Editor's Note 12/12/18: We're re-upping this overview of oysters so you can master the mollusk and then put your knowledge to use at Smorgasburg x VICE's new Night Market's Oyster Party.
As a little kid, I grew up in Vermont, but when I was 11 in the early 80s, my family moved to Central Florida. We'd have family day at New Smyrna Beach, where there were many typical skanky Florida raw bars in the area. And Florida being Florida during happy hour, these shacks were throwing free food at us to get patrons to stick around, so there were crazy oyster happy hour specials.
After beach day, we'd pop into Stormy's Crab Shack where my dad would order a bunch of oysters and we'd all hang out. I was the oldest of the three kids and very curious about oysters. He dared me to try one and they looked terrifying, as everyone's first oyster always does. You eat the first one just to prove that you're ready to play in the big leagues. The second was easier than the first, and the third one was fun. I was totally into it.
That was back in the day when you weren't seeing the names of oysters on menus, especially in the South. They were the cheapest ones—basic Gulf oysters—they could get, from Apalachicola or Louisiana. We were hittin' them hard with the cocktail sauce.
The best gateway into trying oysters are the tumbled ones from the West Coast: There's the Kusshi, but now there's Shigoku and others like Blue Pool and Chelsea Gem. They're small, they have smooth shells, and the meat is different inside. The tumbling process makes them a little firmer so that you don't have sprawling oyster gills in the same way as some of the other kinds that are out there. It feels like a little nugget of meat compared to a complex sea creature, and they're sweet and beautiful. But if you're a real brine hound, the Beausoleil or the La St. Simon from New Brunswick used to be the kinds to eat. They took a long time to grow, but nowadays it seems like the trend is moving towards smaller oysters. Oysters are friendlier than they've ever been because a lot of the boutique East Coast growers are pulling them out when they're pretty small and tend to be very salty, which makes them easy to eat.
I want an oyster to taste like the ocean, or an ocean bouillon cube.
When I'm eating an oyster, first, I taste with my eyes, Japanese-style. I see the oyster in its shell, and right away, I can tell whether it's going to be good or not. This is one of my pet peeves: an oyster should be opaque; it shouldn't be gray. It should be filling up its shell, and what you see so often—from high-end restaurants that should know better to the sketchy generic oyster bars that are just trying to get the cheap stuff—is an oyster that's totally translucent or one that's not filling it's shell. There's a ton of water in there. If you see either of those things, you know it's not going be great because it's got nothing in it. When it's ivory or opaque, that's because it's been feeding really well and it's full of starches and sugars and proteins. And when it's in the off-season, it doesn't have any food which turns it—in a sense—into a bag of water.
So take a look at your oyster. Inspect it. Then chew on it, or else you're not gonna taste it and you're just in it to look cool. Chew it because it's got a few different parts: in the center, you've got that disc of muscle which has that same firmness and sweetness as a scallop. Then there's the belly, which is gonna pop when you bite into it and it will give off a salty liquid. The gills give it a nice chewiness. When you chew it, you're mixing all of those flavors together to get that umami and sweetness. I want an oyster to taste like the ocean, or an ocean bouillon cube. In my first book, I was kind've an asshole about it, and I said, "never pour out the liquor," and pushed that a little too hard to the point where people took that to heart. Sometimes you get the oyster that's a little shrimpy in its shell, and you really don't want to just drink all that seawater, which is salt overload. In those moments, I'll dump some of that liquor out, because you want just a little shot of the ocean in there.
But don't overlook the "liquor." The liquid inside that shell is gonna be the really salty part, and often when you have a skinnier oyster, it's going to taste overwhelmingly salty and not balanced by those sugars and proteins that you get in a fuller one. For me, brine is a good thing, but it needs to be balanced by those yummy starches and sugars like a balanced potato chip flavor.
The moment a bad oyster is shucked, everyone knows it. There's no middle ground. It clears the room. If anyone is swallowing those things, I don't know what's going on.
To avoid food poisoning, I tend to give every oyster a micro-smell. The moment a really bad one is shucked, everyone knows it. There's no middle ground. It clears the room. If anyone is swallowing those things, I don't know what's going on. Otherwise, a bad oyster is one that's not fresh and may have just died on you. So give your oyster a micro-sniff.
Then there's the shell, which is the key part to the whole experience. They're so beautiful in shape, texture, and color. In a sense, they have their own smell—similar to that wet rocks at low-tide scent. After you eat the oyster, you can turn the shell upside down and build a beautiful little pattern on the plate as you eat through your dozen. By the end of consuming them all, you'll have this beautiful work of art in front of you.
When I'm eating oysters at home, I throw all the shells into the driveway, which eventually turns into gravel. I tend to eat a lot more of them in the winter when the weather is perfect. That whole model of following the R months doesn't matter anymore—that applied in the pre-farming era when hatcheries didn't exist and when oysters were a wild product. These days, they're fine to eat year-round, but most oysters have this magical season that begins around Thanksgiving and ends around Valentine's Day; the time when they're just awesome and you've got to explain to others why you're not eating oysters.
Rowan Jacobsen is the author of the upcoming THE ESSENTIAL OYSTER: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation, available via Bloomsbury. This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in November, 2016.
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