We look at scallops and see those tasty tender nuggets of flavor and they look like they should be an ideal food for grilling. After all, they are fairly symmetrical and pretty evenly sized when you buy them. If you have been served them after a proper searing or grilling you know how good they can be.
While it may seem like it, they’re not as ideal for the grill as you may think. After all, you think, what could go wrong? Quick heat to give the exteriors a nice crisp, and they’d still be nice and juicy in the center. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly how it goes down – at least not without a little finessing and a lot of flame.
Challenges to Overcome When Grilling Scallops
The result to avoid is that nice crisp sear on the outside making the inside chewy and overcooked…#MeatGeek Fail. Avoid this with lots of heat, lots.. That may sound counterintuitive; more heat equals overcooked. Not in this case, to get a well colored outside and tender center with that translucent stripe across the middle you want scorching heat.
So, the key is high (really high) heat. We’re talking around 600 degrees. The easiest way to generate high levels of heat is to concentrate the fuel. To do this, try using a throwaway aluminum pan to hold the coals and get them closer to the food. This delivers intense heat to a focused area on the cooking surface of the grill.
Destroying the Scallops
Even well sized scallops run the risk of falling through the grates of many grills. And if they don’t fall through, they often stick. Both of these issues relate to the next big concern; how do you flip them to cook on both sides? The sticking issue we will come back to with ideas and a great recipe from foodies that are even geekier than us.
Handling the scallops on the grill can be a challenge, but it can be overcome. Skewering them in a line only encourages them to twirl about like child ballerinas that don’t yet know synchronization. The easy solution is to use two skewers parallel to each other. You can even buy skewer ‘forks’ that have two long tines. Another option is a grill basket. Most have ½ inch or less grids that easily hold the scallops and flip them en masse.
Keeping the Scallops from Sticking
Red meats and even chicken can be grilled to the point that they will ‘release’ from the grate with those nice caramelized lines on them. Unfortunately a scallop would be dead inside under similar treatment. So you get two obvious choices. Oil the grill surface, or oil the scallops. Both will work, the goal is not to alter the flavor too much in the process.
For the grill that can be as easy as doing a thorough cleaning first. Spray liberally with vegetable oil, or use a paper towel and tongs to swab the grates with an oil coating. Or, to avoid causing the tender scallops to stick to the grill, we need to coat them directly. Start with patting them dry. Use olive oil, avocado oil, or a light vegetable oil. You can add a touch of sesame oil for fun flavors, but we recommend that you avoid canola oil as it has a flavor that can overpower.
Another method that we found that works great, without taking away from the scallop’s natural flavors, is to use a combination of flour, cornstarch, cooking oil and sugar to coat the scallops. When we say found, we found other geeks who had studied this problem in depth. See the breakdown below taken from the famous America’s Test Kitchen.
THE PERFECT GRILLED SCALLOPS
- Aluminum Pan – 13 x 9 about 3 inches deep (be sure to poke about a dozen 1/4 inch holes in the bottom of the pan for ventilation)
- 1 Pound Scallops
- 2 Tablespoon Vegetable oil
- 1 Tablespoon Flour
- 1 Teaspoon Cornstarch
- 1 Teaspoon Sugar
- Salt & Pepper to taste
- Lemon (or lime) halves grill them to take things to the next level
- Be sure to layout the scallops and pat them dry before putting them through the skewers. Remember to use two metal skewers through each row of scallops. Place scallops back in the fridge while you get the grill going.
- Light up a full chimney of charcoal; this will be the perfect amount to fill your pan. While your waiting for the coals to be ready, grab your pan and poke about a dozen 1/4 inch holes in the bottom of it. Place the pan in the center of the grill, then pour in the charcoal once the coals are mostly white.
- Next, clean and oil the heck out of the grate. Now we’re ready to grab the scallops and coat them with our special mixture.
- Mix together the flour, cornstarch, sugar and oil. Brush the mixture onto the scallops then season them with salt and pepper. Now they’re ready for the grill.
- Place them on grill directly above the coals. Let them sit for about three minutes, until they begin to get a little brown sear. Flip the scallops to allow the other side to brown, about another three minutes. That’s it, serve them with the lemon wedges and if you choose to, make one of the sauces below to complement these grilled bad boys.
- The perfect scallop will be firm on its sides, have a nice seared exterior and the center should be soft and full of flavor. There’s a fine line between the perfectly cooked center and an overcooked one. You’ll know if it’s overcooked as it will be chewy; nothing to lose sleep over, just add some of the vinaigrette sauce below and better luck next time.
- 1 Lemon juice
- 2 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
- 2 Teaspoon Salt
- 1 Teaspoon Granulated Garlic
- ½ Teaspoon White pepper
- In a large bowl, mix:Lemon juice, Maple Syrup, Salt, Granulated Garlic, White pepper
- When mixed, add in the scallops and toss until well coated. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a sheet pan that will fit your smoker, lined with parchment paper. Smoke for about 30 minutes, or until slightly firm to the touch. Now go play with them. They can go straight from the smoker into just about any pasta dish you have in mind. They too can top a salad while warm. If you want to chill them, you should lightly oil them. Try taking a produce bag from the store, blow it up like a balloon to see if it has any holes. Assuming not, put in the slightly warm scallops and two tablespoons of olive oil. Inflate the bag and toss the scallops until they have all been coated with the oil. Let them sit for a few minutes and repeat the process. Most of the oil should have been absorbed and you can now store them in a sealed container in your refrigerator. They can be used very similarly to smoked salmon, minced and mixed in cream cheese with onions to be served on crackers. Or like bacon bits tossed into salads or wraps, lightly warmed and used in omelets.Oh no!
- Shouldn’t have brought up bacon, the wrap of many a scallop. That will have to wait for another day, enjoy!
Sauces for Grilled & Smoked Scallops
The first three recipes below (sriracha lime, fresh basil and mustard cucumber) are vinaigrette choices that will serve you well when serving scallops. If you want to be more adventurous, here are a couple ideas that are tasty and work well for smoked scallops. The caution sign with the vinaigrette based sauces is to make sure that the flavors compliment and do not overpower the fairly delicate tastes of the scallop. Sometimes you’ll see the upscale plate with just a smear of sauce looking so avant-garde. There is method to that at times like this. An intense citrus gastrique is wonderful when used judiciously, and a sun dried tomato cream sauce elevates to a new level of richness, but both must be used properly. Here are those choices for you.
ORANGE GASTRIQUE SAUCE
- 1 Half orange
- ½ Cup sugar
- ½ Cup apple cider vinegar
- Using a vegetable peeler skin one half of an orange, getting the colored part of the peel while leaving the white pith behind. In a small pot combine ½ cup sugar, ½ cup apple cider vinegar and the rinds.
- Bring to a soft boil and continue simmering for approximately 15 minutes until it has become sticky with a syrup consistency.
- Remove the orange rind.
SUN DRIED TOMATO CREAMY SAUCE
- 2 Cup milk
- ¼ Cup butter
- ¼ Cup flour
- ½ Cup parmesan grated
- 3 Tablespoon sundried tomatoes/pesto minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Warm two cups milk in the microwave for 3-4 minutes.
- In a saucepan melt ¼ cup butter, add ¼ cup flour. Stir together and keep over medium heat for about two minutes until well blended.
- Whisk in the warmed milk, stirring constantly until the sauce has reached a boil, continue simmering about 5 minutes.
- Add ½ cup grated parmesan and 3 tablespoons of minced sundried tomatoes or the pesto. Keep over heat until cheese is melted.
- Remove from heat, add salt and pepper to taste.
- 1 Teaspoon Lime zest
- 2 limes Lime juice
- 1 Tablespoon Sriracha
- 2 Tablespoon Honey
- 2 Teaspoon Fish sauce
- ½ Cup Vegetable oil
- Mix everything together except for the oil. While mixing slowly add the oil until it’s mixed in (emulsified). Be careful not to add the oil in too quickly as it will make your sauce oily and won’t have the consistency you’re looking for.
- Fresh Basil – about a full packed cup
- 3 Tablespoon Chives minced
- Tablespoon Vinegar (champagne or red wine)
- 2 Cloves Garlic minced
- 2 Teaspoon Sugar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ⅔ Cup Vegetable oil
- In blender/food processor pulse all ingredients except for oil until broken down, then with blender running slowly drizzle in the oil (be sure to scrape the sides of the blender).
- 1 Lemon Lemon Juice
- 1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
- 1 Tablespoon Grainy Mustard
- ½ Cup Olive Oil (the good stuff)
- Salt & Pepper to taste
- 1 Cucumber sliced
- Mix mustards and lemon juice. Slowly add in olive oil until evenly mixed. Add salt and pepper to taste. Arrange cucumber around the scallops and drizzle dressing over the plate.
Bonus: COOKING SCALLOPS IN CAST IRON
Proper searing can be messy and smoking when done in the traditional kitchen style with a well heated cast iron skillet or flat top. However, just as the hot grill leaves those tasty marks on your food, a slab of hot cast iron does more of the same good things. Use your outdoor grill to get the skillet good and hot. The simple salt and rinse preparation will serve best for this cooking style. Pat them dry and brush with a thin coat of canola oil. This is a good high heat tolerant oil, and you also put a tablespoon or two into the skillet. Pull the skillet off the flame and add the oil. If your temp is in the range the oil will just throw off small tendrils of smoke. Place your scallops on the hot surface without touching each other. After a couple minutes you should have good color and be ready to turn the scallops. Another couple minutes and they should be ready to serve.
When you’re planning a multi-course feast, there is a perfect fit for seared scallops. Try serving them still warm from the heat, placed right on top of a light mixed green salad with a citrus vinaigrette. As the opening course to show your guests what is to come, they will not be disappointed.