How to Cook Scallops [Pan-Fried & Grilled]

Fresh scallops are the perfect seafood dish. You can grill, sauté, or pan-sear them with different but equally delicious results. Learn how to find and cook fresh scallops every time with our seafood guide.

Seared Scallops in Cast Iron Pan

Scallops are delicious seafood even for those who don’t love fish, but many people resign themselves to only eating them in restaurants. To the average home cook, cooking scallops is a daunting process with plenty of room for error.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Once you know a little about scallops and how to cook them, you can make restaurant-worthy seafood meals at home with very little trouble.

Here is a guide to everything that you need to know about buying, preparing, and enjoying scallops, whenever you want them.

Raw Scallops with Lemon and Finishing Salt on Cutting Board

What Are Scallops?

Scallops are a type of bivalve mollusk. Bivalve mollusks are seafood species that have two separate shells held together by a muscle. If you think of seafood or seashells, for example in The Little Mermaid, chances are, you’ll think of this type of shell. Oysters and mussels are other types of bivalve mollusks.

Scallops are also closely related to octopuses and snails, which are other types of mollusks. The mollusk family contains lots of delicious seafood favorites that are not technically fish but still live in the water.

While the term “scallop” can refer to the whole animal, we only eat a small part of the scallop. The white, round flesh you find at restaurants is the scallop’s adductor muscle, which is the part that holds the shell together and helps the shellfish move through the water.

Scallops are fascinating animals to study. They can be up to nine inches wide and swim fast compared to other shellfish. They also have a ring of eyes popping out of the edge of their shell—sometimes up to 200 of them

Raw Scallops with Paprika Seasoning

What Do Scallops Taste Like?

There is a reason why scallops are nicknamed “the candy of the sea.” They are prized by consumers and chefs for their delicate, mild taste. While other seafood often overpowers your taste buds with its strong salty flavors, scallops are soft and almost sweet by comparison. Even people who normally don’t like seafood will make an exception for scallops.

Besides their unique taste, scallops have a versatile texture that makes them an asset for chefs and diners. They have a soft, buttery texture, almost like lobster, another prized seafood dish. This texture is why scallops are the centerpiece of dishes such as seafood scampi and pan-seared scallops.

Finally, there is another reason why scallops are such prized seafood besides their taste. They are also highly nutritious. Scallops are high in protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin B12, and calcium. They are low in calories, carbs, and fats and contain trace amounts of other minerals that are crucial to your health.

The Different Types of Scallops

Once they wind up on a plate, all scallops look the same. However, there are a few different types of scallops that you should know before you go shopping.

Sea scallops

Sea scallops, also known as Atlantic sea scallops, are the most common variety of scallops. They live in the deep waters of the oceans and seas. They are about two inches in diameter. Most sea scallops have fluted shells that are reddish-pink and white in color. 

If you’ve had scallops in restaurants or bought them at the supermarket, chances are that they’ve been sea scallops. Sea scallops have the delicate, sweet taste that scallop consumers love. They are also one of the most sustainable choices for seafood consumption because they are not in danger of overharvesting.

Bay scallops

Bay scallops are a seafood species that is almost entirely wild. They are found along the East Coast of the United States and migrate seasonally. Due to these migration patterns, they are only available seasonally from October to March when they return to the fisheries that make up their home.

Bay scallops are much smaller than sea scallops and often more expensive due to their rarity. However, their taste and texture are superior. They are sweeter and more tender than sea scallops, which tend to veer on the chewy side.

Calico scallops

Finally, the third most common variety of North American scallops is the calico scallop. Calico scallops live in the Gulf of Mexico and other waters along the Southeastern United States coast. They are a seasonal variety, just like bay scallops. Calico scallop season is between December and May.

Calico scallops are prized for their shells, which form intricate, tightly-sealed patterns. However, they are more difficult to access than the other two because the shell is hard to pry apart. They are often sold as replacements for bay scallops but are not as sweet.

Sea scallops are the most common variety that you will find in your supermarket. If you’re lucky, you may get a chance to sample one of the other two.

How to Choose Fresh Scallops

You can usually get fresh scallops at a fish market or even a high-end supermarket. Before you buy your scallops, you’ll want to make sure that you’re getting the best product.

You can tell if scallops are fresh by looking at them. They should look firm and plump with a pink or orange hue on top of their base white color. Pure white scallops are a sign that something is wrong with the scallops, so be sure that there is a hint of another color.

Before buying scallops, ask the fishmonger for dry scallops. Wet scallops have been treated with an STP solution to preserve them on their way to the market, but this detracts from the scallop’s natural flavor. If you have to buy wet scallops, be sure to pat them dry to get as much of the solution out as possible before cooking. 

If the scallops have a feathery white pattern on their surface or darkened edges, that is a sign that they are not fresh. Before buying them, smell them. They should smell a little briny, like the sea, but not pungent, like ammonia or iodine. If the scallops are too pungent, that is a sign that they’ve begun to go bad.

If you cannot get fresh scallops, frozen scallops are a good substitute. Just be sure to get ones that have been frozen for at least a day and accept that the taste will not be as good as the fresh variety.

How to Cook Scallops

Scallops are lovely, versatile mollusks that do not need a lot of fuss to taste delicious. Here are a few suggestions for cooking them.

Pan-searing

Pan-searing your scallops is easy and preserves their delicate flavor. To pan-sear your scallops, first prepare them. That means either taking them out of their shell if you’ve bought them fresh or thawing your frozen scallops.

Then, add a neutral oil to a skillet and wait for it to heat up. Once the oil is sizzling, add your scallops, giving them enough room to cook. Flip them after two minutes and repeat the process on the other side.

Finally, create a sauce to go with your pan-seared scallops. Melt unsalted butter then add seasonings of your choice, such as garlic, lemon juice, salt, or pepper. Coating the scallops in this simple sauce will only enhance their flavor.

sizzling sea scallops grilling on a charcoal grill

Grilling

Grilling scallops is an excellent choice, particularly for the summer. Prepare the grill by brushing it with oil, and prepare the scallops by patting them dry and putting them onto skewers. You can even create a marinade of your choice, for example using lemon juice, garlic, and seasonings. You will need to be careful with the scallops because if you leave them on for too long they will get damaged, but grilling is a great way to maximize their flavor.

Why Are My Scallops Chewy?

Chewy scallops are the bane of many home chef’s existences. Instead of the tender, falling-apart texture you want, you may find yourself with tough scallops that work your jaw muscles.

The most common culprit is cooking time. Overcooking the scallops damages the muscle and ruins the texture. Scallops are very delicate and even a minute of excess heat can ruin the dish. 

There is no way to salvage scallops once they become chewy, but you can prevent this problem from happening in the first place by paying close attention while cooking. Only cook the scallops for a few minutes on each side and don’t step away from the heat while they’re cooking. If you’re worried about them cooking all the way through, put them on at a higher heat. A higher temperature is better for scallops as it sears in the flavor without ruining the texture.

Scallops, Demystified

Scallops don’t have to just be a treat you eat occasionally at the restaurant. You can easily prepare this delicate seafood at home.

You can get fresh sea scallops year-round at the average fishmonger or upscale supermarket, although you should snap up bay scallops and calico scallops when they’re in season. Make sure to choose firm, dry scallops that are mostly white with a pink or orange tinge.

Once you bring your scallops home, pan-sear them gently for a few minutes on each side and season them delicately. Be sure to let the sweet, tender flavor of the scallops shine through.