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Back to Basics: Scallops

Everything you need to know about scallops


Scallops are quick and easy to cook, as well as very healthy and delicious, but many people are scared to tackle seafood at home. If you’re a novice cook, then this beginner’s guide should help you start you off on the right foot.

In our Back to Basics series, we look at some common ingredients to help make sure our readers are making the most of the great produce that we have access to here in Ireland. This time we're focusing on scallops, which are surprisingly easy to handle.

Shellfish is divided into two categories: molluscs and crustaceans, with scallops falling into the former category. Molluscs are found widely in Ireland, and mussels, clams and oysters are all part of this family. Scallops are a bi-valve mollusc, which means they have a hard exterior shell with a hinge that covers a soft invertebrae.

Read more: Fish Pie

Scallops can be found off Irish coasts especially in winter and spring. The best scallops are ‘hand dived’, which means they have been harvested by hand by scuba divers. This is the most ecologically friendly way to pick scallops as it causes minimal environmental damage; however, it is a slow process as only the largest and best are hand-selected, which can cause a higher price tag.

What to look for

When buying scallops, we would always recommend that you head to a local, reputable fishmonger, but they can be found vac-packed in supermarkets too. They should never have a fishy smell (this can indicate that they’re old), but instead should smell fresh and sweet. Look for white, slightly transparent flesh that is firm and whole. King scallops are quite large and can be expensive whereas queen scallops are smaller, sweeter and more economical.

We asked Niall Sabongi, seafood expert and owner of Klaw Seafood, for some tips about buying and storing scallops to make sure you get the best out of them:

According to Niall, there are two key factors to consider when buying scallops – quality and providence: "When you're buying fresh scallops, look for nice plump ones with firm white flesh. You sometimes see some with a little orange or yellow discolouration, which isn't the best, so avoid any that are discoloured. Frozen scallops are quite commonly sold in fishmongers, so it's important to check the catch area as many say they're from the Atlantic, which could mean America or Canada. This means that people think the product is Irish when it's not, plus the scallops will have a lot of unnecessary air miles. If you're not sure where your scallops are from, Google the catch area FAO number to find out. It's always best to buy local, Irish seafood so check with your fishmonger if you're unsure about where anything comes from"

Niall says that when storing scallops they need to be kept as dry as possible – the drier they are, the longer they will stay fresh. Remove them from any packaging, dry them and then store in an airtight container with a clean, dry cloth underneath to absorb any excess juices. This will help the scallops stay fresh for 3-5 days, depending on the source.

It’s up to you whether you discard the orange roe – some don’t like to use it, while others find it imparts great flavour, especially in sauces. Niall says that as long as the roe looks plump and orange then it should have great flavour; however, they can wither throughout the year so make sure to check it before you use it. His favourite way to use the roe is to add it into the pan just as you're finishing the scallops with some butter and lemon.

Gareth Smith's seared scallops with smoked salmon arancini
Gareth Smith's seared scallops with smoked salmon arancini

How to cook them

Scallops are a very versatile ingredient: They are great in fish pies and chowders, as well as a variety of other dishes. In terms of pairing scallops with other ingredients, they complement lots of different flavours, including bacon, mushrooms, celeriac and cauliflower. If you’re looking for a fresher way to eat scallops, ceviche is a great alternative; it involves marinating thinly sliced scallops in citrus juice, usually lime, until the flesh just starts to turn opaque, which creates a delicious, zesty flavour.

Pan-frying scallops is the most common way to cook them, but this is where most people fall down as they can become rubbery when overcooked. The trick to cooking scallops is to use a very hot pan and fry them quickly. Cook for about a minute on one side before turning over the other side for about another 30 seconds. You want them golden on the outside but moist and succulent on the inside.

If you need some recipe inspiration for scallops, click here. One of our favourite recipes is Gareth Smith's seared scallops with Ted Browne's smoked salmon arancini. Gareth is well-known for his delicious seafood so you'll love this Italian inspired dish.