdery surface— a sign of freezer burn. And above all, stay away from scallops that smell sharp, or like ammonia or iodine.
In terms of sustainability, farmed or cultured scallops are a great choice, according to Seafood Watch. So are “diver-caught” or “day-boat” scallops, which are hand picked.
Please don’t buy dredged scallops, which are gathered by dredging, a method that threatens ecosystems and harms other ocean species.
Are frozen scallops wet or dry?
Almost all frozen scallops are wet-packed, even the ones at Costco.
Creating a bath for wet scallops:
If the extra phosphates in wet packed scallops concern you, you can create a solution to soak the scallops in to help rinse out the extra chemicals.
- Soak the raw scallops in a solution of 1 quart cold water, 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons table salt for 30 minutes.
- Then pat dry and proceed with the recipe.
How to thaw scallops:
Above all, never leave frozen scallops out at room temperature to thaw. Instead, here are two options for thawing frozen scallops.
- Running water. Place the frozen scallops inside a sealable bag and place the bag in a large bowl in the sink. Let cold (not warm or hot) running water over the scallops until thawed.
- Refrigerator. Let the frozen scallops thaw out in the refrigerator overnight. This slower method is preferred for all fish and seafood, because it keeps its cellular structure in tact.
How to pan sear scallops, perfectly:
Even large sea scallops cook really quickly, so if you're planning a lovely dinner, make sure you have the rest of the meal ready to go!
- First, prepare the scallops. Examine each one for a side muscle, a square-shaped bit of tissue that runs in the opposite direction as the rest of the muscle. It's a little tough, so pull it off by pinching it and tearing it away from the scallop.
- Then preheat the oven to 200 degrees. This will keep the cooked scallops warm while you make the sauce.
- Next, if the scallops you purchased are wet, place them on a paper towel lined plate and blot them gently with more paper towels. Let them sit out for 10 minutes or so. This will help dry them out to get ready for cooking. If they're dry packed, you can just let them warm up to room temperature on the paper towels.
- Season the scallops on both sides with some salt and pepper. Then heat a large skillet with some vegetable oil over high heat. When the oil is shimmering-- almost smoking--add the scallops, flat side down, in a single layer. If you're cooking lots of scallops, you may have to cook in batches.
- Most importantly, do not move them! You must leave them in the pan, without moving, in order to get that perfect, caramelized sear. This step only takes 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.
- Next, add some butter to the pan. Then gently flip the scallops using tongs. Afterwards, gently tip the pan so the butter and oil rolls to one side. Using a spoon, ladle the hot liquid over each of the scallops, basting them with the hot butter and oil. Continue to cook for another 60 to 90 seconds, until the sides of the scallops are firm.
- Smaller or larger scallops may need less (or more) cooking time. As they finish cooking, remove the scallops from the skillet and place on a plate, tenting it with foil to keep them warm until everything is cooked. Keep the plate in the warm oven while you make the Lemon Butter Sauce.
How to make the Lemon Butter Sauce:
- While the scallops are staying warm in the oven, grab a saucepan with a sturdy bottom and melt the butter. As the butter cooks, gently swirl the pan to keep it moving without burning.
- Then continue to cook the butter, swirling constantly, for 4 to 5 minutes, until the butter turns a deep, golden brown. Give it a smell--it should have a nutty, toasty aroma.
- Next, stir in the shallots and let them cook in the brown butter for about 30 seconds. Then remove from the heat and immediately stir in the thyme, parsley, lemon juice, and salt and pepper.
- Once you give the butter sauce a final stir, it's ready. To serve, arrange the seared scallops on dinner plates and spoon the sauce over them.Afterward, no one will need a reminder to kiss the cook-- that's a promise.
Pan-Seared Scallops with Lemon Butter
For the scallops:
- 1 1/2 pounds sea scallops 10 to 20 per pound, preferably dry, small side muscles removed (see notes)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
For the lemon butter sauce:
- 4 tablespoons butter (1/2 stick), cut into 4 pieces
- 1 small shallot minced (1-2 tablespoons)
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice from 1 lemon
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To make the scallops:
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees (to keep cooked scallops warm for a few minutes while preparing lemon butter sauce).
- Line a rimmed baking sheet or plate with a clean kitchen towel. Arrange scallops in a single layer on towel, then cover with a second clean kitchen towel. Press down gently to blot liquid.
- Let scallops rest at room temperature until towels have absorbed most of their moisture, about 10 minutes. Season both sides of scallops with salt and pepper to taste.
- In a large skillet over high heat, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil until just smoking. Add half of the scallops in a single layer, flat-side down. Cook, without moving, until well-browned, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.
- Add 1 tablespoon butter to the skillet. Using tongs, flip scallops. Continue to cook, using a large spoon to baste each scallop with butter until the sides of scallops are firm and centers are opaque, about 30 to 90 seconds longer (tilt skillet to one side so the butter pools and is easier to scoop). Remove smaller scallops as they finish cooking.
- Transfer scallops to a large plate and tent loosely with foil. Wipe out skillet with paper towels and repeat with remaining vegetable oil, scallops, and butter. Transfer to oven to keep warm while preparing lemon butter sauce.
To make the lemon butter sauce:
- In a small, heavy-bottom saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Cook, swirling constantly, until butter turns dark golden brown and has a nutty aroma, about 4 to 5 minutes.
- Stir in shallots until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove pan from heat and stir in parsley, thyme, and lemon juice.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper (I like 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper). Serve immediately with scallops.