Shell Games, Part 2: How to Grill Scallops
Welcome to Part 2 of “Shell Games,” the second installment in our series on cooking shellfish over live fire. (Part 1 is devoted to shrimp and lobster.).
Whether served on their own or as part of a “surf and turf” spread, scallops make any cookout a special occasion. As proteins go, scallops are relatively expensive, putting pressure on the grill master to do right by them. But don’t be intimidated.
How to Buy Scallops
Unless you live in the northeastern coastal states and can purchase them directly from day boats or divers, it is rare to find fresh—never frozen—scallops. They are highly perishable as their shells never close completely. In most cases, you are better off buying IQF scallops; the acronym stands for Individually Quick Frozen.
Look for dry-packed scallops; they should smell briny and fresh. Scallops that appear milky-colored or that weep excessive liquid have likely been treated with sodium tripolyphosphate. Scallops treated with this chemical (sometimes described as “soapy tasting”) can weigh up to 30 percent more than untreated scallops, meaning you’ll pay more for them. More importantly, their high moisture content will prevent them from taking on a nice sear when exposed to the high dry heat of the grill.
Scallops are sold by size and method of harvest. At some markets, the larger the scallop, the more expensive it is per pound.
Sea scallops, which are fished from deeper waters and are in season year round, are the largest. They are up to three times bigger than bay scallops, which are available from November through March. Like shrimp or prawns, they can be identified by their “U” numbers, i.e., scallops labeled U-10s mean there are ten scallops per pound. They are perfect for grilling. (Smaller scallops can easily fall through the bars of the grill grate.)
As the name implies, diver scallops are harvested by hand by divers who select the choicest specimens from the sea floor and collect them in mesh bags. (Confusingly, large sea scallops are sometimes deceptively called “diver scallops.”)
In any case, try to purchase scallops on the day you intend to eat them. Store them dry in the coldest part of your refrigerator.
How to Grill Scallops
There are several ways to cook these sweet, marshmallow-shaped nuggets. No matter which method you use, pat the scallops dry with paper towels. Remove, if desired, the crescent-shaped coral-colored roe on the edge of the meat. (In many cases, especially in the U.S., this has already been removed.)
Brush the scallops with melted butter, extra virgin olive oil, or even bacon or duck fat, then season with salt and pepper or your favorite rub. Quick marinades are an option, too. But don’t soak the scallops for more than an hour or two, or the acid in the marinade will begin to “cook” the tender meat. After draining the marinade, dry the scallops thoroughly.
At this point, restaurants often wrap the scallop with a strip of bacon. We prefer prosciutto or thinly-sliced pancetta as they cook faster than strips of bacon.
Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high. You can grill the scallops directly on the grill grate (be sure to clean it and oil it well), or for an even better sear, heat a plancha, griddle, or a large cast iron skillet at the same time. A drop or two of water should immediately sizzle and evaporate when it hits the hot surface.
Arrange the scallops on the grill grate or cast iron. Grill for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the bottoms are golden brown. Turn with a thin-bladed spatula, then grill for 2 to 3 minutes more, until the meat is opaque and the internal temperature is 145 degrees. (Insert the thermometer probe through the side of the scallop.) Do not overcook.
Scallops also respond well to smoking. (Smoking times will vary according to the size of the scallops.)