Entertaining/ Main Course

Spicy Scallop Scampi

January 10, 2020
spicy scallop scampi in white bowl with bread, chives, and lemon

Did you know that eating scallops is a significantly more environmentally responsible choice than eating shrimp? I didn’t either, until I read this fascinating article from the New York Times. And boy this is a blow, because I LOVE shrimp. But in my ongoing effort to eat more responsibly, I’m moving shrimp to my “special occasion” category and expanding my cooking repertoire into new types of seafood. For example, scallops. I love to eat them, but I haven’t traditionally made them at home very often. But they cook quickly and can easily replace shrimp in recipes like this Spicy Scallop Scampi dish. 

Cooking scallops may seem intimidating but they really couldn’t be easier (or quicker!). You can have this on the table in under 20 minutes, even including chopping time. Just sear your scallops in a hot skillet until they brown, flip them and let them finish cooking for another minute or so. Then remove them while you build a classic butter, white wine, lemon, and garlic sauce to drizzle over the top. You can serve over spaghetti, over rice, or with a big hunk of baguette to sop up the sauce. (I think you can guess my preference—I will use any excuse to make a baguette a main component in my meal.)

Note that this recipe serves 2 people. Scallops are expensive so I’ll make them for my husband and I who will appreciate them, and not for an everyday family meal. Of course you can double the recipe, though you’ll need to cook your scallops in two batches. Crowd the pan and you’ll get steamed instead of seared scallops, which aren’t nearly as delicious. Let’s get into the specifics.

ingredients for spicy scallop scampi: white wine, garlic, chives, butter, scallops, lemon, red pepper

How do you cook Spicy Scallop Scampi?

The key to a great scallop dish is to make sure you have very dry scallops. Patting off as much moisture as possible with paper towels will ensure you get a great sear on your scallops.

Heat a skillet over medium high-high heat. You know your pan and stove—you want the scallops to sear quickly but not burn. Add 1 T. olive oil and 1 T. butter, then when the butter melts, add your scallops. Cook for about 2 minutes on the first side, until you can see the brown crust forming on the bottom. If you are using something like a cast-iron skillet, you should be able to get a great sear on your scallop—you can tell they are ready to flip when they release easily from the pan. (With a nonstick skillet, you just need to use your eyes since they won’t stick to the pan at all.) Once flipped, cook only about  1 minute on the other side until they start to brown very lightly.

seared scallops in large skillet

Remove from pan. Scallops will continue cooking after you remove them, and overcooked scallops turn rubbery easily. Turn down the heat to medium. Add white wine, remaining 4 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon of minced garlic, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest, 1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cook for 2 minutes, until you can smell the garlic, and sauce has reduced slightly.

sauce for spicy scallop scampi

Serve scallops with scampi sauce poured over the top. Garnish with fresh chopped chives. 

 Note that if you plan to serve these scallops over a large amount of pasta, you may want to increase the sauce ingredients as well as adding some vegetable broth and cooking liquid from your pasta. Then toss pasta in the sauce and add scallops on top. 

Ingredient Tips for Spicy Scallop Scampi

This is a very easy recipe that you can easily customize to your own tastes. 

  • Butter: I call for salted butter in this recipe, because I can find delicious salted butter here in France. But you can make this recipe with either salted or unsalted—just know that you will likely need to add more salt if you use unsalted butter. 
  • White wine: Choose a crisp, dry white wine for this dish, like a Sauvignon Blanc. Stay away from sweeter white wines, and also away from big oaky Chardonnays. The wine you choose doesn’t have to be top quality, but it should be something you’d like to drink. Your dish will always be more delicious when you choose good quality ingredients, and wine is no exception. 
  • Garlic: I went pretty heavy on the garlic, because I love it. If you don’t, feel free to dial back the amount you put in. 
  • Scallops: Scallops are usually classified by the number of scallops in a pound. U/10 scallops contain under 10 scallops in a pound while U/30 scallops contain under 30 scallops in a pound. For this recipe, I’d aim for large scallops, somewhere around U/15.
    If possible, look for “dry” scallops—these scallops have been packed as is, with no preservatives. Other scallops are treated with a phosphate solution, which makes the scallops absorb water. This means you’ll pay more for them because that extra water makes the scallops weigh more, and they won’t form a great crust when seared. Look for “dry” or “chemical-free” on the label, and also look at the color. Dry scallops also have a creamy color to them rather than bright white.
  • Crushed Red Pepper: You can make this sauce as spicy as you like. Add the 1/4 teaspoon I recommend and adjust based on your preference. Crushed red pepper can also vary in spiciness depending on brand and age of the spice, so tasting and adjusting accordingly is recommended!

Bay Scallops vs. Sea Scallops

What’s the difference between these two types of scallops? Bay scallops come from ocean bays, and are much smaller than sea scallops. They have a similar taste (some say sweeter) but because they are small, they are often served in soups or salads rather than on their own. They are typically much less expensive than sea scallops. Sea scallops are larger than bay scallops. They are what you typically find in restaurants, served either raw in scallop crudo or seared as in this recipe. 

Fresh vs. Frozen Sea Scallops

As for fresh vs. frozen, fresh is usually best, unless the “fresh” scallops have been sitting at the seafood counter for many days while the frozen ones were frozen very quickly after being caught. You can’t beat fresh scallops from a high-quality fish vendor, but high-quality frozen ones are honestly just fine.

Are Scallops Healthy?

Yes! Scallops are a low-calorie and low-fat food packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain large amounts of iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, selenium, and calcium, along with vitamin B12. Zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12 have all been associated with a lower risk of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s. On the negative side, scallops often trigger shellfish allergies, which are one of the most common food allergies—though scallops cause fewer reactions than shrimp, lobster, and crab. In addition, scallops can accumulate heavy metals within them, depending on where they grow. Studies are being done to learn more about the levels of cadmium, lead, and mercury in scallop populations, but most healthy adults shouldn’t worry about eating scallops from time to time. 

What is Scampi Sauce? 

Scampi are actually a type of crustacean also known as langoustines, common in the Mediterranean Sea and North Atlantic ocean. Early Italian immigrants to the United States could not find scampi, so substituted shrimp instead, cooking them in the traditional scampi style, with garlic, butter, and white wine. Today, in the United States, scampi refers more to this sauce than to the crustacean.

What should I serve with this Spicy Scallop Scampi dish? 

Besides pasta, rice, or bread, this scallop scampi recipe is great with some green vegetables on the side. Sautéed spinach or kale are perfect, as are broccoli, broccolini, asparagus, and green beans. A big green salad is also a great complement. Try these ideas:

Spicy Scallop Scampi

Spicy Scallop Scampi

Yield: Serves 2
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 7 minutes
Total Time: 17 minutes

Spicy Scallop Scampi is an impressive dish that comes together in under 20 minutes. Seared scallops topped in a savory garlic, lemon, white wine, and butter sauce!

Ingredients

  • 1 lb (450g) large sea scallops, tough muscles removed
  • 1 T. olive oil
  • 5 T. salted butter, divided
  • 1/2 c. white wine
  • 1 T. minced garlic
  • 1 T. lemon juice
  • 1/2 t. lemon zest
  • 1/4 t. crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 t. kosher salt
  • 1 T. chopped chives, to garnish

Instructions

    1. Rinse scallops, and pat off as much moisture as possible with paper towels. This will help ensure you get a great sear on your scallops.
    2. Heat a skillet over medium high-high heat.
    3. Add 1 T. olive oil and 1 T. butter, then when the butter melts, add your scallops.
    4. Cook for about 2 minutes on the first side, until you can see the brown crust forming on the bottom. If you are using something like a cast-iron skillet, you should be able to get a great sear on your scallop—you can tell they are ready to flip when they release easily from the pan. (With a nonstick skillet, you just need to use your eyes since they won’t stick to the pan at all.)
    5. Once flipped, cook only about 1 minute on the other side until they start to brown very lightly. Remove from pan. Scallops will continue cooking after you remove them, and overcooked scallops turn rubbery easily.
    6. Turn down the heat to medium.
    7. Add white wine, remaining 4 tablespoons butter, minced garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, crushed red pepper, and salt. Cook for 2 minutes, until you can smell the garlic, and sauce has reduced slightly.
    8. Serve scallops with scampi sauce poured over the top.
    9. Garnish with fresh chopped chives.

Notes

Serve over rice or pasta, or with baguette to sop up the juices. If you are serving over a large amount of pasta, you may want to increase the sauce ingredients as well as adding some vegetable broth and cooking liquid from your pasta. Then toss pasta in the sauce and add scallops on top.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 2 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 379 Total Fat: 36g Saturated Fat: 19g Trans Fat: 1g Unsaturated Fat: 14g Cholesterol: 79mg Sodium: 568mg Carbohydrates: 4g Net Carbohydrates: 0g Fiber: 0g Sugar: 1g Sugar Alcohols: 0g Protein: 2g
Nutrition information is provided as a general reference for users courtesy of the online nutrition calculator Nutritionix.

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  • Mary
    January 23, 2020 at 2:11 pm

    I was excited to try this recipe because I love scallops but have not had success preparing them at home. Molly’s method worked perfectly! The scallops were nicely browned but tender. I will definitely be trying this one again. Thanks, Molly!

    • Chef Molly
      January 24, 2020 at 5:02 pm

      Excellent! So glad it worked well for you. Hopefully there will be more home-cooked scallops in your future!