Once you get the hang of it, it’s fun and you feel accomplished. I have talked about what a picky eater I was growing up and I didn’t even start eating oysters until a few years ago. I was up in Portland, Oregon with my dad and my brother for a weekend trip and we went to an amazing seafood restaurant called Ringside. My brother – always the adventurous eater – and my dad had ordered an absurd amount of oysters and as I sat looking equal parts disgusted and intrigued, they convinced me to try one.
I distinctly remember first oyster I ever tried was a Kumamoto oyster. It’s a West coast oyster in a small shell with a deep cup and has a mild brininess and sweet flavor. I loved the combination of the brine and the creamy oyster. If you aren’t an oyster person then you can disregard this description as you’re probably grossed out. But I became obsessed with them. Now I’ll take any excuse to order a dozen oysters (or more). I have found that the discerning sushi lover is likely to enjoy the texture and flavors of oysters.
The myth is that the best months for oysters are the months that end in the letter ‘r’ – meaning fall and winter months. The reason for this is that they are spawning during those other warmer months and are not as palatable. That rule can’t be applied as generally anymore. Many types of oysters have been engineered not to spawn so that they can be harvested all year round. The key is to look for the freshest oysters you can find – those will usually be the best. Some factors like size, texture, brine and seasonality (which are all impacted by the location they are sourced from) come down to personal preference.
Here’s where we bring back the age-old East Coast vs. West coast debate. There are actually five different species of oysters: Pacific, Kumamoto, Eastern, European flat and Olympian – and all are very different. If you are new to oysters, then reading words won’t necessarily tell you what you like. It’s like wine, you have to experience the different flavors to learn what qualities you do and don’t like. So first go out and eat a bunch of different oysters (easiest homework ever). But before you do, here’s a little introduction to the varieties of oysters because not all are created equal.
Pacific oysters are often larger with sharp, rigid shells. They have soft and sweet flavor often with hints of fruit flavor. They originated on the Pacific coast of Asia and now account for about 75% of all oyster production. Many of the Pacific oysters eaten in the US come from the west coast. Especially in bays like California’s Humboldt and Oregon’s Puget Sound.
Kumamoto oysters originated in Japan and are small and creamy. They are great for beginners because of their mellow, familiar flavor. They don’t have much brine because the meat takes up the majority of the shell.
Eastern oysters are large oysters with firm meat and a briny finish. They typically have a smoother and rounder shell than the Pacific oysters. These oysters pull their flavor from their environment and are native to America. They often come from the Chesapeake Bay or the Long Island Sound.
European Flat oysters, also known as Belon oysters, are medium sized oysters with a round and shallow shell (hence ‘flat’ in the name). They have a notable metallic taste. This is because they are high in iodine, which leads them to be off-putting and they tend to be disliked by many. They are also hard to ship — they die if they are out of the water more than a few days.
Olympia oysters are the last of the main five species of oysters. They are categorized by their small size and coppery, smoky taste. Because they aren’t the easiest to harvest or ship (even harder than the European Flat) they aren’t as popular as other oysters. They are so small that they hold little liquid and therefore dry out quickly. While they are small, they pack quite a flavor punch.
Since there are numerous types of oysters, Oysterater is a great site if you want to look up qualities of a specific type. Next time you order a dozen oysters at a raw bar don’t be afraid to ask questions or to try different varieties.
Shucking an oyster isn’t intimidating if you learn to do it the right way. I bought an oyster knife specific for the task. They are short bladed, dull-pointed thick knives with a tip just sharp enough to penetrate the shell and wedge open an oyster.
Kumamoto oysters are the hardest to shuck because they have more misshapen shells and it can be difficult to find the hinge. They aren’t impossible but for those new to shucking it can be time consuming (and agitating).
Once the oysters are shucked, plate them on a bed of crushed ice or rock salt inside a platter or even a deep pizza or pie dish. This will keep the oysters level. If you aren’t serving them as you shuck them, it’s best to keep them on ice to keep them as fresh as possible. I put a piece of plastic wrap over the ice to keep the melting ice from getting in the shell. Try to shuck them as close to the time of consuming them as you can.
It’s always a good idea to serve oysters with an assortment of toppings ranging in acidity and flavor – lemons, plain horseradish, cocktail sauce or mignonette are a good place to start. If you want to mix it up a bit check out these recipes for Earl Grey mignonette or apple cucumber mignonette – two different spins on the classic accompaniment.
Unsure how to proceed with eating an oyster with grace? As you stare down at the oyster-filled shell just proceed with confidence – I usually check to make sure the muscle on the bottom of the shell is completely cut then I add my toppings, tilt my head back and slurp the oyster. Give it a few little chews to thoroughly enjoy the flavors of the oyster, then swallow it.
Personally I tend towards oysters that are on the smaller to midsize and I like oysters that are either creamy or briny. While I am no oyster expert I love reading all about things, especially food that interests me. So, if you are intrigued by oysters as much as I am and want to learn more, a good place to start is with Rowan Jacobsen’s book “The Geography of Oysters”. No matter your preference, throwing your own oyster party isn’t as hard as it would seem. If you want to serve your oysters baked rather than raw, try this recipe for oysters Rockefeller here.
Just remember – practice safe shucking!