Tequila Lime Scallops and How to Cook a Scallop Like a Pro

Jun 16, 2021 | Cooking Tips, Fish and Seafood, Recipes

Well-cooked scallops are like little tender morsels of ocean candy. But, poorly cooked scallops are like bland little rubber bullets. Unfortunately, the line between a well-prepared and a poorly prepared scallop is pretty thin. Today you’ll learn how to make one of my favourite scallops dishes; Tequila Lime Scallops. But, more importantly, you’ll learn how to prepare and cook scallops like a chef so that you can have tender morsels of ocean candy whenever you want. Let’s get to it.

How To Buy Scallops

The best way to ensure that you end up with great scallops is to start with great scallops. Buy fresh whenever you can. If you are buying fresh, make sure they are actually fresh. The scallops at the seafood counter in your local grocery store probably aren’t fresh even though they aren’t frozen. They are likely previously frozen. Ask if the scallops have been frozen or not before you pay a premium for “fresh scallops.”

There are two big differences between fresh and frozen scallops. First of all, fresh scallops are more tender and have a better texture. Frozen scallops tend to be slightly chewier. Frozen scallops also release a lot more liquid than fresh scallops when cooked. This makes it more difficult to get a nice sear on the scallops, and that sear is important for flavour development. If you aren’t sure if your scallops are fresh or previously frozen, cook one up, put it on a plate, and wait two minutes. With a fresh scallop, there will be little to no liquid on the plate after 2 minutes. If the scallops are previously frozen, there will be a white milky liquid on the plate after two minutes.

Size matters.

Usually, when you buy scallops, they come as either tiny bay scallops or sea scallops, which are large. However, a rating scale for scallops (and shrimp) is measured by a “U” followed by a number. For example, U10 or U20-30. The “U” stands for “under a pound,” and the number is how many scallops there should in a pound. So, the lower the number that follows the “U,” the bigger the scallops. If you buy U10 scallops, you can expect there to be 10 or less in a pound. Those are good-sized scallops. More often than not, the scallops you buy at the store are U20 to 30, so there are 20 to 30 scallops in a pound. These are a good medium-sized scallop. But, if you want large ones, ask for the U10s, especially if you are talking to a specialty seafood purveyor. To learn more about sizing and other scallop cooking tips, check out this post I did back in 2019.

It’s okay to buy frozen.

If all you can get are frozen scallops, it’s okay. They can still be delicious. You’ll have to be a little more diligent with them. For starters, you must give the scallops enough time to defrost properly. This means that you will have to transfer them from the freezer to the fridge at least 24 to 48 hours before you want to cook them. Never put them in the microwave to defrost them and never submerge them in water. The microwave will make them rubbery. Submerging them in water will cause them to absorb loads of extra water.

Defrosting Scallops

When defrosting scallops, remove them from their original package and place them on a plate or a sheet pan lined with a paper towel or a kitchen towel. Make sure the scallops have a little space between each one. This space will help them defrost. It’s best not to cover the scallops when they go in the fridge, but if you do need to cover them, do it with a paper towel or kitchen towel rather than a plastic wrap. The towels would be changed in an ideal world after about 12 hours, but you don’t have to do this. Changing the towel will help dry the scallops.

If you need frozen scallops in a hurry.

If for some reason, you need scallops in a hurry and they are frozen, you can quickly defrost them in cold running water. “But wait, you said not to submerge them in water.” Yes, I did say that, and I meant it. If you quickly defrost scallops under cold running water, the scallops must be in a sealed bag. Either the bag they came in or a zip-top bag. Put the bag of frozen scallops in a deep container, put the container in your sink (make sure the sink isn’t plugged) and run cold water over the bag in a slow, steady stream. Defrosting the scallops this way will take about an hour, give or take. It is important to keep the water running to maintain a safe temperature and so that the water doesn’t get too cold.

How To Prepare Scallops For Cooking

Whether you use fresh or defrosted scallops, they will be prepared for cooking the same way. First of all, remove the foot (it isn’t actually a foot, but that’s what people call it). The foot is the little piece of white meat that hangs off the side of the scallops. It is edible, but it gets very chewy when cooked, so it’s always best to remove it. Once that’s done, pat the scallops dry on both sides with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel. Again, the surface of the scallops must be as dry as possible to get that perfect sear.

How To Cook Scallops

Choosing the right pan for cooking scallops

Scallops are very quick and easy to cook once you know how. The key is to get your pan very, very hot. I know that a lot of people don’t like to cook on high heat. I get it. But, with scallops, if you want that nice sear and rich flavour, high heat is vital. The pan you use should be either a heavy-duty non-stick pan, a very heavy-duty stainless steel pan, or a cast-iron skillet. My preference is cast iron becasue you can get it really hot. But, becasue of the sauce we’re making for the scallop recipe today, a non-stick or stainless pan is best. Again get the pan very hot. If your burner goes to 10, turn it on to 8 or 9 and leave it alone for 2 to 3 minutes.

Cooking the scallops

Once your pan is very hot, add just enough oil to cover the pan’s surface. Don’t use olive oil for this because it will burn and smoke. Instead, use an oil with a high smoke point like canola, peanut, or grapeseed oil. Season the scallops lightly with salt and pepper, then gently place them in the pan one at a time, leaving space between each scallop. When placing the scallops in the pan, start by placing them around the outside edge of the pan, then work your way in. Once you get the last scallop in the pan, go back and check the first one to see how well its colour is developing. Once the first scallop develops a deep caramel brown colour (about 90 seconds of cooking), flip it. Next, go around the pan and flip each scallop in the order they entered the pan and as they colour. Once the last scallop is flipped, go back and recheck the first one. Once the bottom is browned, take it out of the pan and place it on a plate lined with a paper towel. Repeat until all the scallops are brown on both sides and are out of the pan.

Don’t crowd the pan!

Wheater using fresh or frozen scallops, you can’t crowd your pan. You need to leave about 20% of the surface of the pan uncovered. This helps the pan maintain its heat. If the pan’s temperature drops too much from overcrowding or becasue it wasn’t hot enough to start with, the liquid will escape the scallops, pool in the bottom of the pan, and boil your scallops instead of searing them. Though this will happen with fresh scallops, it will be much more extreme with previously frozen ones.

Tequila Lime Sauce

At this point, you’ve perfectly cooked some scallops. You can enjoy them as they are, or you can take them one step further and make this delicious Tequila Lime Sauce. To make the sauce, remove the scallops from the pan and take the pan off the heat to let it cool down slightly. Add 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan, wait for it to melt, then add 2 tablespoons of minced shallot or onion. Put the pan back on the heat and cook for about 2 minutes before adding 2 ounces of good quality tequila (the one I used). Cook the tequila for about a minute, then add the zest of half a lime and the juice of a whole lime. Add the scallops back into the pan and toss with about 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped cilantro, then serve.

Tequila Lime Scallops

Seared scallops in a quick Tequila lime sauce finished with cilantro. A quick scallop dish that tastes like summer.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Course: Appetizer
Cuisine: Canadian
Keyword: alcohol, Fish and Seafood, Scallops, Seafood, Summer, summer cooking
Servings: 4 people
Author: Chef Ben Kelly


  • 1 lb Scallops, foot removed and patted dry 454 g
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tbsp salted butter
  • 2 tbsp minced shallot or onion
  • 2 oz Tequila
  • 1 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1 lime juice and zest


  • Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Make sure the pan is very hot.
  • Lightly season the scallops with salt and pepper.
  • Add the oil to the pan and gently place the scallops in one at a time. Leave the scallops alone for 90 seconds.
  • Gently lift one of the scallops. If the bottom is a deep caramel brown, flip the scallops and cook for 1 more minute. If the scallop is still white or just turning brown, leave it for another 30 seconds or so, then flip it and finish it on the second side for 1 minute.
  • Remove the scallops from the pan and onto a warmed plate. Set aside.
  • Take the pan off the heat and add the butter. Once the butter melts, add the shallots and return the pan to the heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 1 to 2 minutes or until the shallots soften and turn translucent.
  • Pour the tequila into the pan. If you use a gas range, lift the pan away from the flame before adding the tequila, then return the pan to the heat. Cook until the tequila has almost completely evaporated.
  • Take the pan off the heat and zest half the lime into it, then squeeze the juice from the whole lime into it. Return the pan to the heat for 30 seconds. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper as needed.
  • Take the pan from the heat and add the scallops into the pan, toss with the cilantro and serve.
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

The Wrap Up

I hope that you’re now excited to buy some scallops and cook them up for yourself. I know the process may seem complicated, but really, at its core, it’s just dry the scallops and cook them quickly in a very hot pan. There isn’t that much to it. If you’re wondering how to tell if your scallops are cooked, that’s not too difficult either. Right now, as you read this, hold your hand out and gently touch the tip of your middle finger to the tip of your thumb. Now, poke the bit of meat on your palm right below your thumb. A perfectly cooked scallop will feel the same when you poke it. I hope that helps. Thanks for reading, remember to share it, and have a great day and a great week! Oh, and if you cook some scallops, share some pictures of them on my Facebook page. I’d love to see them.

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