Pan-Seared Scallops with Lemon Butter
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Pan-seared scallops make a restaurant-worthy meal, and they’re easy to make at home.
Pan-seared scallops make an elegant dinner with hardly any effort. Like a perfect steak or good pan-seared piece of fish, they don’t require fancy sauces or extra ingredients to make them taste good – just the right technique to cook them properly. The key is to sear them in a very hot pan and resist the urge to fiddle with them as they cook. Letting them sear untouched creates a flavorful, caramelized exterior and tender interior. To finish the dish, a simple lemon-butter pan sauce is all you need. Citrus works beautifully with scallops as it both highlights their briny sweetness and tempers their natural richness. Feel free to experiment with different citrus flavors like lime, grapefruit, orange, or a combination. You can also dress your scallops up with fresh herbs, like tarragon, chives, thyme, basil, dill, or parsley. Pan-seared scallops are wonderful paired with risotto or crusty bread, a green salad, and a crisp white wine.
What You’ll Need To Make Pan-Seared Scallops with Lemon Butter
There are two kinds of scallops – bay and sea scallops. Bay scallops are about the size of a dime and sea scallops can have a diameter of up to about 2 inches. Bay scallops are pretty rare and pricey; they are typically used in casseroles and seafood stews. Sea scallops, called for here, are what you’ll likely get when you order scallops at a restaurant.
When purchasing scallops, look for the “dry” or “dry-packed” variety. Some scallops on the market are dipped in a solution to extend shelf life. The scallops end up absorbing the water in the solution, increasing the price and causing the scallops to leak moisture when cooked (which will keep them from developing a nicely caramelized crust). Quality seafood markets typically carry dry scallops but don’t usually label them; if you’re uncertain of what to buy, ask your fishmonger.
You’ll want to purchase scallops just a day or two before you plan to cook them as they are very perishable. When fresh, they have a briny ocean smell, and when they start to spoil, they will smell more fishy.
Scallops have a small muscle on the side. I always remove them because particles of sand can get caught between the scallop and the muscle.
Remove the tiny side muscle where sand can hide and rinse the scallops, if necessary (some scallops already have the muscle removed). Dry the scallops very well with a paper towel.
Heat a large cast iron pan or thick-bottom nonstick sauté pan over medium high heat until very hot. (Use two pans if necessary to keep scallops from crowding.) Do not use stainless steel, as the scallops will likely stick. Add the olive oil and ½ tablespoon of the butter, and swirl to coat the pan.
Place the scallops in the pan and season with half of the salt and pepper.
Sear on the first side, without touching or flipping, for about 3 minutes, or until golden. Using tongs, turn the scallops over, season with the remaining salt and pepper, and sear for 1 to 2 minutes more, until the scallops are just cooked through.
Move the scallops to a plate. Remove the pan from the heat and add the remaining butter to the skillet. Add the lemon juice and swirl the pan a few times, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon.
Add the scallops back in the skillet, baste with the sauce to warm, and then divide onto 4 plates, using all the sauce. Garnish with lemon wedges, if desired.
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Pan-Seared Scallops with Lemon Butter
Pan-seared scallops make a restaurant-worthy meal, and they’re easy to make at home.
- 12 to 16 dry sea scallops (about ¾ lb. see note)
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 tablespoons butter, divided
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)
- Remove the tiny, tough side muscle where sand can hide and rinse the scallops if necessary (some scallops are sold with the muscle already removed). Dry the scallops very well with a paper towel, as moisture can impede browning.
- Heat a large cast iron pan or thick-bottom nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat until very hot. (Heat two pans if necessary to keep scallops from crowding.) Add the olive oil and ½ tablespoon of the butter, and swirl to coat the pan. Place the scallops in the pan and season with ⅛ teaspoon salt and ⅛ teaspoon pepper. Sear on the first side, without touching or flipping, for about 3 minutes, or until golden. Using tongs, turn the scallops over, season with the remaining ⅛ teaspoon salt and ⅛ teaspoon pepper, and sear for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the scallops are just cooked through.
- Move the scallops to a plate. Remove the pan from the heat and add the remaining 3½ tablespoons butter to the skillet. As the butter is melting, add the lemon juice and swirl the pan a few times, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon.
- Add the scallops back in the skillet, baste with the sauce to warm, and then divide onto 4 plates, using all the sauce. Garnish with lemon wedges, if desired.
- Note: When purchasing scallops, look for the “dry” or “dry-packed” variety. Some scallops on the market are dipped in a solution to extend shelf life. The scallops end up absorbing the water in the solution, increasing the price and causing the scallops to leak moisture when cooked (which will keep them from developing a beautifully caramelized exterior). Quality seafood markets typically carry dry scallops but don’t usually label them; if you're uncertain of what to buy, ask your fishmonger.
- Variation: For even more flavor, you can brown the butter to make a brown butter lemon sauce. Before cooking the scallops, start the sauce by adding 3½ tablespoons of the butter to a small, thick-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil, and then simmer on medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes. You will notice foaming and then milk particles will begin to drop to the bottom. When the butter turns golden and starts to smell nutty, it’s done. Set aside for a minute or two. Strain through the finest strainer you have to remove the brown bits. (It’s called “brown butter,” but a key to browning butter is to remove when it is golden, before it paradoxically turns brown and burns.) Set the strained butter aside and proceed with the recipe, adding the browned butter to the pan after cooking the scallops.
- Per serving (4 servings)
- Serving size: 4 scallops
- Calories: 202
- Fat: 15 g
- Saturated fat: 8 g
- Carbohydrates: 4 g
- Sugar: 0 g
- Fiber: 0 g
- Protein: 12 g
- Sodium: 394 mg
- Cholesterol: 55 mg
This website is written and produced for informational purposes only. I am not a certified nutritionist and the nutritional data on this site has not been evaluated or approved by a nutritionist or the Food and Drug Administration. Nutritional information is offered as a courtesy and should not be construed as a guarantee. The data is calculated through an online nutritional calculator, Edamam.com. Although I do my best to provide accurate nutritional information, these figures should be considered estimates only. Varying factors such as product types or brands purchased, natural fluctuations in fresh produce, and the way ingredients are processed change the effective nutritional information in any given recipe. Furthermore, different online calculators provide different results depending on their own nutrition fact sources and algorithms. To obtain the most accurate nutritional information in a given recipe, you should calculate the nutritional information with the actual ingredients used in your recipe, using your preferred nutrition calculator.
Very informative, simple step-by-step instructions and easy to make, They were delicious! Thank you Jenn!
I have used this simple preparation twice and it is absolutely spot on! I never bothered with lemon juice in the sauce previously,but just a little really kicks up the flavor.
The salt in this receive is way too much, it ruined my scallops… they were VERY salty!
Another great recipe from Jenn. First time we made scallops, followed Jenn’s recipe exactly and success! Scallops were nicely browned on outside, moist and tender inside. Perfection.
Delicious!! Followed the recipe exactly and they turned out perfect.
Made as directed, used frozen, thawed and dried on layers of paper towels scallops. I think I had the pan too hot as they got a lot darker than yours in half the time! I always use cast iron. It was simple, but fabulous!
Amazing! so delicious and easy to make. Honestly, I don’t think I can make these any other way!
Great, simple, delicious. My wife and I have these new favorite scallops. We’re making these for our adult children over the holidays.
This recipe for scallops was a huge hit! Restaurant quality indeed. I made it as written, using a cast iron skillet, previously frozen scallops and the brown butter lemon sauce technique. Using a bunch of paper towels and a half hour uncovered in the fridge before cooking, I ensured that the scallops were dry enough to gain a nice sear as pictured here. I’ll never make ’em any other way again. Thanks, as always, Jenn.
Would monkfish medallions work in this recipe?
Sure — please LMK how it turns out with monkfish!
It’s amazing how something so simple can be so delicious. Loved this recipe!
Thanks for the info about the fact that they add a substance to keep them longer on the shelf–
My husband and daughter share a birthday and they both wanted me to cook scallops for dinner. So, I relied on this recipe knowing that Once Upon a Chef is so tried and true. Indeed, the dish was an enormous success. Thanks for making so many of us look good, Jenn Segal! Her dishes are always a success, always a hit. Her tips are always helpful, even for experienced cooks. Continues to be one of the best cooking blogs around.
Made this recipe exactly as shared – added diced lemon zest before serving. Everyone loved it. Looked for a recipe my Mom would have loved, she loved scallops any style. I think she would have approved!
I couldn’t have said it any better!
Jenn, my family and friends continually praise my cooking & baking …I always rely on your 2 books & website 😊
THANK YOU for your steady supply of great recipes accompanied by all the wonderful tips!
Thank you both for your nice comments — so glad you like the recipes!
I concur. You know you can trust a recipe will be delicious for guests before even trying it out first. Love your recipes, Jenn!
Over it ,cut the butter in roughly half , for 4 big scallops about 10.5 Oz best scallops I have ever made .
Can I use frozen scallops?
Sure, Beth, I think frozen scallops would work here. Just make sure that after you’ve thawed them, you dry them very thoroughly with a paper towel. I’d love to hear how they turn out!
I made these last night and they turned out perfectly! So simple and quick. The lemon-butter sauce makes these next level. Thank you for another delicious recipe!
I had given up making scalllops at home because I could never get a good sear. Made these tonight and they were perfection! Heating the pan till it was super hot BEFORE adding oil and butter made all the difference. Thanks for that tip!
Couldn’t be easier or more delicious. As with pan-seared filet, etc., LISTEN TO THE CHEF: Use a cast iron pan!! Even an All-Clad skillet didn’t work nearly as well as Mom’s 80-plus-year-old “WagnerWare” (available on eBay, cheap) hand-me-down or Le Creuset cast iron.
I struggle with searing (until they look like your photo) without the butter burning and ruining the future of the pan sauce. Do you have a suggestion for that?
Hi Anna, I use a combination of oil and butter to help keep the butter from burning. It will brown a little bit but shouldn’t burn. Just make sure you get the pan really hot before add the butter and oil. If you’d like, you can use only oil; just keep in mind the scallops won’t brown as much with just oil. Hope that helps!