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Problem browning (sea) scallops

I have a number of recipes which specify you brown the scallops as first step. I seem to be unable to achieve this. Every time I cook scallops they will not brown, but end up being poached (because the cooking scallops exude so much liquid) no matter how hot my pan or how much grease, butter, whatever I use. I have tried drying the scallops with paper towels, and using a small amount of scallops in pan. Nothing is working for me. The scallops are either from a seafood market or Costco. They have probably been frozen before I get them. Is there any cure for this problem that anyone knows of?

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  1. The problem is the scallops themselves. They have been soaked in a substance which will never allow them to be dry no matter how much blotting you do. You need what are often are called "diver" scallops, or "dry" or "day boat" and are much more expensive. They have not been chemically treated and you can expect to pay $20/lb and upwards. Ask before you buy. You will not find the really good scallops at Cosco and if your seafood market has the good stuff they usually advertise it.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Candy

      the solution for sauteed water-plumped sea scallops can be found in Julia Child's The Way to Cook, p114.

      1. re: Candy

        I have bought the Costco "road show" scallops several times recently. They browned beautifully for me without any flour. They are different colors,,beige, salmon, etc.

        I love the brown "goo" in the pan. I wonder what causes that yummy browning.

        1. re: Rhee

          That is the Maillard reaction, which you can read up on.

      2. My strategy for browning scallops is to use a dry (no oil, no butter) nonstick pan. The juices they exude carmelize and brown quite deliciously (and quickly -- a couple minutes per side is generally all that's needed).

        1 Reply
        1. re: Karen_Schaffer

          For wet scallops I do the same, dry are great but I can't always afford them for a large group and we get so many good prices on the others, I use that for every day dishes. We do get good scallops year round down here in FL. But yes. I don't use a nonstick, but just put like 1 teaspoon olive oil for a very large pan and heat on medium high to high. Let it get hot and then cook. Don't flip, the biggest problem. I just did some last night. I did let them dry on a paper towel for about 10-20 minutes or less if you don't have time, salt and pepper and nothing else. They were very brown on each side. NIce and caramel in cold and definitely only a couple of minutes per side. It is easy and I have never had a problem. I think the non stick would also work, I just never used mine. I either use my cast iron or my stainless.

        2. Personally I think browning should be the *only* step when it comes to cooking scallops, especially when they are fresh.

          For some reason, I never had that problem, for the few times I cooked scallops.

          How big are the ones you use? I assume that if the way you cook them gives liquid, the bigger ones would be more likely to do so. You might want to try flouring or breading them before searing them in the pan, which should be quite hot.

          Also, if they are really big, you might want to slice them into thick rounds, so that more browning happens and the juices evaporate more.

          3 Replies
          1. re: tarteaucitron

            Rice flour is perfect for this, very thin and light. I use it to pan fry all seafood.

            1. re: Funwithfood

              Pan fry with rice flour and then remove the scallops. Add 1 shallot thin sliced and brown. Add a little extra butter to the pan. Add 1/4 cup white wine, then some oj 1/2 cup and reduce slightly. Add some blood oranges (regular will be just fine if you cant get blood oranges) and fresh mint. Reduce slightly to thicken and then top over the scallops. I like to serve with fresh scallion potato cakes or even a simple Jasmine rice is fine cooked in some white wine and chicken broth to and added scallions to bring the flavors together.

          2. It's important when you buy scallops to only buy fresh ones. AND only those that are NOT sitting in a sea of liquid. As Candy said, many places offering scallops have purchased those that have been chemically treated to keep them "fresh" longer, and that whitish liquid you see has permeated them. They will never dry out, and in fact, often they have a faint "soapsuds" taste from the chemicals.

            Overcooking scallops is a frequent problem, in the attempt to brown those that will not brown! I'm guessing that Costco never has the "day boat" scallops. (I don't know, because I don't shop there.)

            4 Replies
            1. re: ChefJune

              The chemical (sodium triphosphate aka STP) is not so much to keep them fresh, but to enable the scallops to absorb the maximum amount of water so they can charge twice as much. Some frozen scallops are not treated, but you'd have to look on the label.
              If you go to your fish store and tell them you want dry scallops, they will know what you are talking about.
              PS if you live near the coast like me, maybe you can find nice fresh ones for $8.99 or so, which is what I pay.

              1. re: coll

                Buying fresh is not an option if you are inland. In a perfect world you'd want those fresh off the boat scallops. But that's not happening. So how to make the best out of what we have which is the basic STP treated scallops? I just bought some, confident I can find a way. They were frozen and only $10.99/lb. As to the water weight, my grocer (regular chain type grocery) took some weight off for the water absorbtion. Now if your grocer doesn't just do this, you might suggest it since you know there's a bunch of water weight there if the scallops are still frozen.

              2. re: ChefJune

                Buying fresh as June suggests is not an option inland, even if the scallops look fresh .
                I'm in the Toronto area and I can get untreated frozen scallops at Costco. The label is Nantucket, and they are day boat, at about $11/lb., running about $1 each. As long as they stay with this supplier, these are my goto scallops.

                1. re: jayt90

                  I agree, frozen are fine, as long as they are "dry" and not chemically treated, and then thoroughly dried with paper towels.

              3. Okay Kathy,
                Everyone has told you that the problem lies with the water infused scallops and that is true. But for someone who doesn't have access to diver scallops and are picking them up at their local market the question remains, is there a way to get good browning. Yes there is. First make sure you get them as dry as possible with lots of paper towels. I give them a light coat in Wondra or rice flour which helps to keep the surface dry. Don't over crowd the pan to allow any exuded liquid a chance to evaporate and use butter which promotes browning better than oil to saute.

                3 Replies
                1. re: scubadoo97

                  This is the key, and I'm surprised that only one person said it. It's a light dusting of flour, and not futzing with them in the pan. Put the flour on a plate, pat one side with flour, pat the other side, then "toss" the scallop between your hands to get the excess off. Place into hot oiled pan, and do not touch them for 2 whole minutes. Sounds easy, but it's not. Flip, do the same thing.

                  1. re: cheesemonger

                    IMO, a scallop that's been cooked for 4 minutes is way-overcooked.

                  2. re: scubadoo97

                    I agree wondra is the best wegmans also has pan searing flour with I am assuming is very close to wondra. Always look for scallops more cream colored instead of stark white that means they usually have not been treated and will try and cook much better.

                  3. We often buy scallops from Costco because they're inexpensive and convenient. We just don't have time to drive half an hour after work to get to the local seafood market (and then drive home AND cook dinner). You can get brown scallops starting with Costco scallops. Will they be as phenomenal as the ones from a great market? No. Will they be tasty and make you happy? Yes.

                    First, you have to drain the scallops at least 8 hours. Place them between layers of paper towels in a dish and stick them in the fridge. If I remember, I'll do this the night before I want to cook them. Otherwise, I've done it before leaving for work and that's been fine, too. This will suck out most of the moisture in the scallops, but it will be okay.

                    Now, get your pan nice and hot. Depending on how much I want to clean, I'll either use my enameled cast iron pan or a non-stick pan. Hot. Hot hot hot. Then, drizzle in either vegetable oil or olive oil. Butter will burn too quickly. Add the scallops in a single layer and cook for maybe 2 minutes on the first side. Flip them over and cook another 1 minute. As the second side is cooking, this is when I'll add some butter (for flavor) and salt. If you want a decadent sauce, drizzle in some apricot brandy and mix it all around.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: leanneabe

                      actually I usually start the saute wirh olive oil then add butter near the end. I find you don't have to cook them on the highest heat but hot enough to get good color in as you mentioned around 2 min or so.

                      1. re: scubadoo97

                        I like to add the butter early enough that it burns a little, helps with the brown coloring.

                        1. re: coll

                          I sear my scallops in bacon fat. Works like a charm.

                      2. re: leanneabe

                        Good point on the drying. I am lucky that my local store I they are in water, wrap them in paper put also put a small paper in between which does absorb the liquid. And I always remove mine and put them in a dish with a paper bottom again to absorb liquid. But usually I eat them that night. Good idea with the drying.

                      3. I just made scallops last week. They were frozen from Trader Joe's. I put them in the fridge in the morning but they were still somewhat frozen so ran them under a little cold water then blotted them dry on paper towels. I sprinkled with a little salt/pepper, heated a non-stick pan with a little olive oil and butter over medium high heat. Added the scallops and left them for about 2-3 minutes, turned, another couple of minutes, a squeeze of fresh lemon and they were browned and perfect. I saw on the Food Channel one time, Emeril, I think that if you dip them in a little sugar before cooking it caramelizes them and helps brown. I haven't tried it, but???

                        1. Neither the Kirkland frozen scallops nor the roadshow scallops is treated with STP. This is a point of pride with Costco, and I've read about it in their magazine (and on the packaging of their frozen scallops.) But both have been frozen, which accounts for the extra fluid. I agree with the recommendation to coat them lightly in flour first--and of course, pat them dry with paper towels after they are thawed. The same divers' scallops, unfrozen, are double the price in a good seafood store, so the frozen option--while not perfect--avoids the chemical "plumping" that takes place in supermarkets.

                          8 Replies
                          1. re: teachertalk

                            i generally don't like recipes that require some kind of work-around. however, i do like scallops and usually can't buy the dry, untreated ones. i press them under a lightly weighted plate for a couple of hours, then sprinkle them with a bit of sugar and pan-cook them with bacon. i'd use the bacon even if it didn't help with the color just because it tastes good.

                            1. re: teachertalk

                              I always have the Kirkland frozen scallops in my freezer, thaw them out with paper towels to catch the liquid.

                              Ina's Provencal Seared Scallops are fantastic using the Kirkland brand. Thanks for the info.

                              1. re: mcel215

                                Living where I do, frozen scallops are the only real option when I want scallops. I buy the Kirkland ones, drain them very very well on paper towels and flour them lightly before searing. I also use that Ina Garten recipe which we absolutely love. The scallops do exude a lot of water in the thawing, but the package says that nothing has been added to them. Each scallop does seem to have a shell of ice when you thaw them, so I suspect they've been lightly coated before freezing to keep them separate.

                              2. re: teachertalk

                                I bought frozen scallops from Costco's roadshow and they had definitely been treated with STP. To start with, they were a pure white colour, which is a dead give-away. A non -treated scallop will be off-white, sometimes even slightly orange. The also had the bitter STP taste which I am particularly sensitive to. So I'd say that Costco may be misrepresenting. Or perhaps what they sell varies from region to region.

                                1. re: jcolvin

                                  I should add, I am in Canada. Perhaps the USA Costco roadshow scallops are drypack.

                                  1. re: jcolvin

                                    The frozen bags they sell contain off white and even orange scallops, and the bag says non treated, from Nantucket.

                                    1. re: jayt90

                                      I was told that the orange scallops are female

                                2. My sister lives in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, within walking distance from the docks where the scalloping fleet sails. Only one boat there sells a limited amount of fresh scallops, the rest are frozen as they are harvested. Frankly, down here in CT, I'd much rather buy scallops that were frozen as soon as they were caught than so-called fresh ones that had been sitting around for a few days.

                                  1. I just bought frozen sea scallops at Wegman's. I checked the bag and they have not been chemically treated. It says right on the bag...no chemicals and when you check the ingredients, sea scallops are the only item listed.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: christiemey

                                      AFAIK in the USA scallops treated with STP do not have to be labelled as such unless the water content is over 80%, in which case they have to say "added water". So you can't rely on the label to tell you if they've been treated or not.

                                    2. Was making Costco scallops tonite and came to Chow (of course!) to cruise the subject. I also went to AmericasTestKitchen.com and learned that the way to tell if scallops are "wet" with chemical treatment is to dry a scallop with paper towels, place it on a fresh paper towel on a plate, and microwave it on high for 15 seconds. A wet scallop will leave a wet ring around it on the paper towel and the dry scallop will not.

                                      BTW, the Costco scallops WERE dry.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. I use an eye dropper and a really hot cast iron skillet.....I take use the eye dropper to drop water onto the pan....when the water drops onto the pan dances for a second and evaporates your ready to drop the scollops on but be careful....you can easily burn them

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Grendal

                                          I do the same thing but just wet my fingers and shake them over the pan--if the drops roll it's hot. But Grendal, you don't mention oil/butter...do you use one?

                                        2. I am making bacon wrapped scallops for our Seven Fishes Christmas Eve dinner. Would you suggest pan searing the scallops first? Should I partially cook the bacon? What temperature and for how long should I cook the wrapped scallops?

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: ilv2cookhelvs2eat

                                            I would--I've had bacon wrapped scallops that were not seared first, and they weren't that great--I really missed the sear. So I think you will have to mostly cook the bacon, since if you seared the scallops and wrapped them in raw bacon the scallop will overcook. I would do a few sacrificial ones to figure out how much you can cook the bacon so that it will still wrap. Maybe cook the bacon until done but still pliable, then finish it under the broiler?

                                            1. re: christy319

                                              Good, that is what I thought too....searing always gives such nice flavor. The scallops will be really large, do you still think broiling is the way to go?

                                            2. re: ilv2cookhelvs2eat

                                              This is a tough one to get right so I avoid it but....I would parcook the bacon so it is as cooked as possible yet still soft enough to wrap around the scallop. Then go ahead and quickly sear them and then roll along the bacon edge to finish cooking. Of course, you will need pretty big scallops if you don't want them to be overcooked and that could make this a messy dish to eat as finger food--you'd probably want a knife and fork.

                                              1. re: escondido123

                                                Agreed!! it is part of the dinner, so everyone will have cutlery.....

                                            3. There was also something on the ATK scallop show about soaking STP-treated ones - in water with, I think, lemon juice - to counteract the taste from the STP, which cannot be removed. After that came the paper towels and the nuking to get out more of the water.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: greygarious

                                                Costco has a great price on really good dry sea scallops. No bloat.

                                              2. Funny you should ask - I just made seared sea scallops last night for dinner. Bought them at my local supermarket, where they've always been unbelievably fresh & flavorful. While their scallops (along with pretty much all markets these days) have a sign stating that they're NOT soaked in phosphate chemicals, they can (like many of us females) retain water weight.

                                                What I do is rinse them quickly & then pat them thoroughly dry in a thick layer of paper towels. I then dust them LIGHTLY with regular flour seasoned with some lemon pepper & place them in a hot cast-iron pan filmed with a little extra-virgin olive oil & butter. Two to three minutes on each side at the most. Terrific!

                                                1. Buy scallops elsewhere. They've been chemically
                                                  treated to retain water. Though for some
                                                  reason this legal. it is outright fraud. Purveyers of
                                                  such stuff are crooks.

                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: mpalmer6c

                                                    Uh - sorry,but if signs are up that the scallops haven't been chemically treated, they haven't been chemically treated. The fines are outrageous for scamming this way, & markets aren't into it.

                                                    1. re: Breezychow

                                                      If the scallops lose a lot of size, they're treated with salt solution.

                                                    2. re: mpalmer6c

                                                      Costco says they never buy salt solution bloated scallops. I like their sea scallops.