Published November 1, 2009.
Juicy, crisp-crusted perfection means overcoming two obstacles: chemically treated scallops and weak stovetops.
This simple restaurant dish doesn’t translate to home kitchens. Most stovetops don’t get hot enough to properly brown the scallops without overcooking them. Also, the scallops in most supermarkets are “wet”, which means they’ve been treated with a solution of water and sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), which increases their shelf life and retains moisture⎯but also lends a soapy, chemical, off-flavor to the scallops.
We wanted to achieve superior pan-seared scallops that had a perfectly brown crust and no hint of STP’s chemical taste.
Since small scallops are more prone to overcooking, we opted for the biggest commonly available size: 10 to 20 per pound. We decided to work with wet scallops first. If we could develop a good recipe for finicky wet scallops, it would surely work with premium dry scallops.
In order to brown, the scallops needed to be dry. After numerous failed attempts at draining and blotting the waterlogged shellfish, it became clear that to dry them out, we’d have to get the pan as hot as possible. Without a high-output range, it was important to pay close attention to technique. 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 (so that the browned bits formed a crust on the meat instead of sticking to the skillet) were all steps in the right direction, but the scallops were still overcooked and rubbery by the time they were fully browned.
Butter contains milk proteins and sugars that brown rapidly when heated, so we hoped that it would help the scallops turn golden before they overcooked. When simply searing the shellfish in it resulted in burnt butter and uncooked scallops, we switched to a common restaurant technique: butter-basting. We seared the scallops in oil on one side and added butter to the skillet after flipping them, tilting the skillet to allow the butter to pool. 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 try to mask it. The phosphate in STP is alkaline. What if we covered it up by putting acidic lemon juice in a saltwater brine? Problem solved. The scallops were well-seasoned and tasted chemical-free.
With our wet scallop approach established, it was finally time to test our recipe on dry scallops. We skipped the soaking step, which was unnecessary in the absence of STP, and proceeded with the recipe. It produced scallops that rivaled those made on a powerful restaurant range, with golden brown exteriors and juicy and tender interiors.list of recipes