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Why were my seared scallops so terrible?

  • p

So I made this (http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/rec...) on Friday. My first, and hopefully worst, attempt at searing scallops. When I first put them in, so much water came out that they didn't get any type of texture. Then, I took them out and did each one individually on the other side. That got a nice texture. But when I ate them, the crust tasted like pure salt. I had to cut off the crust to get anything edible. What did I do wrong? What are the secrets to searing scallops?

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  1. You bought scallops that had been packed in brine (as are most scallops sold in supermarkets). You need to find a source for "dry" scallops. These can be very difficult to find in some parts of the country, and they are very expensive. They are, however, remarkably good!

    3 Replies
    1. re: pikawicca

      I ordered "dry" scallops from freshdirect but DH complained that they were tasteless. I agreed. They *were* dry but almost tough in texture as well. I'm pretty sure the problem wasn't my cooking...something was definitely lacking in the scallops themselves. Do you know why or what could have happened?

      1. re: fauchon

        Try cooking the dry scallops for a very short time. I cook really large scallops in a well-heated saute pan over medium-high heat for one minute a side. Any longer and they dry out and get tough. The scallops should be transluscent in the center. If your scallops are smaller, try cooking one as a trial run.

      2. re: pikawicca

        Yeah, that's it for sure. A minor point - it's not really a brine, rather a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate that plumps the scallops up so they weigh more and also helps to preserve them. Disgusting practice, but as you say it's often the only game in town.

      3. I'd LOVE to know this too!

        1. I think your scallops had water added. It seems to be pretty standard treatment, unless they are specifically labelled "dry scallops". I usually salt mine heavily and leave them in a colander for at least an hour to draw water out. Then I rinse off the salt, pat dry with a paper towel and allow them to air dry before cooking.

          10 Replies
          1. re: cheryl_h

            Good idea! But I didn't realize you could leave seafood out for that long. Do you put it in the fridge? If not, do you know the outer limit for how long you can leave seafood out?

            1. re: pman

              You can put the colander in the fridge with a bowl under it to catch the liquid, same with air-drying later. If it's cool, I'll leave it in the sink. An hour won't do much harm.

            2. re: cheryl_h

              Thanks for the good idea. I'm going to try this. I always buy either Nantucket or Peconic Bay scallops and have been disappointed just as often as I've been thrilled. I'll definitely try your technique...

              1. re: fauchon

                Are you using bay scallops? I don't sear these, they're so small it's too fiddly to get right. I was referring to sea scallops. Though I expect salting would draw fluid out of bay scallops as well, just never tried it. I like bay scallops in ceviche.

                1. re: fauchon

                  If you've eaten 'dry' or 'day-boat' scallops at top restaurants, you will always be disappointed by the water injected scallops even if you removed some of the water by salting and leaving them out to disgorge. These scallops have a salty briny taste without any of the sweetness of 'dry' scallops. I think it is a waste of money.

                  1. re: PBSF

                    I agree that really fresh, unprocessed scallops have a flavor that can't be equalled by the injected variety. But they're very hard to find. So I use the treated ones and for everyday use, they're fine, just not stellar.

                  2. re: fauchon

                    i live in boston and have never been disappointed by nantucket bay scallops. they are little nuggets of heaven. am wondering where you live and how far they have been shipped?

                    they are so heavenly i basically eat them nearly raw.

                    i certainly have never had to drain them.

                      1. re: joycrcc

                        oh dear. even here they are usually over $20 pp, but i know they are less than 24 hours out of the ocean, untreated and certainly not frozen. i wouldn't even bother if i were that far away. they must be very spendy for you. if not, you're not getting the real deal and that may explain some too.

                        1. re: joycrcc

                          You can find quick-frozen dry-pack sea scallops in the midwest. (I'm in Indiana.) Properly thawed, they sear up fine. A good price around here is under $15 per pound. Best I've seen is maybe $11 per pound.

                  3. I agree with the other posters that it's not your cooking, it's the scallops. Most supermarket scallops are packed in water. They are tasteless and just blah. Unless you have a restaurant-quality supplier that can sell you day-boat scallops, I'd not try making scallops at home. Or you can try the salt method mentioned Cheryl, which sounds logical enough!

                    1. The ones you want, should be marked "Day Boat", "Dry Pack" or "Diver".


                      1. Yep, Diver scallops are what you need, and cook for no more than a minute a side (for a decent sized scallop) in a scorching hot pan!


                        1. I'm assuming a nonstick pan is what I'll need. What kind of fat?

                          8 Replies
                          1. re: pman

                            I've seen chefs on tv use stainless, but I'd never dare. I use non-stick, with a mixture of olive oil/butter.

                            1. re: pikawicca

                              i'd suggest using a blend of canola and evoo. this allows you to get the fat much hotter then an evoo butter blend. hotter oil=harder sear. once the first side is nice and brown(about 1 minute) throw in a pat of butter, flip and bast for about 10-12 seconds and your scallops are cooked perfectly.

                              1. re: vegchefboston

                                Then I'm assuming clarified butter would also work?

                              2. re: pikawicca

                                Cast iron pan, get the butter/olive oil smoking hot and sear no more than a minute per side. Dry scallops are a must, ask your fish guy, if you trust him.

                                1. re: coll

                                  Cast iron for me too. But I use peanut oil to get really high heat. After flipping the scallops, I deglaze the pan with balsamic vinegar.

                                  1. re: cheryl_h

                                    I think when the butter burns, it adds to the look and taste. Definitely pour the deglazed juices over before serving.

                              3. re: pman

                                NO! not non-stick. I would never use non stick for anything I wanted to have a seared crust. Non stick is for omlettes.

                                If you have a Whole Foods, they have dry pack scallops (at least mine does). Be prepared to pay $15-$20/lb. ouch.

                                1. re: danna

                                  I don't use non-stick. If your pan's hot enough, you don't need to.


                              4. another hint - when cooking them in the pan, never let them touch each other. it's not a moral thing, just a scallop thing!

                                1. I've lived in a fairly wide variety of places and could usually find "dry" scallops at least fairly regularly (the markets usually label them, or just ask), so I'm not sure if it is necessary to order them from anywhere. I never buy scallops that aren't dry anymore.

                                  I used to undercook them to avoid toughness, so they were often like scallop sushi in flavor, but I've decided I like a little of that toughness - at least on the outside. I use medium heat on an electric stove and a little bit of EVOO in either a cast iron or non-stick pan. I agree about keeping them separate. A little white wine and thyme to deglaze after cooking makes a nice sauce.

                                  One thing I've taken to doing is cutting the scallop in half or thirds crosswise as the big ones will become overcooked on the outside before the middle is cooked. I've tried all sorts of oils looking for the best flavour and have settled on EVOO with a lower cooking temperature. I don't flour or season the scallops.

                                  1. I always cook the large Sea scallops at home.

                                    I let them drain, and keep on a paper towel for another 10 minutes while I heat the pan. Just before I put them in the pan, I salt and pepper them. I heat 1 tblsp. butter in 2 tblsp. olive oil on medium heat. I cook them whole (never cut), for 2 min. on one side and 1 min. on the second side. I never cook more than 4 or 5 scallops at a time, giving them plenty of room in a 12 inch non-stick skillet.

                                    They come out really good. So little work, and so good. A little squeeze of lemon before I serve. yum.

                                    Good luck.

                                    1. So by now you've learned a bit about the scallops sold in most grocery stores. You can typcially see the milky white liquid that indicates that a scallop has been soaked in phosphate. They tend to have a kind of 'melty' appearance and they are not at all suitable for searing. You can use this kind of scallop for dishes with many ingredients and spicy flavors. A Fra Diavolo sauce is an appropriate use for this kind of item. Not only does the phosphate bath affect the texture of the scallop, and tell you that it is far less fresh than a dry scallop, it also affects the flavor - to me they taste vaguely metallic!

                                      If you want to sear scallops get dry scallops (diver scallops or day boat scallops) and use them right away. I've never had trouble finding them but I usually get them from a fishmonger. I've also been really lucky to find them in Asian markets for less than the fishmonger charges. You also can get them at Whole Foods and I'm sure that other good supermarkets offer them. It's worth making in inquiry on your local board to find a source.

                                      7 Replies
                                      1. re: Kater

                                        I've been reading this thread to try to find out why my scallops were so disappointing. They were large sea scallops purchased at a grocery store. My recipe said to brush with butter & lemon, season with salt & pepper and broil for 4 min on each side. They were so tasteless that they tasted like cooked egg whites. Also, I wonder if part of the problem was that I used unsalted butter?
                                        They were not dry or tough at all, just tasteless so I do not think they were overcooked, they were only slightly browned on some of the edges. Do you have any advice? (I will in the future try to take your advice about day boat scallops, but they may be difficult to find since we live in a small town.)

                                        1. re: joycrcc

                                          Costco has good frozen sea scallops without water logging in them. Have to thaw slowly, drain, dry before cooking. Good flavor, though.

                                          1. re: mcf

                                            These are my go to scallops. And I always have outstanding ones, using Ina Garten's Scallops Provencal. So easy to make and just amazing flavor. I am usually dining alone and the bag at Costco allows me to just take a few out of the bag at a time. They are never clumped together. Proper drying is the key, I agree with mcf.


                                            1. re: mcel215

                                              Yes, I've made that recipe, so simple and good!

                                              1. re: mcf

                                                mcf, most times I don't even use the shallots because they are not a staple in my house and the dish is still fabulous. It's my go to scallop dish.


                                                1. re: mcel215

                                                  I always have shallots, but I can see how it could work without them. I love to roast them high heat with other veggies.

                                          2. re: joycrcc

                                            broiling scallops for 8 minutes is complete overkill.

                                            pan-searing really is best and be generous with the salt.

                                        2. This is why I would never ever buy any type of seafood in a supermarket. It's all about shelf life and appearance for them. My local fishmonger buys daily from the wholesale fish market in NYC and everything is wonderful. Every time I've been tempted by price or appearance at the supermarket I've ended up with an inferior product.