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Oyster Mythbusting: Debunking 5 Common Misconceptions

[Photographs: Julie Qiu]

Raw oysters: whether or not you're a fan, you've probably made up your mind about them one way or another. But how much do you really know? Surprisingly, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about these enigmatic bivalves. With oyster popularity on the rise, it's time we set the record straight.

Myth #1: The bigger or more expensive the oyster, the better it must be.

When it comes to accurately evaluating an oyster's quality, size and price aren't big factors. According to Shane Covey, co-owner of Upstate Craft Beer & Oyster Bar, time is actually the variable that matters most. "My buying protocol is to seek out the freshest. Like any commodity that is alive, it has a shelf life and it immediately starts to depreciate in value as time passes. As far as size is concerned, I have found customers who like a bigger bang for their buck, but size has nothing to do with an oyster's flavor profile. I carry over 24 different types, and compartmentalizing them into bigger-is-better just doesn't fit."

So how do you determine freshness? Ask your fishmonger or oyster shucker about the harvest date. It can be found on the bag tag, which is a slip of paper that comes in every bag of oysters. Growers are required to provide them and sellers are required to keep them on hand.

Myth #2: Oysters are delicious, but not that nutritious.

Worried that raw oysters are high in calories, cholesterol, and heavy metals? This will help put your mind at ease. Oysters were previously thought to contain high amounts of cholesterol, but new methods of calculating cholesterol levels have actually removed oysters from the hit list. In fact, Dr. Denise Skonberg, Associate Professor at the University of Maine's School of Food and Agriculture assures me that oysters are a healthy food! "I consider them a powerhouse of micronutrients, including zinc, iron, and vitamin B12. They are definitely not high in calories; a 3 ounce serving of raw Eastern oysters has only about 45 calories. That amount has about a week's worth of the daily zinc requirement and about 5 days worth of the B12 requirement for adults. Oysters are also an excellent source of the very bioavailable heme iron."

At this rate, your wallet is more likely to suffer around oysters before your health ever does.

Myth #3: Raw oysters are not safe to eat during months without the letter R.

The enigmatic R rule is perhaps the most widely known, and most misunderstood, oyster myth of them all. Although it once served a purpose, the policy is pretty much defunct now. Sandy Ingber, Executive Chef of the Grand Central Oyster Bar helps explain why. "The warmer, non-'R' months, are when oysters spawn. Spawning oysters are not actually harmful to eat, they just aren't palatable."

The R rule once helped to give wild oysters time to repopulate. But these days, many varieties have instead been bred to not spawn at all, allowing them to be harvested and consumed year-round.

One important caveat is that warmer-than-average water temperatures have increased the prevalence of vibrio vulnificus. The pathogen, which some oysters have been found harbor, can indeed make people sick. But incidences of illness are carefully monitored by the USDA and harvesting policies have become much stricter than before. "So one, if not the most important thing for the consumer to know, is to only buy oysters from retailers or restaurants that sell products from certified waters," says Chef Ingber. Now that's a sensible rule to abide by, R month or not.

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Myth #4: Eating oysters is bad for the environment.

Oyster reefs are amazing structures that provide a natural habitat for marine life and help clean our water. So by eating them, aren't we actually doing damage to the environment? The truth is that 98% of all oysters we consume are farm-raised, and much of the industry has modernized their operations to leverage sustainable aquaculture methods. Matt Gregg, owner of Forty North Oyster Farm in Mantoloking, New Jersey is among the thousands of oyster farmers along the East Coast looking to make a difference. "We're seeing a renaissance of ambitious salt-of-the-earth entrepreneurs, growing oysters in an environmentally sustainable way. Oyster aquaculture is different than let's say, tilapia aquaculture; there is no input. I don't feed my oysters anything. They actually eat a food that created the whole problem: algae. For my farm, by the time an oyster is ready to go to market, it could have filtered up to 40k gallons of water. That's just one oyster!"

While it sounds counterintuitive, consuming oysters actually helps the environment. It keeps the bivalves' biggest advocates in business, which means cleaner bays! (So eat more oysters!)

Myth #5: Oysters pair best with Champagne or wine.

20140224-oyster-myths-vertical2.jpgOysters and cold Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, or Chablis are classic pairings, but by no means are they the be-all-end-all of "merroir-terroir" matchmaking. There's a growing preference for oyster and beer pairings (check out our suggestions here), but my personal favorite is well-matched selection of oysters and sake. "The brilliance of the oyster and sake pairing is that the combination brings out the creaminess and minerality of the oyster as it picks up on the similar elements in the sake," sake expert Monica Samuels explains. "In general, West Coast oysters are far more successful with sake than East Coast, as sake does have a brininess that can overemphasize the saltiness in an oyster. One great pairing is Takatenjin "Soul of the Sensei" Junmai Daiginjo with a creamy West Coast oyster with notes of melon. This sake has upfront qualities of green melon with a creamy, slightly lactic quality on the finish—they are super elegant together."

Not a sake fan? We've got a handy guide to oyster pairings right this way!

More Oyster Reading

About the author: Julie Qiu is an international oyster blogger for In A Half Shell. She has traveled around the world to document oyster cultivation and consumption culture, and has experienced over 300 varieties of oysters grown across six continents. She teaches an online Skillshare class called Oyster Confidence: The Practical Guide to Boost Your Half Shell Game.

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