Published November 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.
Why this recipe works:
Producing crisp-crusted restaurant-style scallops means overcoming two obstacles: chemically treated scallops and weak stovetops. We wanted to achieve superior pan-seared scallops that had a perfectly brown crust and no hint of off-flavors. We decided to work with wet scallops (those that are… read more
Producing crisp-crusted restaurant-style scallops means overcoming two obstacles: chemically treated scallops and weak stovetops. We wanted to achieve superior pan-seared scallops that had a perfectly brown crust and no hint of off-flavors. We decided to work with wet scallops (those that are chemically treated with STP, a solution of water and sodium tripolyphosphate, to increase shelf life and retain moisture) first. If we could develop a good recipe for finicky wet scallops, it would surely work with premium dry (untreated) scallops. We found that waiting to add the scallops to the skillet until the oil was beginning to smoke, cooking the scallops in two batches instead of one, and switching to a nonstick skillet were all steps in the right direction. But it wasn’t until we tried a common restaurant technique—butter basting—that our scallops really improved. We seared the scallops in oil on one side and added butter to the skillet after flipping them. (Butter contains milk proteins and sugars that brown rapidly when heated.) We then used a large spoon to ladle the foaming butter over the scallops. Waiting to add the butter ensured that it had just enough time to work its browning magic on the scallops, but not enough time to burn. Next we addressed the lingering flavor of STP. Unable to rinse it away, we decided to mask it by soaking the scallops in a saltwater brine containing lemon juice. For dry scallops, we simply skipped the soaking step and proceeded with the recipe.less
We strongly recommend purchasing “dry” scallops (those without chemical additives). If you can only find “wet” scallops, soak them in a solution of 1 quart cold water, 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons table salt for 30 minutes before proceeding with step 1. In step 2, season the scallops with pepper only. If you are unsure whether your scallops are wet or dry, conduct this quick test: Place 1 scallop on a paper towel-lined, microwave-safe plate and microwave on high power for 15 seconds. If the scallop is “dry,” it will exude very little water. If it is “wet,” there will be a sizable ring of moisture on the paper towel. (The microwaved scallop can be cooked as is.) Prepare the sauce (if serving) while the scallops dry (between steps 1 and 2) and keep it warm while cooking them. For an accompaniment, use one of our recipes for Orange-Lime Vinaigrette, Ginger Butter Sauce, and Caper-Mustard Sauce.
1. Place scallops on rimmed baking sheet lined with clean dish towel. Place second clean dish towel on top of scallops and press gently on towel to blot liquid. Let scallops sit at room temperature for 10 minutes while towels absorb moisture.
2. Sprinkle scallops on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat until just smoking. Add half of scallops in single layer, flat side down, and cook, without moving them, until well browned, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.
3. Add 1 tablespoon butter to skillet. Using tongs, flip scallops; continue to cook, using large spoon to baste scallops with melted butter (tilt skillet so butter runs to 1 side) until sides of scallops are firm and centers are opaque and register 115 degrees, 30 to 90 seconds longer (remove smaller scallops as they finish cooking). Transfer scallops to large plate and tent loosely with aluminum foil. Wipe out skillet with paper towels and repeat with remaining oil, scallops, and butter. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.
Going For a Soak
So-called wet scallops have been treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), which lends a disagreeable flavor. Could we get rid of the STP by soaking the scallops in water?
We prepared three batches of “wet” scallops, soaking the first in a quart of water for 30 minutes, soaking the second for an hour, and leaving the third untreated. We then cooked each batch according to our recipe and sent them to a lab to be analyzed for STP content.
The scallops soaked for 30 minutes only had about 10 percent less STP than the untreated batch, and soaking for a full hour wasn’t much better: Only about 11 percent of the STP was removed. Tasters were still able to clearly identify an unpleasant chemical flavor in both soaked samples.
The phosphates in STP form a chemical bond with the proteins in scallops. The bonds are so strong that they prevent the STP from being washed away, no matter how long the scallops are soaked.
Rather than try to remove the chemical taste from STP-treated scallops, we masked it by soaking them in a solution of lemon juice, water, and salt.