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. Scallops are easy to cook, and they are so mild, they can be the perfect foil for a variety of cooking styles and sauces.
The key to cooking scallops is 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,” Sifton includes a 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 the scallops in more than one pan to prevent overcrowding and to 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.
This can make the scallops mushier, and some folks say they can taste a chemical-like flavor after they cook such wet scallops. 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 store, so you can check the fresh seafood case and ask if they have dry scallops. Or, consider that frozen scallops might 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 only find wet scallops, several sources recommended putting them in a brine before cooking.
Sifton suggests a brining method (see recipe) 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.
On a weeknight, however, I’d skip the brining and spend more time on the saucing. If you’ve never prepared beurre blanc, which is made with wine, vinegar, shallots 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.
At the end of that constant whisking, you’ll have a creamy emulsion that turns those golden scallop disks into a luxurious entrée. 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!”