Pan-Fried Sea Scallops

Chef's notes:

The giant scallop (Placopecten magellanicus) or sea scallop, as we know it, is found in the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to North Carolina. The two main exporters of sea scallops are, as you may expect, Canada and the United States. Sea scallops are a favorite food in Japan, France and the United States. Scallops do not survive very long out of the water, and frequently are dead before they reach the surface. So sea scallops are shucked on the boat. The scallop meat we buy in the grocery store is the abductor muscle, the muscle used to open and close the shell. Since scallops use their abductor muscles as a means of transportation, the muscles grow quite large.


  • 10 sea scallops
  • Sea salt
  • Black pepper
  • Safflower oil

Sea Scallops Pan-Fried with Sea Salt and Black Pepper

  1. The first step to pan-frying sea scallops is selecting the best scallops you can get your hands on. Scallops are very frequently frozen, but in the case of sea scallops, freezing has little to no effect on the quality. If your grocery store has thawed sea scallops for sale, ask to smell them. A good sea scallop should smell like sweet brine, and the flesh should be firm and translucent white to pinkish white in color. Ask if the sea scallops were wet-packed or dry-packed. Dry-packed is better.
  2. Next, lightly wash your sea scallops by dunking them in a cool bath of water. Very frequently, residual shell pieces can be found on the flesh. It is slightly off-putting to be enjoying your succulent scallop, only to crunch on a piece of grit. Dunk them for a second and then dry them on a piece of paper towel. Once the scallops are dry, salt and pepper the flesh with sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Heat up a non-stick frying pan on the stove, just a click above medium heat.
  3. Clarified butter is one of the preferred fats to pan-fry your sea scallops in. You may also use vegetable oil, but probably not olive oil. The reason we use clarified butter is that it doesn’t burn as easily as regular butter. In the picture to the left, I was using safflower oil. Notice that the scallops have plenty of space in between them. Too many scallops in the pan will cool the pan down and make it very difficult to get the crust without overcooking the scallops.
  4. After four or five minutes, check to see what sort of crust is developing on your sea scallop. Most of the time, scallops aren’t cooked past medium, and more often than not they are cooked to rare. The reason is that a scallop cooked past medium becomes very rubbery. As the other side of the scallop is cooking and getting its crust, poke the scallop with your finger. The scallop should be a good deal firmer than it was before, but there should be a good amount of give yet. If you would prefer to use an internal probe thermometer, the cooking temperatures for scallops are the same as other meats, so use them as a guide. For rare scallops, the internal temp should be 120–125 degrees, medium should be 140–150 degrees, and for you masochists out there, well done is past 160 degrees. For a quick sauce, deglaze the pan with butter and pour it over the scallops.

Tips & Tricks

  • When purchasing scallops, avoid “wet packed scallops.” These have been treated with tripolyphosphate (STP), which causes the scallops to absorb water, thereby increasing the weight of the scallop. Since scallops are sold by weight, this fetches a higher premium for the product, all the while offering no redeeming benefit to the consumer. Adding water to products before sale is common practice among companies; just read the label of your ham or turkey. But to save money and frustration, buy dry packed scallops.
  • Always make sure to smell thawed or fresh scallops before you buy them. You want the scallops to smell briny and sweet.
  • Examine the fresh or thawed scallop closely; the flesh should be a translucent white to a pinkish white.
  • If you live in a place where scallops may not be as popular, stick to the frozen ones and thaw them yourself.
  • After the scallops are done cooking, they will drip a little juice onto wherever they are sitting. If you place them on a rack for a few minutes (like you would a steak) before you serve them, you can keep them from loosing that crust, sitting in their own juices.