From N.D., October 2011, scallops: buying and preparing them.
Q: I love scallops. where is the best place to get them and what is the best way served? I had them broiled in San Francisco on a seafood platter. To die for!
A: Thanks for your question. Scallops are delicious, but they’re also expensive and easy to ruin, so take care when selecting and cooking them to make the most of your purchase.
We’re often taught to select the glossiest, juiciest-looking piece of food, right? In the case of scallops, though, you don’t necessarily want to do that. Because scallops are highly perishable, most supermarket scallops are treated with a substance called sodium tripolyphosphate (SPP), a preservative that extends their shelf life somewhat, but also causes the scallop to absorb water. SPP-preserved scallops, also called wet-packed scallops, look plump and milky-white. Avoid them at all costs. They won’t cook up properly, since they hold so much water that you can’t get a proper sear without overcooking the scallop. And you’re paying for water that the scallop has absorbed, which makes them mushy.
The scallop you want is the dry packed scallop, sometimes called the “day boat” scallop. These must be fresher, since they are not preserved. Dry packed scallops are more yellowish than wet pack – think of the difference between the color of milk and the color of vanilla ice cream – and are not as poufy or shiny as the wet pack. They don’t leak moisture when they cook, though, so you can count on a firm but moist texture, and a good sear on the outside. Some supermarkets may carry dry packed scallops – WholeFoods usually does, and if you have a high quality supermarket, the fishmonger will be able to tell you whether their scallops are wet or dry. You probably will be better off, though, at a dedicated fish market.
In the United States, what we think of as the scallop is just the adductor muscle of the bivalve. In other countries, the roe, or gonad sac, also usually is attached. Cooking American-style scallops is easy. Get your pan good and hot, and once it’s hot, add some oil (butter is nice but can burn). Make sure you’ve patted dry the surface of your scallop. Season it with just a little salt – not much, because shellfish tend to be salty already – and then place in the hot pan. Turn down the heat a little and watch it cook – the scallop meat will begins to become opaque and lighter in color starting from the pan and working up. Once it becomes opaque a little more than 1/4 but not quite 1/3 of the way up, and the surface of the scallop has a caramel-brown crust (usually between 90 seconds and 2 minutes depending on size) flip it over and cook the other side in the same way for about a minute or so. The scallop should be warm inside but still translucent, and the scallop should not be tough.
Here’s a favorite simple scallop preparation for cooler weather – it’s rich from the brown butter but not too heavy.
Scallop, brown butter and capers
12 oz dry packed scallops (about 8)
vegetable oil (such as canola)
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp capers
salt and pepper
Season the scallops lightly with salt. Drain the capers and dry on a paper towel.
Place a large skillet over high heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp oil. Place the scallops in the pan and reduce the heat slightly to medium high. Sear for between 60-90 seconds on the first side. Do not disturb – the scallops shall be golden brown before you turn them and they should be opaque not more than 1/3 of the way up. Turn over and cook in the same manner on the other side for about a minute more. Place on warm serving plates.
Wipe out the with paper towels and place back on the stove over medium heat.
Add the butter. Allow butter to melt, then foam. The butter will begin to smell nutty and turn golden brown. Immediately add 1 tbsp drained capers (be sure they are dry) and the juice of about half a lemon, and remove pan from heat.
Spoon brown butter and capers over scallops. Season with pepper and serve.