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.

Seared Scallops with Browned Butter and Capers on Simply Recipes

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!

Seared Sea Scallops with Browned Butter Caper Sauce Recipe

  • Prep time: 5 minutes
  • Cook time: 25 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 3 to 4.

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.

Ingredients

  • 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.

Method

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

21 Comments

  1. Joshua Hampton

    Those scallops look beautiful. Searing them can be quite a challenge for me. Thanks for the tips and the recipe.

  2. John B

    Really, it’s worth visiting your site just to see your collection of serving dishes. And your photography.

    I will cook this tonight.

    • Elise

      Thanks John! I sort of have a ceramics habit, which creating this site helps me indulge.

  3. Mary M

    I have had excellent success making browned butter in the microwave – no hovering, so I can do something else while it browns. I use a tall 1-liter GLASS measuring vessel (mine is from IKEA and I adore it). A stick of butter generally takes 3 and a half minutes on high to brown. I would start with 3 since microwaves have varying power. It has worked every time – I have never burned it yet. If it’s not brown enough, you can put it back for a few seconds. Love it, and it makes far less mess! Oh, yes, I cover the container with a folded paper towel in case of sputtering.

    • Elise

      Hi Mary, what a great idea, thank you for sharing! If you use glass or Pyrex you can easily see when the butter begins to brown, so there is less likelihood of burning it. I’ll have to try it next time.

  4. sammy

    That’s looks absolutely amazing. Do you serve that with pasta or as a appetizer with bread. I’m think I’m salivating on my computer. :(

    • Elise

      A side of pasta with a little of the browned butter sauce drizzled over it would be great!

  5. Tom Landshof

    additional comments about scallops:
    There are three main varieties of scallops, sea, bay, and calico. Sea scallops available year-round look like ivory squat marshmallows about 1 inch in diameter. Bay scallops, only available late fall till mid winter, are small cork-shaped about ½ inch in diameter and are quite expensive. Calico scallops are small, less than ½ inch across and taller than they are wide, available year-round, inexpensive, and not very good. They are often sold as “bays” but are not.

    In addition to choosing the right type of scallop, you should also be aware of processing. Most scallops are dipped in a phosphate solution which extends shelf life but harms the flavor and texture and causes them to absorb water. This makes it almost impossible to brown them in a skillet as they shed liquid and steam. Unprocessed scallops, also called dry scallops, are naturally ivory or pinkish, not bright white like processed ones. Dry scallops should be just that, dry not sitting in a milky white liquid. They are sticky and flabby

  6. Iris Damai

    Thank you for the lovely post! I’ve loved scallops ever-since I can remember (grew up in an Italian, fish loving family)…but I never had the courage to make them myself because of the “rubbery” fear. This post gives me comfort. It has been years since I’ve enjoyed a scallop. I’m on it! Happy days to you. -Iris

  7. Becky

    You have inspired me, I’m going to try my hand at it this weekend! The Comments to this are so good too, all very helpful and nice! I do second the question of what to serve this with… is using the same brown butter sauce on pasta too much? Of course a fresh veggie like asparagus and some crunch bread would be amazing. Thanks so much!

    • Elise

      Hi Becky, I think a little of that browned butter sauce on a side of pasta would be AWESOME.

  8. Jen

    Since we live in the same city,will you come cook for me? this is awesome looking! I can’t wait to try it using all your tips-Thank you!

  9. Diane

    Elise, you’ve done it again! I can hardly wait to get some scallops & make this. I must add that EVERY recipe of yours that I’ve made has been a hit with my family & me. Thanks!

  10. Sandy S

    Scallops, butter and capers! Works for me! A glass of wine and a little spring salad and I am good to go. Thank you for the excellent instructions (as always) and the reminder to pay attention when I put the scallops in the pan. This is not the time to clean out the bottom shelf of the fridge or send a quick text! Looking forward to having yummy tender scallops. May try a few seared with coconut oil.

  11. Steven

    Mmmmm….I could swim in that browned butter-caper sauce!

  12. Karen Nelson

    Elise…
    living in Sacramento….where do you purchase your scallops?
    Thank you…

    • Elise

      Hi Karen, the two places I usually get scallops are Sunh Fish at V and 19th and Whole Foods at Arden and Eastern. If you haven’t been to Sunh Fish, I highly recommend it. Best quality wholesale seafood in the area.

  13. fabiola@notjustbaked

    I love this plate! I also have a love affair with these beautiful scallops. I just ordered some this weekend , they are huge! The restaurant served them with leeks, asparagus and risotto.

  14. Aom

    Scallops are my all time favorite and this plate is killing me! I want to dive in it!

    I love your cooking, Elise. I visit your websit almost everyday! All my cookings are from your recipes! Thank you!

  15. Kelly Senyei | Just a Taste

    This dish might just be one of my favorites on the planet! Pinned, saved, and will be made ASAP!

  16. Arthur in the Garden!

    Nice!

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