How to Buy, Store, and Shuck Oysters
What you need to know about this most prized bivalve.
For a time when I was growing up my family spent our summers on the Florida Gulf Coast. Some of my fondest memories of this time are family dinners at the local crab shack. That's where I first ate my first raw oyster on the half shell. I can remember anointing it with what I would probably now consider too much cocktail sauce, giving it a few chews, and swallowing it down. I was enamored and I still am. To me oysters taste of the sea in a way no other sea creature really does.
Most of the oysters available these days are farmed. Aquaculture is a truly sustainable farming method. In fact, given a single oyster's capacity to filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, oyster reefs are pretty beneficial to their host waters. At my fish store in Brooklyn, I source most of the oysters we sell from farms and wild beds here in the Northeast. Almost all of the oysters grown on the East Coast of the U.S. are a single species, and almost all grown on the West Coast are another. This means that by and large, each oyster variety comes by its defining characteristics from the waters where it is grown, a concept called merrior.
Shopping for and Storing Oysters
Choose shellfish with tightly closed shells that feel heavy for their size. If you are going to eat them within a day or two, simply store your oysters in the fridge in the packaging they were sold in, making sure they get some air flow (they're respiring, even if it doesn't look like it). If you need to store your oysters for a bit longer, place them cup side down in a bowl and cover them with a damp towel to keep them hydrated. Remoisten the towel every few days. People often worry about storing shellfish at home, but fresh oysters are pretty hardy. In fact, many oyster farmers store their oysters in indoor cold cellars all winter in a process called "pitting." At home, your oysters will be quite happy in your fridge for at least a week.
When to Buy and Eat Oysters
You may have heard the old the old adage about only eating oysters in months with the letter "R." You can forget this saying, as it dates from pre-refrigeration times when warmer months meant more food safety issues. Shellfish are now among the most highly monitored foods we eat, and oysters are available and safe to eat all year round.
That said, I do think there are better times of the year for oysters in terms of deliciousness. My favorite time to eat oysters is November through February. After the summer, our local oysters have plumped themselves up with stores of glycogen for the winter and are at their sweetest. Oysters tend to spawn in late spring and early summer and they can be watery or a little milky during this time. This is much less of an issue now that there are so many oyster farms in different areas (they don't all spawn at the same time). There are even oysters called "triploids" that are sterile and never spawn at all.
How to Prep, Serve, and Eat Oysters
The simplest way to eat oysters is raw, on the half shell. You'll need a sturdy oyster knife (I prefer the "New Haven" style) and a kitchen towel to shuck them safely. If you can, serve raw oysters on a bed of crushed ice-I think this really enhances the experience. If you don't have access to crushed ice, line a plate with coarse salt and pop it into your freezer for an hour to chill.
When you're ready to serve, nestle the shucked oysters into the ice or salt with accompaniments of your choice. Some people are purists, and prefer their oysters completely naked. Different varieties of oysters have varying degrees of salinity, minerality, and sweetness, to name just a few notable characteristics. I always try my first oyster unadorned and follow with another with a drop or two of citrus to see how the acid changes the oyster's flavor profile. Many people enjoy their oysters with cocktail sauce or hot sauce, and if you are one of them, don't let the purists deter you.
Unless I'm roasting or grilling oysters on the half shell, when cooking oysters I prefer to buy containers of shucked oysters. When cooking oysters the key is to not overcook them. If you're using a high heat method such as grilling, roasting, or frying, make sure your stove or grill is up to temp so the cook time is minimized. For pan roasts and oyster stews, I add the oysters towards the end of the cooking time and warm them through until they plump up and their edges just begin to curl.
The best way to learn about and experience oysters is to eat them. Don't be afraid to bring them home and get shucking, you'll be glad you took the leap.