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.
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: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. 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.” Wet Scallops:
- Treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, or STP, a salt solution
- Pure white and heavy from the STP
- The extra moisture makes it difficult to properly sear scallops in a pan
- You can combat this by blotting the wet scallops with paper towels
- Difficult to find
- Cream colored
- Not treated with any chemicals
- Sear beautifully
Scallop sizes: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. By size:
- U-5 = 5 scallops in 1 pound
- U-10 = 10 scallops in 1 pound
- U-15 = 15 scallops in 1 pound
- 20/30 = 20 to 30 scallops = 1 pound
- 40/50 = 40 to 50 scallops = 1 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.
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 Recipe
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.