So, I was born in Marin County, California. That’s where they keep oyster paradise Tomales Bay, for those of you keeping score at home. In my world oysters are delicious, awesome, sexy, celebratory—and pretty much never cooked. Yes, you’ll find an old-school seafood joint here and there that will Rockefeller those badboys for you, and I think I experienced a deep-fried one once way out in Inverness or something. But we tend to be raw, raw, raw when it comes to these bivalves. You could easily grow up here unaware that the oyster had any other applications.
The first time I had an oyster in the south (Galveston, Texas, in case it matters), it was not like anything I had ever experienced. First of all, the oysters themselves were different. Like, huge. And these ones had been battered and fried and turned into a po’ boy.
Oysters are filter feeders who inhabit coastal areas of much of the planet. The waters the oyster comes from will have a discernible influence on its shape, size, and texture. Here are a few basic things to know about oysters.
•One oyster can filter 25-50 gallons of seawater per day. That is not a typo.
•They are low in calories and full of trace minerals—and yes, there is science backing up the aphrodisiac thing. They’re brim-full of zinc, which is your body’s precursor to testosterone. But there’s also something about their secretiveness, their mysteriousness, that I think plays into the arousal heightening thing. You just don’t know what you’re going to get until you pry it open.
•Roman emperors purportedly paid for oysters by their weight. In gold.
•Not only can you not tell a male from a female oyster by looking at it—they actually can (and do) changes sexes several times in their lifetime.
•The “only months that end in “r” rule is bunk. But it might not have been in the days before refrigeration. Perhaps the most logical way to think of it is not when it’s best to avoid oysters, but when it’s best to eat them. Rowan Jacobsen, author of the book A Geography of Oysters, writes that oysters gorge themselves when algae bloom is booming. In bear-like fashion, they fatten themselves up for the winter, when their food supply tapers off and they go dormant. You want to eat oysters after they’ve stuffed themselves in the summer and before they’ve burned through their reserves in the late winter and early spring. When in doubt, talk to your supplier or a knowledgeable chef.
So that’s just what we did. We asked chefs who will be participating in the Oyster Cook-Off & Craft Beer Weekend at The Hangout in Gulf Shores, AL on November 6-7 to share some pearls of wisdom (yes I said it) on this ubiquitous yet mysterious food.
Michele Ragussis (NBC’s Food Fighters / Food Network, Province Town, Mass.)
Favorite Preparation: Updated stuffed and baked, like a Rockefeller.
Shucking Technique: When I shuck, I like to go in the side and pop them.
Tips: Make sure you scrub the hell out of them [prior to shucking] and when you shuck, run your finger across the meat to make sure there are no fragments of shells. Don’t rush while shucking—we all have cut ourselves at some point. Or have your fish monger do it for you.
Greg Baker (The Refinery, Tampa, Fla.)
Favorite preparation: Raw. Maybe a cracker and cocktail. Maybe not.
Shucking technique: Hack, stab, curse, scream, throw, bandage, find an easier oyster to open.
Anecdote: I jumped out of a boat barefoot onto an oyster bed when I was about 12 years old. The resulting infections laid me up for a while and put me on a quest to devour every oyster that I can, in order to save the world from a similar experience.
Tips: The best oyster is the one in front of you—that someone else has shucked.
George Reis (Ocean, Birmingham, Ala.)
Favorite preparation: Cold, clean on the half shell. Bottom cup down and full of liquor! Fresh lemon [on the side].
Shucking technique: I am a hinge shucker: I hold the oyster in a kitchen towel, bottom cup down and use my oyster knife to pop open the hinge on the back of the oyster. Run the knife forward to free the top and under to free the bottom.
Tips: Wash your oyster well before shucking. Keep cold, preferably on ice.
Home shucking safety: Use a cut-proof glove. Place a kitchen towel on a table. Fold lengthwise four times. Roll it up a third of the way. Rest the oyster on it at a slight downward angle. Cover the top with the excess towel, leaving the hinge exposed, and shuck. The table adds support and allows you to not hold it in your hand.
Erik Niel (Easy Bistro & Bar, Chattanooga, Tenn.)
Favorite preparation: Oysters on the half shell with a spritz of lemon juice and a dollop of caviar. It’s so simple, and so perfect together.
Shucking technique: I’m a proponent of the towel and shucking knife. Towel in my left hand, folded over the oyster to grip it. Knife at the point, twist and move back on the top shell, separating the adductor. Then separate the bottom adductor and go.
Anecdote: Bad oysters happen, even with the best of suppliers. We have a rule at Easy Bistro, if you open a bad one (and if you do, you know right away) you have to immediately carry it to the dumpster. No reason to share that lovely smell with everyone else in the kitchen for the next couple of hours!
Tips: When we get into Gulf oysters—especially in the summer—that are real dirty and full of shell, I like to have a squirt bottle of salt water to spray them off with. We mix a little grey sea salt with our house-filtered water and jet the mud off of the oysters. It’s not perfect, but neither is eating mud.
I also really like to pair pickled things with oysters. Makes an easy topping.
Insight into oyster realm:Oysters are the food equivalent of wine. They can display terroir like no other food I can think of. For that, and many other reasons, I feel like they are unique.
Ephraim Kadish (The Gulf, Gulf Shores, Ala.)
Favorite preparation: Oysters are perfect. They are the proliferation of the sea, with a briny succulent taste and very unique texture. I find a very quick ceviche preparation is a worthy way to treat the oyster. At The Gulf we serve local Gulf oysters with a quick lime juice and chili slurry.
Shucking Technique: Each oyster has a secret way to expose itself. Its shape will determine the best method. Be gentle. Look for the tip, where there is a natural separation between the bottom and top shells. Slide your oyster knife between the two shells, and twist. The shells should pop apart. Remove the top shell, and then slide your knife under the flesh to release the oyster from the shell.
Anecdote: It is said that oysters are an aphrodisiac. My thought is it just gives people the ability to express their true feelings.
Insight into oyster realm: Oysters are to be celebrated, as part of our lives that bring us together to share and laugh and love.
Oysters in shell photo by Erin Kohlenberg CC BY
Barbecued oyster photo by Larry Hoffman CC BY
This post is brought to you by the Oyster Cook-Off and Craft Beer Weekend at The Hangout in Gulf Shores, Ala., Nov. 6-8.