Caramelized is a word that has been tossed around so often it has almost lost its meaning. Technically, the only thing that can be caramelized is sugar, all other foods get their rich brown crust from something known as the Maillard reaction. Caramelized onions are really Maillard-ized onions but that doesn’t sound so good on a menu. To put it very, very simply: When some foods are subjected to high heat, the sugar(s) and amino acid(s) they contain combine and from there a complex process leads to the kind of rich flavor we all love. If you want to know more about the Maillard reaction turn to someone who really knows all about it, Michael Laiskonis.
Some foods that are Maillard-ized include crusty bread, sliced sauteed potatoes and seared steak. My personal favorite is a panful of dry sea scallops lightly coated with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. The “dry” sea scallop part is important. They are the only kind that will give you that wonderful brown surface that you can see in the photo above. “Wet” sea scallops are wet due to taking a bath in sodium tripolyphosphate. (The only reason for using a 22-letter chemical on scallops is to increase their weight for market.) You can tell wet from dry pretty easily once you look at a few of each type. Wet sea scallops have a milky color and a blobby look. They will not sear at all because of all the liquid they have absorbed. Dry sea scallops look, well, dry and have a pale ivory color that can sometimes be tinged with pink. Each dry scallop holds its distinct shape. Scallops, like shrimp, are sold by size. And like shrimp, the bigger the scallop the higher the price. I use medium size scallops (10/20’s) and figure on 5 per person.
Here’s how to make seared scallops:
Remove the adductor muscle (otherwise known as the little thingy on the side of each scallop) and lay out the scallops on paper towels. Yes, they’re dry, but removing as much moisture as possible is a good idea with scallops and other proteins (pork, chicken, beef, fish fillets) if you want maximum browning. Pour a little olive oil into a dish and add the scallops. Season with salt and pepper and turn the scallops over in the oil a few times to coat them and distribute the s&p.
Pour a very small amount of oil into a nonstick saute pan. This is one of the few times I use a non-stick pan instead of my trusty cast iron pans. Heat over medium-high heat until the olive oil is really thin and runs quickly from side to side. Tong the scallops into the pan one at a time and cook them until the bottoms are a deep rich brown. Flip them over and cook just until browned. Don’t overcook them. They should still be a little boingy when you poke them with your finger. Eat them as is or make a really quick pan sauce: Before you start the scallops, put about 1/4 cup chicken stock or water, the juice from a lemon and about a tablespoon of butter in a little bowl. Take the pan off the heat when the scallops are done and add the stock mix to the pan. Swirl the pan gently. The residual heat in the pan should be all you need to get the sauce boiling and reduce it a little. If not, put the pan back over heat and boil it for half a minute or so.
Making seared scallops is a simple feat. You can feel good about making something different and so quickly, even on a weeknight. Almost all sea scallops rate a “Best Choice” or “Very Good” by seafoodwatch.org. So you can feel good about that too.