This easy recipe for Pan Seared Scallops with Lemon Pasta is perfect for a no-fail, dining-in, fancy meal that you can easily make at home. Golden seared scallops tossed with lemony pasta. What’s not to love?
I try and avoid cliché-themed posts but this year is a little different. There is a darn pandemic that is still causing the unfortunate closure of all restaurants, at least in the area where I live. With Valentine’s Day coming up, and no in-door dining in the near future, I figured it would be fun to share some fancy-ish, yet easy and highly achievable meals you could make at home. Starting with this spectacular recipe for pan seared scallops with lemon pasta – the perfect dish to celebrate a little special evening at home. Not only does it look elegant and impressive, but it is insanely delicious too. Best of all, it is ridiculously easy and fast to throw together; boil the pasta, pan-sear the scallops, make a quick pan sauce, plate, serve, enjoy!
To me, a home-cooked meal will always be more special, and rewarding, than eating out at a crowded restaurant. And if you feel a little intimidated about buying and cooking scallops, fear not. With this simple recipe you will learn all about the right scallops to buy, how to prepare them, and the proper searing technique to achieve scallop perfection. Let’s dive in!
What Are Scallops?
Scallops are a type of bivalve mollusk, similar to mussels, oysters, and clams in that they are surrounded by two shells. Inside the shell, scallops have a an adductor muscle that opens and closes the shell, and this is the part we eat. There are two main types of scallops: Bay scallops and sea scallops. Bay scallops are tiny in size, while sea scallops are larger, growing as big as two inches. The adductor muscle is round and firm, and when cooked properly, it is tender, with a slight sweetness and buttery flavour.
The Best Scallops To Buy
- Sea Scallops: These are the largest, most commonly available, and the most popular. Sea scallops are primarily harvested in the Atlantic from Eastern Canada to North Carolina, and are available year-round. Bay scallops are also delicious but quite tiny and not conducive to pan searing. Fresh and wild-caught scallops are ideal
- Avoid Wet Scallops: Scallops that have been packed, or soaked, in a wet solution should be avoided at all cost. The water they are soaked in has been treated with chemicals to increase their weight and shelf-life. Scallops have a natural pinkish-grey colour unlike the super white colour of those soaking in additives. Aside from the nasty chemicals you should avoid putting in your body, wet scallops will not sear properly, or taste as delicious, no matter how much you pat them dry.
- Frozen scallops: Fresh and wild-caught scallops are ideal but for a really good-value option, go for frozen wild-caught scallops. Thaw them overnight in the fridge, or for a quicker option soak them in their sealed package in a bowl of cold (not warm) water.
Ingredients To Make Pan Seared Scallops with Lemon Pasta
Despite how fancy it sounds, this is a fast and delicious recipe with very few ingredients. So few, in fact, that aside from the scallops, you might already have everything else on hand.
- Sea scallops – I was lucky to find fresh wild-caught Sea scallops when photographing this post but be warned they can be pricey. More often then not, I buy the wild, dry-packaged frozen ones which are a great value (though still pretty pricey) and just as delicious. If you live in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, I buy them here and here.
- Pasta – I used fresh egg fettuccini which cooks in mere minutes and is super delicious. If you can’t find fresh pasta, any good-quality packaged pasta will work.
- Garlic – This dish has few ingredients so I like to add a lot of garlic for punchy flavour.
- Herbs – I like to use chives and parsley. Basil would also be great. Again, few ingredients so don’t leave out the fresh herbs which really brighten the dish.
- White wine – To deglaze the pan and make a delectable, flavourful sauce. If you are avoiding wine, you can substitute with chicken, or vegetable broth.
- Lemon juice and zest – You can go as heavy or light with the lemon flavour as you’d like. I go heavy.
- Capers – Completely optional but if you love capers, they go really well in this dish.
- Kosher sat and freshly ground black pepper – To season the pasta and the scallops.
- Olive Oil – To pan-sear the scallops and to drizzle the pasta. You can also use grapeseed or avocado oil.
- Crushed red pepper – Optional for a little zing.
How To Make Pan Seared Scallops with Lemon Pasta
You will be delighted at how quick this beautiful dish comes together. Start to finish, it can be on the table within a half hour or so.
- Cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. Cook according to package directions. Reserve some pasta water, then drain. Toss pasta with a bit of olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.
- Prepare the scallops: While the pasta is cooking, remove the thawed scallops from the fridge and place them on a plate lined with paper towels. Scallops have a small side muscle that needs to be removed. Not all scallops will have it but if you see it, just tug at it with your fingers to pull off. It will come off easily. If you forget, it’s not a big deal, it can just be a bit tough to chew. With a few more paper towels, pat the scallops completely dry. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
- Cook the scallops: Place a large skillet over medium high heat. Once hot, add the oil to the pan. When the oil is shimmering, but not smoking, add scallops to the pan, keeping them about an inch apart. Cook scallops for about 2 minutes, without moving or touching them. Flip and cook for another 2 minutes. Transfer scallops to a clean plate and set aside. Tip: The first side that was seared will have the nicest golden colour so keep that side up on the plate, and when served.
- Make the sauce: Reduce the heat medium low and add 2 tablespoons of the butter to the skillet. Stir in the garlic and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the wine to the pan scraping up the browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Cook the wine until slightly reduced, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water, chives, capers, lemon zest, lemon juice and crushed red pepper flakes. Cook for 1 more minute and remove from heat. Stir in remaining tablespoon of butter, add the pasta and toss to combine. Serve topped with scallops and extra herbs.
Tips For the Best Pan Seared Scallops
Scallops are easier to cook than chicken, swear. Follow all the tips below to prepare them properly and you will master a beautifully seared scallop in no time.
- Pat dry: Scallops must be super dry in order to brown properly. Use paper towels, or a clean tea towel to pat them completely dry on both sides. If they have any moisture on the outside, they will steam in the pan instead of developing a beautiful golden crust.
- Season generously: For the tastiest scallops, season very generously with salt and pepper.
- Cook over high heat: A perfectly cooked scallop will be juicy and tender on the inside with a crispy, golden crust on the outside. The only way to achieve this is by cooking them quickly in a very hot pan. You want your pan almost smoking from heat before you add the scallops. This way, the scallops will take only 1 to 2 minutes a side to cook.
- Use a heavy bottom skillet: I like to pan-sear my scallops in a cast-iron which can withstand high temperature and maintains even heat. You can also use a heavy duty non-stick frying pan or stainless steel.
- Don’t overcrowd the skillet: If you add too many scallops at once to the pan they will steam and lose the ability to develop a nice sear. Cook in batches, if necessary, to avoid this.
- Don’t touch or move the scallops once they hit the pan: This is SO important. If you want a nice crust on your scallops, do not touch them once you place them on the pan. Don’t even peek. Set the timer for 1 minute and 45 seconds. Then ever so slightly lift one just a bit to check if it releases easily and if the underside has a nice golden colour. If yes, they are ready to flip. If not, wait another 30 to 45 seconds, then flip.
- Do not overcook them: No matter how big, or thick, your scallops are, understand that they will not take longer than 4 to 5 minutes total (at the absolute most) to cook. Overcooked scallops will be dry and tough to chew.
- Serve the scallops immediately: Once cooked, scallops tend to lose their tenderness rather quickly and can become somewhat rubbery if they sit for too long. Therefore, it is best to have whatever you’re serving them with completely ready before you cook the scallops. For this recipe, have the pasta cooked, herbs chopped, and lemon wedges for serving ready to go before you cook the scallops.
Instead of scallops you can use shrimp. I would use large shrimp and cook them exactly like you would the scallops, reducing, or increasing, the cooking time by just a smidge, if necessary.
For a vegan version, follow the recipe exactly but use large king oyster mushrooms in place of the scallops. You can almost always find these mushrooms at large Asian markets. Slice them in half lengthwise, and cook in a hot skillet until nicely seared on both sides, about 8 minutes total. Delicious!
Other Sides To Enjoy With Scallops
- 1/2 pound noodle pasta such as Fettucini, lingini, or spaghetti
- 1 pound Sea scallops if frozen, thaw overnight in the refrigerator
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for drizzling
- 3 tablespoons butter, divided
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 cup pasta water or chicken broth
- 1/4 cup chopped chives, or basil or parsley plus more for garnish
- 2 tablespoons capers optional
- 1 lemon zested and juiced
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes optional
- extra lemon wedges for serving optional
- Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a rapid boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, then drain. Toss pasta with a bit of olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.Tip: If you forget to reserve the pasta water before draining, you can use chicken broth for the sauce.
- While the pasta is cooking, remove the thawed scallops from the fridge and place them on a plate lined with paper towels. If the scallops have the muscle on the side, remove it. With a few more paper towels, pat the scallops completely dry. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
- Place a large skillet over medium high heat. Once hot, add the 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan. When the oil is shimmering, but not smoking, add the scallops, keeping them about an inch apart (cook in two batches if necessary). Cook scallops for about 2 minutes, without moving or touching them. Flip and cook for another 2 minutes. Transfer scallops to a clean plate and set aside. Tip: The first side that was seared will have the nicest golden colour so keep that side up on the plate, and when you serve them.
- Reduce the heat to medium low and add 2 tablespoons of the butter to the skillet, plus another drizzle of olive oil. Stir in the garlic and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the wine to the pan scraping up the browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Cook the wine until slightly reduced, about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add the 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water, chives, capers, lemon zest, lemon juice and crushed red pepper flakes. Stirring constantly, bring sauce to a gentle simmer. Cook for 1 more minute then remove from heat. Stir in remaining tablespoon of butter.
- Add pasta to sauce and stir to combine.
- To serve, divide the pasta into 4 serving bowls. Top with scallops and garnish with chives and/or parsley, and lemon wedges on the side, if desired.