Grilled Oysters Are Better With Butter: How to Make the Best Barbecued Oysters

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

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I am an oyster fiend. You may think that with my recent transplant to the West Coast, I'd be in oyster heaven right now, but there's a catch: I'm an Atlantic oyster fiend. Oyster experts may tell me that the smaller, creamier, more robustly flavored Pacific oyster is the true connoisseur's oyster. They'll say that Atlantic oysters taste mostly of salty brine, and have a thinner, more watery texture. Maybe they're right. But I'm an oyster fiend, not a connoisseur, and no matter how often I try a Pacific oyster (and, having worked as an oyster shucker in the past, I've tried many times), I just can't get past a flavor that, to me, tastes...off.

So, when a buddy of mine recently gave me a whole case of gorgeous Kusshi oysters from British Columbia for helping him out with an oyster-shucking job, I immediately knew there was only one way I was going to be enjoying these deep-cupped beauties: on the grill.

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[Video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Think of grilled oysters as a beginner's oyster dish. They've still got some oyster flavor, but there's plenty of other stuff going on to soften (or even enhance!) their peculiarities.

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Grilled oysters weren't really a thing in the Northeast, where I grew up, but they're a staple in the Gulf and Pacific states. The basic premise is simple: Shuck oysters, place on the grill, add a sauce, and eat. The first time I had them was at a restaurant in Houma, Louisiana. I watched as the cook placed a half dozen deeply cupped oysters on top of a hot grill, then proceeded to ladle on butter that had been melted with garlic and roasted red peppers, letting the butter drip down into the flames to get just a bit of smoky, singed flavor into those oysters. They were flat-out delicious.

In California, I've seen oysters grilled with everything from barbecue sauce to cream and Champagne. I still prefer a simple compound butter, though, unless I'm planning on making a massive amount, I find it easier to just use softened butter instead of a tub of melted butter.

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I start by shucking the oysters one at a time (see our photo guide to shucking oysters here, as well as the video below) and laying them out on a rimmed baking sheet that I've lined with a piece of crinkled aluminum foil. That's a little trick that'll help you keep wobbly oysters upright so that their liquid doesn't go spilling around everywhere. That liquid is important! It's what's going to combine with your butter later on to form a wonderfully briny sauce that the oysters will simmer in. But we'll get there.

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[Video: Vicky Wasik]

I like to use a New Haven–style oyster knife, with its slightly curved tip to make popping the joint simpler. Daniel likes the straight, pointy blade of this oyster knife. If you've never used either before, they'll both offer a bit of a learning curve, but there's no need to have more than one oyster knife in your kitchen, whichever shape you choose. Still, you can get one of each if you're really shellfish (oh, man, sorry about that one).

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The first batch I grilled was with a classic compound butter, which has a French name that's so fancy that not just one but two different letters get to wear a little hat: beurre maître d'hôtel. Where I'm from, it's just plain old garlic-parsley butter. "Snail butter," perhaps, if you want to give it a bit more Continental context: It's got the same flavors you'd use to stuff broiled Burgundy snails, and it works amazingly well with almost any kind of grilled or broiled seafood, vegetable, or meat. (Get the recipe here.)

You can mash together softened butter with chopped parsley, garlic, and lemon juice in a bowl with a fork, but it's much easier to just do it in a food processor, where the butter will get softened and the herbs and garlic chopped all at the same time.

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If you're cooking for a large group and want to streamline things a bit, it can help to top each oyster with a couple of teaspoons of the butter mixture before they go on the grill, so that everything is ready to go. If I'm just cooking for a small party, I don't bother with that step; instead, I'll place the oysters straight on the grill and spoon out a little butter into each one as they heat up.

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The real key is to make sure you don't overcook them. Like clams or other shellfish, oysters can get a little rubbery if you let them cook too long. I grill mine, with the lid closed, just until the liquid inside is vigorously bubbling and the butter is completely melted, about 2 minutes. It's okay if the very tops of the oysters are still a touch raw. Better an undercooked, tender oyster than an overcooked tough one!

Flavor Variations

The fun thing about oysters with compound butter is that you can play with the flavors any way you wish. I wouldn't necessarily put blue cheese butter on an oyster, but anything with high acidity and bright, fresh flavors should work.

Kimchi butter couldn't be simpler: Combine chopped kimchi and butter. Ta-da! It's great on oysters, and also great stirred into noodle soups or melted on top of fried eggs or darkly charred grilled steak.

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For a milder variation on garlic-parsley butter, I like to swap the parsley for basil and add a good amount of Parmesan. Garlic-Parmesan butter is especially good for broiled dishes, in which that Parmesan has a chance to brown and deepen in flavor a bit.

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These are the kinds of dishes that can bring the East, the West, and the Southern coasts together. Now we gotta work on the middle of the country.