Some great couples are 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 animals commonly consumed live in the Western world. Paired with a frosty beer or a crisp white wine or Champagne, they are the perfect hors d'oeuvre. The key is knowing how to select your oysters 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.
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 and actually clean the water that they are farmed in. Double win!
Shopping and Storage
Oysters in the shell must be sold live, by law. When you're 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—ideally, on crushed ice.
When you get them home, store your oysters in a container, again 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.*
*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 freshly ground black pepper. Let it sit overnight to develop flavor. My mignonette: a couple tablespoons of perfectly minced shallot mixed with two tablespoons of white wine vinegar and lots and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
East Versus 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 its oysters by harvest location. A quick rundown, for the uninitiated:
East Coast oysters tend to be very salty and briny, with a clean, crisp seawater flavor. 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 the Atlantic oyster.
West Coast oysters come in a few species (Pacific, Olympia, Kumamoto) all of which have a softer, creamier texture. Their flavor can run from being mildly metallic and mineral to strong, almost fishlike, with a hint of iodine. For beginners, Kumamotos, mostly farmed in Washington State, are the easiest to appreciate. They are small, plump, and relatively mild, with a faint melon flavor. Fanny Bays from British Columbia are one of the most popular Pacific oysters, with a characteristic cucumber finish. Olympia oysters were once the predominant species in Washington, before being depleted and eventually replaced with Pacific varieties from Japan. Olympias tend to be the strongest, most mineral, and most robust.
Whatever oyster you choose (and I encourage you to get a wide selection at first, to figure out your favorites), make sure that they are wholesome before you eat 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 is known in the competitive-oyster-eating industry as "a reversal of fortune."
Shucking: Step by Step
Shucking takes some practice, but if you keep at it, you'll figure it out. You may never be as fast as a professional raw-bar shucker, but you'll be fast enough to open one or two dozen at home without too much trouble.
Step 1: Set Up Your Workspace and Get Oriented With Your Oyster
I like to keep my oysters nice and cold while I shuck them, so I'll fill a large bowl with ice water and submerge them in it. That way, they'll stay chilled no matter how long it takes to shuck them all.
Next, fold a clean kitchen towel lengthwise into thirds. You'll be using it to brace the oyster during shucking, and to protect your hand from an accidental slip of the knife.
If you're removing the oysters from the shells completely, fill a medium mixing bowl with crushed ice, sprinkle it with salt, and nestle a slightly smaller bowl into that. This is where you'll drop the shucked oysters and their liquor; the bed of salted ice helps keep everything extra cold. If you're leaving them on the half shell, fill a platter or rimmed baking sheet with coarse salt or crushed ice to help stabilize them.
Also, make sure you have a garbage can right next to you, or a large bowl for collecting the spent shells.
Now grab your first oyster, and take a look at it. One of its two shells will have a belly to it, while the other will be flat. The belly side is the bottom, and the flat is the top. On some varieties of oyster, you may have a slightly harder time telling the difference, but in most cases, it's easy to spot.
Step 2: Nestle the Oyster in the Towel
Set your oyster belly side down on the folded towel. If you're right-handed, position the oyster so that its hinge (where the shells taper together) is pointing to the right; if you're a lefty, you'll want to point that hinge to the left.
Now fold the towel over the oyster so that only the hinge is exposed, and place your nondominant hand on top to hold it steady. Try to bunch up the folded towel in front of that hand—if the oyster knife slips, that towel is the only thing preventing your hand from getting jabbed, so make sure it's protecting you.
Step 3: Place the Oyster Knife Tip in the Hinge
Work your oyster knife into the hinge. This is the part that takes practice. Like a rock climber searching for a handhold, you're trying to find a sweet spot in that hinge where the knife can get some leverage. You don't want to push too hard with the knife—this isn't about forcing it between the shells. Instead, this is all about finesse: Wiggle the knife around until you feel like you can exert some pressure against both the top and bottom shells at once by twisting and prying the knife.
Step 4: Twist and Pry
Once you feel like you've got the knife tip solidly in place, work the oyster knife up and down, while also twisting and rotating it: You're searching for just the right movement and position to pop the top shell from the bottom with a prying motion. Apply just enough pressure into the hinge as you do this to keep the knife solidly in there, and push no harder than that. Again, it's not about brute force.
You may need to reposition the tip of the knife if you're not having luck. Eventually, you'll get the perfect position, and, pop, you'll hear and feel the oyster yield. The more practice you get, the easier it will be to find the sweet spot.
Step 5: Rotate the Knife Blade to Separate the Top Shell From the Bottom Even More
Once the shells have popped, you'll usually have a very narrow opening—the oyster may have lost the ability to shut its shell completely, but it's still not opening wide for you. So twist your knife so that the broad flat of the blade pries the shells apart even more.
Step 6: Clean Your Blade
You should have scrubbed your oysters well before shucking, but there can still be some mud deep in the hinge. You don't want to spread that mud into your nice fresh oyster, so take the knife out and wipe away any schmutz on the towel. Once the knife is clean, you can go back to inserting it into the oyster.
Step 7: Sever the Muscle
Inside the oyster is a muscle that connects to the top and bottom shell, and it's this muscle that the oyster uses to open and close its shell. By prying the shells apart, you've done enough damage to the muscle that it is no longer able to tightly pull the shell shut again, but it's still there, and it's still acting as a tie between the top and bottom shells. You need to sever it.
You won't be able to see it, because the shells will still be too close together, so you just have to do it by feel. Starting from the hinge end, slide the blade across the oyster, keeping it as flat as you can against the top shell. Approximately two-thirds of the way through is where the muscle is, so just sweep the knife across until you hit it and sever it.
Once you cut the muscle, you should be able to pull the top shell off. Use the knife to free any oyster meat that is still clinging to the top shell, trying your best not to damage the oyster in the process.
Step 8: Throw Out the Top Shell and Inspect the Oyster
Get rid of that top shell, because you're done with it. Now look at your oyster. It should look clear and fresh, with plenty of liquid around it. Smell it, and throw away any oyster that smells even a little bit off. (If your source is good, this should be fairly rare.)
Also inspect the oyster for any shell fragments that got onto it when you popped it open, especially near the hinge. Use the tip of your clean oyster knife to discard them. You may also, on rare occasion, find an oyster crab—a teensy-tiny soft-shell crab—hiding in there. This is not abnormal, and it is nothing to be worried about. Throw away the crab and keep the oyster, which is still perfectly good for eating.
Be careful not to tip the oyster and lose all its liquor when you handle it.
Step 9: Free the Oyster From the Bottom Shell
The final step is to slide the knife under the oyster, severing the muscle from the bottom shell. (Otherwise, it won't slide out straight into your mouth, which is where it would be headed if I were you.) Push the oyster around to make sure it's totally free in the shell.
Now set it on your prepared platter, if eating them on the half shell. Or slide the oyster and its liquor into the bowl on ice, and throw out the bottom shell. Grab your next oyster and repeat.