Essentially a simple custard made of sugar, milk, egg yolks…
Cooking with good quality ingredients is key to achieving a good result on the plate. That’s a no-brainer. But it’s also important how you cook the product.
I recently visited a friend for dinner. He’s a pretty good cook, and he pulled out of the fridge a bowlful of beautiful sea scallops that he had cleaned and prepared. They were a lovely slight-pink colour, shiny and moist, and had a briny aroma of the sea.
The plump bivalves were just extraordinary looking, and the cook was proud of his catch: he promptly turned and plunged the scallops into a heated and oiled pan. But the pan was too small, and that is an important technical cooking point.
Use the right-sized pan for the job. It’s what French cooks call à taille, in that sort of lofty, snooty way French chefs can have. If the pan is too small, you steam the food; if too big, you burn the fat that you are cooking in (and that’s not good for the pan, either). It’s called proper batterie de cuisine, or that’s what Escoffier, Robuchon or Ducasse might say.
By jamming the succulent and delicate scallops, sardine-style, into the pan, they couldn’t sauté properly. Instead, they steamed in their own juices.
Of course, what you want in a scallop is that nice brown seared exterior and the just barely cooked inside. First, let the scallops come to room temperature, pat them completely dry, season with a bit of salt and pepper, and set them into a hot pan that lets the scallops sit happily without touching each other. (The scallops in the photo here, prepared by Neil Baxter at the former Rundles in Stratford, are perfect.)
Sparing the pan means spoiling the scallops.