How To Cook Sea Scallops Without Ruining Them: The Case Against Bacon

Step one is hiring a sinister shifty-eyed fellow with a pencil mustache to remove the bacon from your refrigerator and hide it somewhere in your home where you cannot find it. OK, so he does not have to have a pencil mustache. But it will be awesomer if he does.

Bacon and "Bold Flavors" stand astride our food landscape like twin colossus...es? Colossi? Coloradans?—point is, everything is Bacon and "Bold Flavors" these days, goddammit, and many things are both Bacon and "Bold Flavors" at the same time. Which, hey, this is understandable, if unfortunate: Bacon is very tasty, after all, and making foods taste bold is much easier than discerning and coaxing to clearest expression what makes them taste good, particularly for a people as distrustful of Things That Are Good as we cultural descendants of the Puritans. Who can tell from good? Or, more precisely, who has time and energy and attentional bandwidth to pursue good, when for half the effort and a tenth the time you can just drown your foodstuffs in garlic salt and bacon and condensed herb oil and Uncle Chuck's Signature XXXtreme Chipotle-Vodka White Truffle Rémoulade® and make them taste a lot?

This, dear friends, is how we came to be where we are now, where all the foods, even the friggin' desserts, taste like bacon and adobo sauce and balsamic vinegar. This is how we came to inhabit a world in which a frosted dudebro chow-clown whose range of human expression is limited entirely to the varying altitudes at which he aims his finger-guns can serve us sashimi—that great and perfect totem of simplicity and directness—beneath something called Donkey Sauce in a fucking taco. This, in short, is a pretty lousy place to be.

And no single foodstuff is more poorly served, more unjustly burdened, by this lousy spot than the sea scallop, which scarcely can be found anymore except where it is wrapped in a pound of bacon, skewered like an Ottoman in Wallachia, and grilled mercilessly, probably also like an Ottoman in Wallachia, so that it tastes like bacon and bold grilled flavors brah! and nothing else. Our zeal for baconating every last corner of the food landscape has rendered the poor sea scallop—so mild and subtle, so delicate and delicious, so friggin' expensive—a mere delivery vehicle for the same goddamn smoky pork we're already getting with every other ingestible we consume.

Which is frankly absurd, not least because, if all you're looking for is something pale, mild-flavored, and proteinaceous to chaperone bacon to your stomach without making a big fuss about it, an over-easy egg will do the same job for a fraction of the price—but also and more importantly because, dammit, the sea scallop doesn't need bacon. In fact, the sea scallop is better without bacon. Think of the sea scallop as the food equivalent of an interesting and attractive person with fascinating stories to tell of a life well and richly lived; a bacon-wrapped scallop is that same person, trying to tell you those stories during a fucking Nickelback concert.

Listen. Sea scallops are delicious, and they are delicious entirely by themselves. The great, tragic irony of the ubiquitous bacon-wrapped sea scallop is that, truthfully, a fresh sea scallop needs less from you—less accompaniment, less adornment, less cooking—than damn near anything else you can prepare in your kitchen in order to be a perfect, perfectly satisfying food. So. Don't wrap it in bacon. Don't marinate it in adobo sauce or glaze it with balsamic vinegar or stick it in a fucking taco shell. Just sear it and eat it.

Literally right this instant. They're in season! Let's get started.


So your home's supply of bacon is secreted away somewhere, safe and sound and steadily putrefying in the warmth. Great. Now, acquire sea scallops. You'll want, say, somewhere between three and six sea scallops per person, depending on their size and your appetite for things that are good. Unlike with some other varieties of seafood, bigger scallops will serve you better here; they won't overcook as easily, and they'll be more satisfying to eat.

These can be frozen or not; if they are frozen, you will of course be required to thaw them before you do anything else to them. As with other frozen seafood, the more slowly you thaw your sea scallops, the better they'll turn out. The slowest and best way to do it is to stick them in the refrigerator for a day or so before you plan to cook them. If that's not gonna work—if you just brought them home for the dinner you're cooking this evening, for example, or if you brought them home yesterday but are crippled by the attention span that God gives a common field mouse and forgot to thaw them in the fridge—wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and stick them in a bowl under a cold running tap for a while. The idea here is to get them fully thawed before exposing them to any real warmth. This is to say that if you attempt to thaw them in the microwave, a certain internet food person may or may not crash through the wall of your kitchen and bolo-punch you in the brain.

Eventually your scallops will have thawed. Oftentimes you're instructed to bring cold animal proteins all the way to room temperature before cooking them, so that they'll cook evenly and predictably—but, in the case of sea scallops, this isn't really necessary. For that matter, proceeding when the scallops are fully thawed but still a little cold might even be advisable. Soon you're going to be attacking these scallops, however briefly, with extreme heat—while attempting, simultaneously and maybe paradoxically, to cook them no more than absolutely necessary. That might be a bit easier to accomplish if they're still cold when you cook 'em.

This deserves an explanation. The thing is, you're really only cooking the outside of these sea scallops. If the interior of a sea scallop heats up too much, it will cook through and become chewy and boring, and then it will make you sad and angry, which is not what food is meant to do, except in Great Britain. A cold interior will take a bit longer to heat up, which will give you more time to cook an attractive sear onto the outside of the scallop without cooking it through. Does that make sense? Yes it does shut up.

Now, pat your sea scallops dry with a fistful of paper towels. This is important. You're going to be cooking your sea scallops right against the very hot surface of a pan, with only a very incredibly thin layer of hot liquid fat between their flesh and the screamingly hot metal. Any water in there will just screw everything up, delay the nice-looking and -tasting sear from developing, and increase the odds of your scallops cooking all the way through while you wait. So, gently but thoroughly, pat all the water off the surface of your scallops before you proceed, OK?

The next thing to do is to warm up some cooking fat in a sauté pan or skillet over high heat on your stovetop. If you can, use cast iron or stainless steel here, something with a nice thick bottom that you can get very hot without causing it to release spooky chemical compounds into your food and make you glow in the dark. (If all you have to work with is some piece-of-shit My First Frying Pan with a bottom the thickness of a ply of toilet paper, hell, you can still sear some decent sea scallops. That thing is going to get fusion-hot very quickly, though, so don't start it warming up on the stove until after you've completed the next step.)

As for the particular fat you use, clarified butter (ghee) is the absolute best, here, but if you don't have any or can't get any or can't be bothered to make any because you're a lazy fuck, a combination of olive oil and regular unsalted butter works nicely, too. Light olive oil (as opposed to extra-virgin) is also fine. Don't use extra-virgin olive oil by itself—it'll smoke and turn nasty on the kind of heat required for searing. Also don't use vegetable oil, because, gross. You'll need enough fat to cover the bottom of your pan with just a little bit of depth, which will of course depend on how big your pan is. If you've got your basic pan with a 10- or 12-inch diameter, this'll take, what, 3 or 4 tablespoons of oil? That sounds right, yeah? Sure it does.

Now, while your pan is heating up, season your sea scallops. This means a sprinkling of salt and a grind of fresh black pepper on each side of each sea scallop, and nothing else. No smoked paprika, no fresh lemon zest, and if you so much as think about stabbing a shard of sliced garlic into each sea scallop, we are quits. Gently press the seasoning with your fingertips to help it stick. There. That's it. Stop eyefucking the cayenne powder, will you?

Your scallops are dried off and seasoned and ready for cooking, and your oil is getting hot. When it's shimmering and maybe just beginning to give off the faintest bit of smoke, cook your sea scallops. This is pretty straightforward. Work in batches; there should never be more scallops in the pan than can fit comfortably without touching each other at all. Gently lower some of the scallops into the pan on one of their two flat, broad sides. Sear the goddamn bejesus out of that side for no more than 90 seconds, then flip the scallops over with some tongs and sear the other side for the same amount of time. If your pan and oil are hot enough, this should produce a lovely golden-brown sear on each side of the scallops; their outsides should have firmed up a bit so that they don't slouch and they should be warmed through, but they should still be essentially raw (or very mildly cooked—certainly still translucent) on the inside.

In any event, after no more than 90 seconds per side, get your sea scallops the hell out of the pan and onto a drying rack or dry paper towel while you cook their brethren. Work quickly and don't take any social breaks; the sea scallops you removed from the pan are A) still cooking a bit from residual heat, and B) cooling down, while you dither and hobnob and chitchat and lollygag and, uh, tiddlywink or whatever. Eventually you will be done cooking scallops, unless you are in the seafood section of Purgatory. Now you can move on to serving scallops, and then, by God, to eating scallops.


Seared sea scallops, because they are so simple and delicious and unadorned, give you lots of options for how to serve them. They're lovely on top of a risotto made with seafood stock. They're similarly incredible served over a generous helping of smooth, silky mashed cauliflower and sprinkled with some tiny rings of chopped chives. Or with roasted asparagus. Or with saffron rice. Or puréed parsnips. Or cooked linguine tossed with butter and lemon juice and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Or nothing at all. Or your own tears of ecstatic joy.

All of these have in common that they are mildly—not boldly—flavored, delicate in texture, and do not contain bacon (unless your tears contain bacon, in which case you are probably Rob Ryan and definitely need to place a call to your healthcare professional). They flatter and do not upstage the sea scallops, which you eat in small bites and which are sweet and gently briny and mild enough to excite your palate without overwhelming it, so that you bend your attention more and more completely to them, eyes closed and mouth working carefully, interrogating a mysterious and perfect thing now and for once splendidly unobstructed by dumb, blunt boldness.

Imagine how many times you would have to taste this plain and simple Thing That Is Good before you ever thought to sock it in a fucking taco. How fun it will be to find out.


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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at albertburneko@gmail.com. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.

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