Fresh, plump sea scallops take well to all kinds of cooking methods: poaching, grilling, baking. But the most common approach is searing, a lightning-fast technique that’s easy to pull off if you know what you’re doing—and easy to screw up if you don’t. “Searing is all about creating flavor and texture: crunchy and golden-brown on the outside, and soft and beautiful with a briny sweetness on the inside,” says Local Three executive chef Chris Hall.
Achieving that caramelized sear (and avoiding a rubbery texture) requires perfectly dry scallops. Otherwise, “they essentially steam in their juices instead.” Hall suggests buying large sea scallops (1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter) that are labeled “dry-packed.”
“If you see a milky-white liquid in the container with your scallops, that’s not good,” says Hall. “They’ll never sear properly.”
1 Pinch off and discard the tough abductor muscles stuck to the sides of the scallops.
2 Line a pan with several sheets of paper towels. Set scallops on top, about an inch apart. Refrigerate uncovered for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight. Pat off any remaining moisture.
3 Season with a pinch of coarse sea salt, sprinkling about 8 to 10 inches above the scallops. “The crystals disperse more evenly this way,” Hall says. Repeat with freshly ground black pepper.
4 Add 3 Tbsp. oil to a cast-iron skillet or any thick, heavy-bottomed pan. Choose an oil with a high smoke point, like grapeseed, peanut, or vegetable oil. Heat on medium-high until you see oil “shimmer and dance, with a couple of wisps of smoke,” says Hall.
5 Add scallops, seasoned side up, with enough space between so you can easily turn them. (One large skillet should comfortably hold 6 to 8 scallops. If necessary, cook in batches, wiping skillet in between to remove burned bits.) Cook approximately 1 minute, or until the bottoms begin to brown.
6 Flip and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook a few seconds more, until the outside begins to crisp.
7 Immediately turn off heat and slide scallops to the side of the pan. Add a few pats of butter and fresh thyme. Baste scallops with sizzling butter and serve.
“My grandfather worked in sales and was accustomed to entertaining clients all the time,” says Hall, the executive chef at Local Three, which he helms with partners Todd Mussman and Ryan Turner. So during his early years growing up in Atlanta and Detroit, “I was often the youngest kid in the fanciest restaurants in town, dining with the grown-ups in my little Eton suit.” He refined his skills at Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin and later at Atlanta’s Canoe before opening Local Three in December 2010.
This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.