While tearing into a plate of $1 P&J Oysters at a happy hour in New Orleans, to my delight I pulled a small, misshapen pearl out of my mouth. Not the most beautiful of pearls, or the biggest but you would have thought I found an entire pearl necklace with all the hollering I did about it.
To date, that has been my best oyster experience by far but I would not be lying to say that experience only deepened my fascination with oysters. I can count myself in good company, as a waitress in LA I have served dozens of oysters to celebrities such as the smoking hot Emma Stone and stone cold fox Ryan Gosling.
Coming in at around a gram of protein each and loaded with minerals like muscle building zinc & blood enriching iron, these mollusks are not only beautiful to look at and just as delicious to eat but oysters are a diet secret of the stars. For a non-diet busting appetizer to dinner out look no farther than a half dozen on the half-shell. Oysters are a traditional food that have a history of nourishing everyone from humble native populations to the fanciest of fancy pants gourmands.
Like the British condiment Marmite, oysters are a polarizing food that many either love or passionately hate. Everyone who hates them seems to claim that it’s the texture that the problem. Allergies can also be a concern and my oyster allergic pal has coined a truly revolting nickname for the “mucus pies” that can make her itch and scratch if even a drop of oyster “liquor” hits her skin.
So for those who look at oysters and see either a briny death or a mucus pie I say so sad for you and all the more for me. If you want to give oysters another go, I highly suggest seeking out the freshest oysters you can find, ones that are on the smaller side & are shucked right before you eat them. Avoid oysters from warmer waters or during times of spawning. A spawning oyster is unpleasant to put it mildly.
Bubbly wines, stout & vodka are traditional beverage pairings for oysters and will enhance the subtle flavors of the oyster while red wine will only make “fishy” flavors stand out even more strongly. As I often have a few oysters for a light post market breakfast I find them delicious on their own and the only beverage I need is the gorgeous liquor contained inside the shell.
A past boyfriend described oysters as a vehicle for horseradish-y cocktail sauce, with hot sauce & lemon being my personal fave closely followed by traditional mignonette (essentially shallots & red wine vinegar). When at home I make the most of all my ferments and top oysters with ‘kraut juice, preserved lemons or one of my favorite ferment brines: kumquat & jalapeño.
Straight-up no chaser is another way I go about it and I reserve that for liquor rich oysters that are only the freshest of the fresh, such as the Luna oysters I was introduced to by Christophe Happillon, LA’s Oyster Gourmet. When buying oysters you want to make sure they are from a reputable supplier. In California it is law for establishments selling oysters to keep the shellfish tags on file and it is within your rights to ask to see them.
Last time I bought oysters at Wholefoods Market the young man commented to his co-worker that “you gotta love a woman who shucks her own oysters”. As much as I know the kid was awkwardly trying to flirt or compliment me I bristled at his sexist comment. It does not take a genius, a penis or a culinary degree to shuck your own. There are a zillion instructional posts & videos out there and an most places that sell oysters also sell oyster knives. That is in only pre-req: an oyster knife.
I like to use my hubby’s technique to hug the oyster in a towel as you open in but in reality an oyster knife is all you really need, not a kitchen knife, not a screwdriver (unless a trip to the emergency room is your idea of a good time). Get yourself a real designated oyster knife and do some research. Sitting at an oyster bar like the Oyster Gourmet at Grand Central Market is a great way to watch a pro in action and more than likely they will give you a few of their tips. Here are a few of my own:
- Buy the freshest oysters available from a reputable source. Keep oysters refrigerated in a colander filled with ice, on a dish to collect melting water.
- Obtain an oyster knife.
- Fold a kitchen towel in half lengthwise once, then one more time, then fold both towel ends in towards the center. Fold that in half, in essence creating a little pocket to hug and stabilize the oyster while protecting your hand.
- Insert the oyster with the larger bowl shaped shell on the bottom, head first into your towel pocket with the bottom pointy edge sticking out about an inch.
- Securing the oyster by pressing down on the towel, nose the oyster knife into the apex of the point, where both shells come together. Avoid stabbing the oyster, ease the knife in.
- Once the tip of your knife is in, it’s like using a key in a lock. Using an upward twisting motion, unlock the top shell and use the flat part of your knife on the inside top of the shell to release the oyster and lift the shell. Try to hold the oyster as still as possible to avoid losing the precious liquor.
- I run my finger around the edges of the oyster, feeling for debris such as shell fragments for removal.
- Give the oyster a sniff: it should smell fresh and of the sea. A dead oyster smells bad and a bad oyster is not something you want to tangle with. Any doubts, chuck it out.
- Run your knife under the oyster to free it of the bottom shell. You will need to cut through the adductor muscle otherwise when you slurp your oyster, it will stay firmly attached to the shell. I like to flip the oyster over to reveal what I consider the prettier side, and to ensure it is released from the shell.
- I immediately dispose of the shells & rinse the towel before I launder it to avoid any surprise kitchen stank.
- Repeat with your remaining oysters, top with your condiment of choice and enjoy!
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