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Searing Scallops

I like to sear and cook scallops in butter, but I have a hard time getting a great sear on the scallops without the butter really browning too much.  The issue isn't the scallops as much as it is the sauce that I attempt to make after the scallops have seared,  After the scallops sear I build my sauce by adding more butter, sautéing shallots, and then deglazing the pan with white wine, reducing briefly, and finishing "a la minute" with lemon zest and parsley.  Pretty standard issue stuff.  The problem is that it is sometimes too bitter and too dark.  I need clean flavors.  What am I doing wrong?

The underlying problem is likely that you are allowing the milk solids in the butter to burn.  Store-bought butter contains between 1-2% milk solids made up of the proteins (caseins and whey)  and carbohydrates (lactose) found in milk.  It also contains somewhere around 16-18% water by weight.   The remaining 80-82% is fat. 

To sear scallops, you need to use a fairly high heat.  Otherwise the meat will toughen before the scallops are properly seared.  The milk solids in butter start to brown at a considerably lower temperature.  By the time that the scallops are finished the milk solids may have already started to burn.  Since the pan is quite hot once you have finished cooking the scallops, if you add more butter at this point the milk solids in that may burn, too.

To sear scallops, start by buying so-called "dry" scallops.  These are scallops that have not been treated with phosphate.  "Wet" scallops are soaked briefly in sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP), chemical formula Na5P3O10.  STPP attaches to the protein molecules on the surface of the scallop in such a way as to cause the protein to bind with more water than it normally would.  Other than the fact that you are paying for the extra weight of the water, as the scallops are cooking some of that extra water gets released, which will cool the pan down and interfere with the searing.  Since the STPP binds with protein, it may also interfere directly with the formation of a nice brown crust on the scallops.

Use a fat or oil that will withstand fairly high temperatures.  A light flavored olive oil is ideal, but since you are making a sauce with butter in it, you may want to start with clarified butter for cooking the scallops (See the post Clarified Butter for more details). 

Start by patting the scallops dry of all surface moisture and then lightly seasoning them with salt and pepper.  Preheat your pan over medium-high heat, add the fat or oil and then the scallops, being careful not to crowd them.  Depending on the size of the scallops you need to cook them for about two to three minutes on the first side, and a little less once you turn them over.  What you are looking for is a nice nut brown color on each surface.  Transfer the scallops to a warm platter while you make your sauce.

I would almost suggest reversing the order of your ingredients.  In making a butter sauce (Beurre Blanc, Hollandaise, Béarnaise, etc.) you need to keep the temperature low.  Temperatures above about 136°F (58°C) can cause the sauce to break.  By adding the wine before the butter, you are taking heat out of the pan.

So, reduce the heat to medium, or medium low, sweat the shallots, using a little more clarified butter if necessary, and then add the wine and reduce the liquid, if you wish, to about three tablespoons (45 ml).  Take the pan off heat and add the whole butter you are using for the sauce (not clarified) one or two tablespoons at a time whisking it in, and returning to the heat for a short while if the temperature drops too low for the butter to melt.  Start with cool butter, not melted or even room temperature.  Finish with the lemon zest and parsley as before.

All of these steps combined should give you the nice clean flavors you are looking for.  Let us know how it works.

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