Oysters have been harvested from the ocean and prized for as long as there have been people to gather them, and their popularity has remained undiminished over time, as Sandy Ingber can attest.
As the chef of New York City's Grand Central Oyster Bar, he serves around five million oysters each year, and possesses a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of the art of choosing, shucking, and preparing fresh oysters.
An oyster's flavor is shaped by the minerals, nutrients, and salts in its water and mud bed, so depending on where they are harvested, even oysters of the same species will vary in flavor.
When you're selecting one of the many varieties available -- such as sweet Kumomotos or Wellfleets, or the more briny Belons -- make sure the oysters are alive, wet, and have a mild, sweet smell. Do not select specimens that are dry or have a strong smell, or if their shells refuse to close even when tapped with your finger.
To shuck an oyster, scrub it first with a stiff brush under cold running water. Hold the oyster flat on a table or countertop with your left hand so the thin end points towards you.
With your right hand, force your oyster knife (look for these special knives in cooking-supply stores) between the shells at the thin end -- avoid plunging the blade directly into the oyster -- and move the knife sharply left and right to cut the muscle that's attached to the shell. Remove the shell with a twisting motion, and cut the other end of the same muscle that's attached to the opposite shell.
Sandy says that the best way to enjoy the full flavor of the oyster is to eat it plain, although lemon juice, cocktail sauce, or horseradish are all lovely accompaniments. He also suggests trying a sauce made from mixing a half-cup each of red-wine vinegar and tarragon vinegar with one tablespoon minced shallots and a quarter-teaspoon of freshly ground pepper.