Today, most oysters are farmed so supply is pretty steady. Nonetheless, they are pricey and it’s smart to know how to select the best oysters and prepare them properly in order to get the most value for your dollar.
When we think of oysters, we usually think of them as being shellfish, like lobsters or other seafood, but actually they are mollusks. They are in the same family as clams, mussels and scallops.
Oysters are saltwater mollusks with rough, dull shells. Inside the shells you will find a tidbit of creamy flesh along with succulent, clear juice. In this guide you will learn everything from how to shuck oysters to presenting them with simple delicious recipes.
What's the Best Way to Eat Oysters?
Smaller oysters are usually best when eaten raw. Large oysters (e.g. Pacific oysters) are better when cooked. There are a number of ways to cook oysters, including:
- Pan Frying
Oysters also make a nice addition to fish soup and fish stew.
When Is the Best Time to Eat Oysters?
You may have heard it said that oysters should only be eaten in months ending in the letter "R". Actually, the best months for eating oysters are September through April.
The reason for this is that during the cool months from fall to early spring, oysters in their natural habitat are resting. In the springtime and in the summer they spawn and this causes their flesh to become soft, milky and unpleasant tasting.
These days, it is really all right to eat oysters all year round because they are mostly farmed. For this reason, you can usually obtain them fresh and in peak condition for eating at any time of the year.
Even so, the months between September and April remain the very best months. These are the months when nature tells oysters to put on little fat for the wintertime. This natural process gives them a more flavorful and robust taste.
Where Should You Buy Oysters?
Be sure that your source for oysters is reliable. Buying direct from the farmer is the best way because you can be certain of getting very fresh specimens. This is always important, and especially so if you plan to eat your oysters raw.
If you buy from a store or a fish market, make certain that the oysters you are considering buying are sitting on fresh ice.
They should not be sitting in water because fresh water will kill saltwater oysters.
It is also possible to buy oysters direct online. Just as with any other online purchase, check to be sure that the supplier you are buying from has good ratings with consumer protection agencies and has good reviews from customers.
What To Look For When Purchasing Oysters
You want to be certain that the oysters you buy are alive.
They should smell fresh, and shells should be tightly closed. They should also feel heavy for their size.
If they feel light and hollow, it means that they've been out of the water for a long time and there is no juice or liquor inside the shells.
When purchasing in person, it's a good idea to sample one of the oysters you are intending to buy to be certain it is fresh.
You should also ask the seller to show you the "bag tag". This will tell you the date that the oysters were harvested.
How Can You Keep Oysters Fresh?
It is very important to shuck and eat your oysters as soon after purchase as possible, but you can keep them fresh in the refrigerator for a couple of days if necessary.
To do this, you should lay them out on a plate or tray in the refrigerator with the cup side of the shell facing down. Be sure to cover them with a damp towel.
Don't put them in water because fresh water will kill them.
How To Clean Oysters
Cleaning them in preparation for cooking or eating is easy. Just scrub the outsides of the shells under a cold running tap. Be sure to use a stiff brush to get all the debris and dirt off.
If you find an oyster with an open shell, throw it away. If the shell is damaged or open, it means that oyster is dead.
Naturally you want to eat your oysters while they're still alive, unless you plan to cook them, in which case you want to be sure to cook them alive.
To determine whether or not your oyster is alive when you pry open the shell, you can scrape the prongs of a fork over the outer edge of the flesh. If the oyster shrinks back in its shell, you know it is alive.
How To Open An Oyster Shell
Once your oysters are clean, you can open (shuck) them by wrapping an individual oyster in a cloth or tea towel and setting it on a countertop or specialized board with the flatter half of the shell facing up. You should be looking directly at the hinge.
You will need a good shucking knife with a sharp point. Don't opt for one with a rounded end, and don't use other types of knives as this can be quite dangerous.
You will want to be careful to protect your hands. For this purpose, you can buy specialized shucking gloves that may even have a layer of Kevlar to protect you against accidentally stabbing yourself. Don’t rely too heavily on this, though. Take care!
Other items that can be helpful include:
- A specialized shucking board to help you hold the oyster steady.
- A trash bag for discarding the top shells
- A clean towel to wipe up any missed bits of mud or broken shell.
- Your presentation pan, plate or platter ready and filled with crushed ice.
Once you have everything in place, hold the oyster firmly and insert the tip of your shucking knife into the small hole you will see in the hinge. Twist the knife to snap the shells apart.
Oyster shucking gloves can help prevent injuries and are totally recommended!
Run the blade of the knife back and forth along the edge of the upper shell. This will sever the muscle holding the shells together.
Be careful not to tip the lower shell. Lift the top shell off and you will see the oyster flesh and liquid (liquor) inside the lower shell. You want to be careful not to spill the liquor, and it's a good idea to open your oysters over a shallow dish or bowl to catch any spills.
Your last step will be to remove the "black beard” you will see on the main body. Place the oysters in half shell with their natural liquor on a bed of crushed ice to keep them fresh. Now you are ready to serve.
Options For Serving Raw Oysters
Purists like raw oysters as-is. They add nothing at all. Others like to spice them up a bit. When you serve your raw oysters, you should have these condiments on hand:
- Freshly Ground Black Pepper
- Mignonette Sauce
- Chopped Shallots
- Cayenne Pepper
- Lemon Wedges
- Tabasco Sauce
- Lime Wedges
It is also traditional to serve buttered brown bread with raw oysters. Champagne or white wine are both excellent as accompaniment. Most gourmets recommend Sauvignon Blanc.
If you are a beer drinker, a good Pilsner or oyster stout are fine options.
How Do You Cook Oysters?
Opening the shells to prepare oysters for cooking is a bit easier than opening them to prepare them for being eaten raw.
Instead of breaking their spines with the point of a knife, you put them in the microwave for half a minute to a minute. Alternately you can steam them for a few seconds to force their shells open.
Cooking oysters is quick work. Because the morsels of flesh within the shells are quite small, it takes very little time to cook them thoroughly. There are quite a few excellent oyster recipes available, and an online search for “oyster recipes” will yield a generous and varied selection.
Is Oyster Flesh Good For You?
Eating oyster meat is very good for you, indeed! It is low-calorie with very high nutritional value. Oyster flesh is filled with minerals and vitamins along with almost pure protein. When you eat oysters, you get substantial doses of:
- Omega-3 Fatty Acid
- Vitamin C
Many people associate the appearance of oysters/with their reputation as being an aphrodisiac, but there is actually scientific evidence to support rumors of their actual rousing qualities.
Researchers and scientists have found that oysters contain rare amino acids that have genuine, positive physical effect on sex hormones in human beings.
Prepare Quickly And Then Savor
When you take care to select very fresh oysters and prepare them quickly and skillfully, you avoid wasting money in a number of ways.
When you know what you are looking for, you won’t buy spoiled or dead oysters. When you store your oysters correctly and prepare them quickly and skillfully, you can be sure of serving safe, tasty dishes at their best.
In addition to your own safety and enjoyment, you might also consider the fact that the creatures you are dealing with are alive. Oysters are not especially complex creatures, but they are living things.
In their natural habitat they can live as long as 20 years and are capable of changing their gender as needed for evolutionary success throughout their lives.
While most scientists say that oysters don’t feel pain, the fact that they shrink away when you touch their flesh does tell us that they feel something. It certainly can’t be pleasant to be doused in lemon juice or hot sauce or cooked alive!
Remember that quick, skillful preparation of all seafood is best practice in terms of your own safety and enjoyment. Do take the time to practice your shucking skills and strive to perform all your preparations quickly and skillfully. It’s better for you and kinder to the oyster!
When you eat your oysters, slow down and savor! Be sure to take a few moments to truly appreciate the intense nourishment and enjoyment you are receiving.