Despite its perfectly reasonable desire to protect its fleshy treasure, an oyster is nothing short of shuckable in the right hands. Just coax apart the shell and the oyster presents itself, damp and salty, resting in a pool of its own briny nectar ("liquor") and smelling delicately of the water that bore it. An oyster's flavor and texture are a direct result of the mineral content, salinity, and temperature of the gallons of water it filters through its gills every hour, which is why different origins create very different tastes. The next time a waiter reels off a list of the day's raw-bar offerings, let this be your guide.
Four Things You Should Know
1. Oysters, found in estuaries where seawater mixes with freshwater, are shelled invertebrates (or cold-blooded, soft-bodied animals without backbones, like snails) classified as bivalves. While oysters have separate sexes, they may change sex one or more times during their life span, and there is no way of telling by examining their shells.
2. It isn't as relevant with today's cultivated oysters, but warm-water months without an r (May, June, July, and August) traditionally make up the spawning season, during which oysters tend to be thinner and less tasty, as energy is directed to reproduction. (The heat during these summer months also impacts safety and shipping.)
3. An oyster holds itself together with about 22 pounds of pressure (for protection and to prevent dehydrating during low tide). The more frequently an oyster opens, the stronger the muscle and the tighter the seal, producing a better shelf life when it leaves the water.
4. When Aphrodite bestowed her aphrodisiacal qualities on oysters, it was more than myth. In addition to their provocative appearance, oysters are loaded with zinc (which controls progesterone levels, linked to increased libido), iron, and other stamina-inducing nutrients.
The East Coast/West Coast Thing
Native East Coast oysters are all the same species -- grown subtidally with smooth shells -- and are typically sold under regional names like Wellfleets (from Cape Cod), Blue Points (Long Island), Chincoteagues (Virginia), and Apalachicolas (Florida). Eastern oysters tend to be milder than those farmed from the West Coast, although their taste and texture vary with location. The cold-water temperatures of New England slow down metabolism, producing slightly crisp, sweeter oysters; expect meatier, flabbier oysters with more saltiness as you work your way down the coast into warmer waters.
The only species native to the Pacific Northwest is the tiny Olympia, named after the once-thriving oyster community in Washington's Puget Sound and a casualty of shoreline pollution and overfishing (particularly during the California gold rush). The Olympia is making a slow comeback, and its silver-dollar size and clean, almost cucumber-like finish make it a perfect cocktail oyster.
As the Olympia went into near extinction, exotic varieties were imported from Japan: the Pacific oyster, found from southeastern Alaska to Baja, California, and later, the less prevalent Kumamoto. Both are typically grown inter-tidally and have rough, fluted shells. The Kumamoto oyster has plump meat with a sweet, subtle mineral flavor that is perfect for half-shell beginners. There are many regional varieties of Pacific oysters, ranging from slightly fruity with a green apple finish to crisp and lightly salty to full on briny with a sublime steely aftertaste.
How to Shuck an Oyster
Shucking can be dangerous, and as speed and numbers increase, so does the risk -- hence the chain-mail gloves made just for this task. But John Finger from Hog Island Oyster brings it simply and safely down to four steps. All you need is a clean, dry kitchen towel, a good oyster knife (below), and a modicum of good sense.
The Equipment You'll Need
The Dish: Serving oysters on a bed of crushed ice not only keeps them cold, it keeps them level, so you don't lose any of the nectar. Traditional French-style 14-inch stainless-steel oyster platter $18 and stand $12 plus shipping; 800-473-0577; jbprince.com.
The Knife: We recommend a four-inch Dexter-Russell with a stain-free, high-carbon-steel blade and a polypropylene handle for a slip-resistant grip. $15 plus shipping; 415-663-9218; hogislandoysters.com.
Under cold running water, scrub any mud or dirt from the shell (it should be tightly closed and feel heavy) with a stiff wire brush. Keep the oysters refrigerated (cup side down to help retain their nectar) and covered with a damp, clean kitchen towel until ready to serve.
Using a folded towel or glove, securely hold the oyster cup side down with the point (or hinge side) toward you. Keep your hand across the oyster, perpendicular to the knife. Insert the oyster knife through the hinge, angling the blade down into the cup of the oyster. When you feel the knife sink in, twist it as if you were turning an ignition key until you hear the hinge pop.
Starting at the adductor muscle -- the tough little band that clamps the two sides of the shell together -- scrape the blade across the top of the shell (similar to keeping the knife near the bone when filleting fish) by rotating the oyster until the adductor muscle is on the far side of the shell, away from you. (When you open the oyster, there shouldn't be any meat attached to the top shell.)
Rotate the oyster so the adductor muscle is now directly in front of you again, sliding the knife under the muscle to loosen the meat. Check for any shell or grit. Settle the bottom of each shell into a bed of crushed ice and serve immediately.
Because this is a bivalve worth traveling for...
"Oysters as God meant you to eat them" is Hog Island’s promise. Call ahead for a reservation (415-663-9218; hogislandoysters.com) and you'll get a shucking tray that includes a glove, knife, hot sauce, and lemon (along with a lesson if you need it), and a pile of oysters to eat at a picnic table that's five feet away from their home in Tomales Bay.
The annual Wellfleet OysterFest (wellfleetoysterfest.org), held the weekend after Columbus Day, is a two-day celebration of the town's deep-rooted shellfishing traditions, featuring New England oyster fare served with local beers and a shuck-off. Stop by the raw-bar booth of the Wellfleet Shellfish Company, 13 acquaculturists (many descended from local shellfishing families) who form a marketing-and-sales cooperative promoting Wellfleet oysters and local clams.
Shucking's been a spectator sport for 40 years at the National Oyster Shucking Championship, held during the St. Marys County Oyster Festival (usoysterfest.com), always the third weekend in October, the opening of oyster season, at the County Fairgrounds. Contestants from around the country meet local shuckers to open 24 oysters from Chesapeake Bay in record time. Past winners have gone on to the international competition in Galway, Ireland. There's also oysters any way you like them -- stewed, raw, fried, or scalded -- as well as oyster cook-offs.
Bivalves at Your Doorstep
Don't feel like travelling to the ocean to get your oysters? These companies will mail them to you.
West Coast: The Hog Box from Hog Island Oyster Company
Three dozen Sweetwaters -- lightly salty with a smoky-sweet flavor and a long, oval-shaped, fluted shell -- packed with a glove, knife, and Hog Island T-shirt and hat. $90 plus shipping and handling; 415-663-9218; hogislandoysters.com.
East Coast: Mac's Seafood
Direct from the salty waters of Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts' long, strong-shelled oysters have slightly crisp flesh with a flinty "cold water" taste. Two dozen Well-fleets packed with a tangy cocktail sauce $39 plus shipping and handling; macsseafood.com.
what i look like when i eat an oyster.
*That is a lie: I would definitely eat one for a million dollars. Or a thousand dollars. Maybe ten.