Some great couples are just ill-fated from the get go. Take warm summer evenings and perfectly plump, ice-cold oysters for example. A match made in heaven right? Except that oysters are unfortunately at their worst in the summer.
Then again, even a thin, summer oyster is still a thing of beauty. Cold and briny with the fresh, salty-air scent of the ocean, they are the only animal commonly consumed live in the Western world. Paired with an ice-cold beer, or a crisp, dry white wine or Champagne, they are the perfect hors d'oeuvre or appetizer. The key is knowing how to select them, and how to open them. You'll definitely need an oyster knife, a special dull-pointed, thick-bladed knife that is used to pry the back hinge open and separate the body from the shell. Watch the video for full details.
Besides being outright delicious, oysters are among the healthiest things you can eat, both for yourself, and for the environment. Unlike fish farms, which produce tons of dangerous waste and require inefficient feeds and medicines, oyster farms have minimal environmental impact, actually cleaning the water that they are farmed in. Double win!
Shopping and Storage
Oysters in the shell must by law be sold live. When buying them, they should be clamped tightly shut. If they are open at all and don't close immediately when tapped, they are dead and should be avoided. Smell the oysters, too. If there is any kind of fishy aroma, avoid them. Fresh live oysters should smell like a sea breeze. When buying oysters, ensure that they are being stored cup-side-down in the store, and that they are well-chilled—on crushed ice is ideal.
To store oysters, keep them in a container with the cupped side of the shell down so as to retain as much liquid as possible. Cover the container loosely with a damp cloth and keep it in the refrigerator for up to a week. Do not cover the container tightly with plastic wrap or the oysters will suffocate and die.
Before shucking, oysters should be vigorously scrubbed under cold water to remove any dirt, mud, sand, or hidden nasties from the rough outer shell. Really good oysters are best served simply dressed with either a squeeze of lemon, a very sparing amount of cocktail sauce,* or a few drops of mignonette.**
East Vs. West
There's a lot of debate among oyster aficionados as to whether East Coast or West Coast oysters are superior. I was born in New England, so you can guess which camp I align myself with. Any decent fishmonger or oyster bar will identify their oysters by harvest location. A quick rundown, for the uninitiated:
East Coast oysters tend to be very salty and briny, with a clean, crisp flavor of seawater. The best (by which I mean my favorite) examples of the style are the incredible blue-green bivalves from Wellfleet, Massachusetts; the large, reddish, super-salty ones from Pemaquid, Maine; or real Blue Points from Long Island (be careful, because that appellation is often abused). Also fantastic are the widely available Island Creek oysters from a farm in Duxbury, Massachusetts. They are all the same species: Atlantic Oyster, though occasionally you can also find the Belon on the East Coast. More common in Europe, it tends to be more assertive in flavor and less briny than Atlantic oysters.
West Coast oysters come in a few species (Pacific, Olympia, Kumamoto) all of which have a softer, creamier texture that can sometimes border on slimy. Their flavor can run from being mildly metallic and minerally to strong, almost fishlike with a hit of iodine. For beginners, Kumamotos, mostly farmed in Washington State, are the easiest. They are small, plump, and relatively mild with a faint melon flavor. Fanny Bays from British Columbia are one of the most popular farmers of Pacific oysters, which have a characteristic cucumber finish. Olympia oysters were once the predominant species in Washington before being depleted and eventually replaced with Pacific varieties from Japan. If you can find one, they tend to be the strongest, most minerally, and robust on the market.
Whatever oyster you choose (and I encourage you to get a wide selection at first to pick your favorite), make sure that they are wholesome before eating them. The liquid inside should be relatively clear (not cloudy or yellow), the flesh should be shiny and look lively (not dull or yellow), and there should definitely not be any kind of off, rotten, or fishy aromas. If in doubt, throw it out. You don't want to suffer what in the competitive oyster-eating industry is known as "a reversal of fortune."
* My cocktail sauce: two tablespoons each of ketchup and freshly grated horseradish (prepared horseradish is fine), mixed with lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco to taste, with lots and lots of fresh ground black pepper. Let it sit overnight to develop flavor.
** My mignonette: a couple tablespoons of perfectly minced shallot mixed with 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar and lots and lots of fresh ground black pepper.