Pan Seared Scallops over Spinach Pesto Pasta

If you love pan seared scallops, this is a quick and easy diner dish that never fails to WOW. Use jumbo scallops for this impressive gourmet recipe. You can use store-bought pesto, but my special spinach version makes a spinach pesto pasta that’s perfect with seared dry scallops for an elegant meal that’s simple to make.

dry diver scallops, spinach pesto and pasta arranged on a counter.

Sea scallops are one of those luxe ingredients that deserve to be the star of the show. Depending on where you live, they can be very expensive, which is why, in my opinion, they should be treated reverently and simply. Don’t over-complicate them — the luxury is the scallop itself. Especially jumbo U10-U12 dry diver scallops, like these. Now to be clear, you can make this easy scallop pasta with any size shellfish, but if its for a special occasion, splurge for the biggest, freshest ones you can find to really make a statement. Your guests will thank you.

What are U10 scallops?

“U” refers to “under” meaning that it takes 10 scallops or UNDER to equal one pound of scallops. In other words, they’re REALLY large, jumbo shellfish.

What the difference between wet and dry scallops?

Wet scallops are treated with sodium tripolyphosphate to keep them fresher, longer, which doesn’t SOUND like a bad thing until you discover the ramifications of soaking scallops in the solution.

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The problem with sodium tripolyphosphate

  1. Like a brine, scallops absorb the sodium tripolyphosphate plumping them with the solution… consequently, you’ll pay more for those scallops by weight. Not cool.
  2. The solution masks the natural smell of the shellfish, making it harder to determine how fresh it is. (Remember, fresh seafood should smell like the ocean and not “fishy”.)
  3. Sea scallops that are soaked in this chemical bath WILL NEVER BROWN. So that nice, golden, pan-seared ideal can’t be achieved, because when you put a tripolyphosphate soaked scalloped into a hot pan (even if you’ve dried them first), the liquid solution immediately seeps from the shellfish and STEAMS the scallops rather than searing them.
  4. To avoid getting wet (chemically treated) scallops, ask your fishmonger. Frozen scallops will have been treated with the solution, so look for fresh, from a reputable source.

What are diver scallops?

A small percentage of scallops are actually caught by divers, hence the term, “diver scallops,” however, that name is also interchangeable with “dry” scallops, meaning that they haven’t been soaked in sodium tripolyphosphate.

Ingredients for pan seared scallops

  • Butter (you can use clarified butter to avoid the browned butter specks in the pan, but that doesn’t bother me)
  • Olive Oil
  • Jumbo U10 to U12 Scallops (Dry, Diver Scallops)
I melted butter in a cast iron skillet to sear the sea scallops.

The key to a good sear is a hot pan, the heavier the better. For me, cast iron is my hands down favorite. Cast iron is heavy and conducts heat evenly without hot spots. You can also use a good heavy, stainless steel skillet. Some people swear by non-stick, but in my experience, they’re not needed for this method of cooking. The oil and butter create enough of a barrier between the jumbo scallops and the pan that they won’t stick. Read this Washington Post article to see other methods to prevent your food from sticking to the pan.

I am adding the scallops to the hot pan.

How to sear diver scallops

  1. Heat the dry pan over the burner until it’s hot.
  2. Add the oil and butter and swirl the pan so that the fats evenly coat the bottom of the skillet.
  3. Dry the diver scallops with paper towels and gently set them in the pan, leaving room between them, so they’re not crowded.
  4. Let the shellfish cook, untouched for 2-3 minutes. (Resist the urge to fiddle with them).
  5. Use a pair of tongs or a fish spatula to gently turn the scallops to sear on the other side. They’ll only need to cook for another minute or two.
  6. Transfer the seared scallops to a plate and continue cooking the remainder of the shellfish in the same manner.
Flipping the scallops once they're cooked on the first side. The crust is golden brown.

Look at that beautiful golden crust. My mouth is watering just looking at them. They are tender and succulent — and not over-cooked. Remember, diver scallops will continue to cook once you’ve removed them from the pan, so taking them off the heat before they “look done” is the best way to go. The residual heat from the hot pan will finish the job.

Scooping out the spinach pesto from a jar.

Spinach pesto pasta starts with the sauce

I use this homemade pesto for the spinach pesto pasta. Instead of pine nuts, this pesto sauce is blended with toasted almonds and fresh spinach. It’s bright, fresh and absolutely delicious with al dente spaghetti. If you don’t have a batch of fresh pesto at the ready (I know that sounds very Martha Stewart, but cut me some slack, I’m a food blogger, this is what’s in my fridge), you can certainly use a store bought pesto. My daughter loves the Kirkland brand one from Costco.

Mixing cooked pasta with the pesto until it's well coated.

Tips for perfect spinach pesto pasta

  1. Use the best quality pasta you can buy. I was introduced to La Molisana, a family-owned Italian pasta company, last year at the Fancy Foods Show in New York and it’s now my hands-down favorite. If you see it in the market, be sure to pick up a package or two. {not an affiliate, just a fan}.
  2. Cook the pasta just to al dente.
  3. Don’t drain the pasta. Instead, use a pair of tongs to transfer the pasta directly from the pot to the bowl with spinach pesto. This will keep some of the pasta water on the noodles and loosen the pesto enough to cling evenly to the pasta.
  4. If the spinach pesto is clumpy, add a few tablespoons of the hot pasta water to the bowl and toss again until it’s loose enough to evenly coat the noodles.
  5. Divide the spinach pesto pasta into serving bowls and top with a few seared dry scallops.
  6. Serve with additional parmesan cheese and fresh herbs for color.

I get giddy when I think about this recipe, it’s such a flavor treat. The scallops are briny and buttery, moist and super-tender because this pan seared scallops recipe treats the seafood with respect. The spinach pesto pasta is creamy (without cream) and herbal without being overpowering. Try this with a chilled buttery chardonnay, clean, crisp sauvignon blanc or pinot gris.

Topping a plate of pasta with seared sea scallops.

More easy seafood recipes you might like:

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seared sea scallops over spinach pesto pasta.
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5 from 1 vote

Seared Scallops Over Spinach Pesto and Pasta

You’ll love this delicious seared scallop recipe because it comes together very quickly and the spinach basil pesto dresses al dente pasta with fresh flavors. It’s a perfect dish for spring and summer and is perfect for date night.
Author: Lisa Lotts
Course Main Course
Cuisine American
Keyword pasta, pesto, sea scallops
Dietary Restrictions Pescatarian
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes
Servings 6


  • 1 pound linguine or other long, thin pasta
  • pounds large “Dry” Sea Scallops (a.k.a Diver Scallops)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • flaky sea salt
  • ½ cup Spinach Basil Pesto


  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add 2 teaspoons salt. When the water is boiling, add the linguine and cook to al dente according to the package instructions.
  • While the pasta is cooking, Dry the scallops completely with a paper towel and set aside.
  • Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. When the pan is hot add the butter and olive oil, swirling it around in the pan until the butter has melted. Working in batches, place the scallops in the pan (allowing room between them, so they’re not crowded in the pan.
  • Sear the scallops for about 2-3 minutes per side (do not agitate or move them, just let them cook). Use a pair of tongs to flip the scallops and continue cooking for an additional 1-2 minutes until caramelized on the other side. Remove the scallops to another dish to keep warm while you continue to cook the remaining scallops.
  • Drain the linguine (reserving about ¼ cup of pasta water). Transfer the linguine to a bowl and add about ½ to ¾ cup of pesto. Toss the pasta with a pair of tongs until the pesto is well combined, adding the pasta water to loosen up the sauce.
  • Plate the pesto pasta and top with seared sea scallops.Sprinkle the scallops with flaky sea salt. Add fresh basil or parsley for garnish if desired.


Calories: 529kcal | Carbohydrates: 63g | Protein: 25g | Fat: 19g | Saturated Fat: 5g | Cholesterol: 42mg | Sodium: 644mg | Potassium: 473mg | Fiber: 3g | Sugar: 3g | Vitamin A: 669IU | Vitamin C: 4mg | Calcium: 59mg | Iron: 2mg

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One Comment

  1. 5 stars
    This is the BEST way to prepare scallops!! Can’t wait to make this recipe again!