Seared Sea Scallops with Browned Butter Caper Sauce
A beautifully seared scallop is a delight to behold and a pleasure to eat. It can be just a little challenging to accomplish though. First, you need to start with good quality “dry packed” scallops, or natural scallops, not “wet packed” that are soaked in preservatives. The scallops should be fresh and sweet smelling, not fishy, or you are buying scallops that are past their use-by date.
To get a good sear, you need a strong burner, and a relatively stick-free pan that can withstand the heat, such as a well-seasoned cast iron pan, or a hard anodized aluminum pan. You also need a cooking oil with a high smoke point, such as canola oil, grape seed, or rice bran oil. Scallops are naturally moist, so it takes high heat to sear them properly. If the heat isn’t high enough, your scallops will be overcooked and rubbery by the time they’re browned.
Once you’ve mastered the technique of searing scallops, the world is your “scallop” so to speak. The scallops are perfect just as they are, with perhaps a squirt of lemon. Or you can take them a notch higher, as we’ve done here with this sauce of browned butter, white wine, lemon zest, and capers.
The browned butter enhances the natural butteriness of the scallops, while the wine, lemon, and capers help cut through the richness of the scallops. Enjoy!
When shopping for scallops, choose only scallops that have a fresh, sweet smell. If they smell fishy, they're not fresh and they won't taste good. If you have a choice, look for "dry pack" instead of "wet pack" scallops. The dry pack scallops will sear well. The wet pack ones are almost impossible to get a good sear on.
The trick to cooking scallops is to sear them on very high heat. If the heat isn't high enough, the scallops will take too long to brown, and get overcooked and rubbery.
- 6 Tbsp (3 ounces) unsalted butter
- 2 Tbsp canola oil, rice bran oil, or other high smoke point oil
- 1 pound sea scallops (about a dozen)*
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 Tbsp capers, drained
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest
*Sea scallops are the large scallops (about 1 1/2 inches wide), different from their much smaller cousins, bay scallops.
1 Brown the butter. Cut up the butter into pieces (a tablespoon each or so) and place in a stainless steel saucepan. Melt the butter on medium heat. Allow the butter to foam up and recede. Watch carefully. After a few minutes, the milk solids will form and sink to the bottom. Once the milk solids begin to turn caramel-colored brown, the butter will have a lovely nutty aroma. Remove from heat and pour the browned butter into a separate bowl to stop the cooking. (Pay attention. If you wait too long, you'll have blackened butter, not browned butter.) Set aside.
2 Remove the "foot" of the scallop from each scallop. (The foot is a small tough piece of meat that attaches the scallop to the shell.) Pat dry the scallops.
3 Heat the oil in a cast iron pan or hard-anodized aluminum sauté pan on high heat. When the oil is shimmery hot (not quite smoking hot, but close), pat dry the scallops again and carefully place them in the pan, flat side down. (If the oil gets so hot that it does begin to smoke, remove the pan from the heat, and turn down the heat a notch before returning the pan to the burner.) You may need to work in batches so you don't crowd the pan.
Once you've placed the scallops in the pan, do not move them. Allow them to sear. Once you can see that the edges of the scallops touching the pan have browned, use tongs to turn the scallops over and sear the other side. Depending on the size of the scallops and the heat of your burner, this should take 3 to 4 minutes per side. Once both sides are browned, remove the scallops to a warm plate, and turn off the burner.
4 Pour out the remaining oil from the pan, leaving any browned bits in the pan. Add the white wine to the pan and return the pan to the burner on high heat. Let the wine boil and reduce until you have 2 tablespoons of liquid left in the pan. Then turn off the heat, add the capers, lemon zest, and browned butter to the pan. Swirl to combine.
5 Place scallops on serving plates and pour sauce over them. Serve immediately.