Give ‘Em A Break!

Raw, fried or stewed — those are just a few ways to prepare the delicious oyster. These bivalve mollusks from brackish water  can be caught wild in shallow waters or cultivated in bays.

Oysters have been part of regional cultures for hundreds of years. In the late 1700s, New York had oyster carts that were as prevalent as hot dog carts are today. Many cities with a strong oyster culture used oyster shells to pave streets and parking lots. (Some still do.)

Oysters are much more than gravel replacement, though; some types can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, leaving the water cleaner than they found it.

Mid-Missourians don’t have the exposure of the coasts or the Gulf to seafood. The flavor of oysters is directly related to the waters where they grow (usually near a fresh water inlet, saltier than fresh but not as saline as the ocean). The brine taste can range from extremely salty to almost sweet. They can differ wildly in size and taste depending on where they are harvested.

Raw is not the best beginner’s introduction to the world of oysters. While the taste is amazing, the first experience with the texture can leave a negative impression. Many love the addition of lemon juice, hot sauce, horseradish or mignonette sauce to an oyster, but a true oyster lover needs no training wheels. Most people just swallow the entire oyster whole. As they learn to love the texture, large raw oysters become more desirable.

Mignonette Sauce
1 shallot, minced (about ½ cup)
½ cup red wine vinegar
3 to 5 peppercorns, crushed with the bottom of a pan
1 sprig of fresh thyme leaves
Bring all ingredients to a boil, transfer into a container and place in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours to allow the liquid to cool and flavors to meld. Serve on oysters as desired.

Most fried things are awesome! There is just something delicious about a thin breading on an oyster that is tossed into 365-degree fat. The fat and the breading heat up to a crisp shell, warming the oyster inside slightly while keeping its contrasting texture. Oysters can be breaded in many different ways — cornmeal and breadcrumbs are the most popular. Some chefs use a blend of cornstarch, cornmeal and flour for texture.

The process is simple: Coat the oysters in seasoned buttermilk, then dredge (lightly coat) in the breading and fry. The oil should be about 365 degrees and it should take only about a minute of frying until the outside is crisp and brown. Remove the oysters from the oil, place on a paper towel to drain, and serve with a wedge of lemon and dipping sauce, if desired.


Easy Remoulade Dip
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 teaspoon mustard
¼ teaspoon paprika
Hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce to taste
Whisk all ingredients together. Season to taste with hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce.

There are many other ways to cook and prepare oysters. (I classify cooked separately from fried because frying should be a very short exposure time to the heat.) Stewed, steamed, baked or smothered — they’re all delicious.

Of the numerous ways to cook oysters, one factor remains constant: time. If you think meat needs to be watched carefully so it does not overcook, that problem is magnified for oysters — they will overcook much faster. As soon as you see any liquid seeping out of the oysters, they are ready to be removed from the heat. If you are adding oysters to a liquid, they should be the last ingredient added. An overcooked oyster, even in liquid, starts to shrivel and take on a rubbery texture.

The Oyster Knife
If you want to eat fresh oysters, you need an oyster knife. It may look similar to a paring knife but there are several major differences. An oyster knife is not actually sharp; it comes to an edge but is rounded off or flat. (You can still hurt yourself if used improperly, though.) The knife is extremely rigid. Think of it as a crowbar. The end comes to a blunt tip and this allows you to break the hinge of the oyster.


Breaking In

  1. Go through the oysters and throw away any that don’t close quickly when tapped, or don’t close at all.
  2. Gently scrub the oysters with a clean brush under cool running water. Keep the cleaned oysters cool in the refrigerator or on crushed ice.
  3. Fold a thick towel in half or in quarters. Place an oyster on the middle of a towel with the hinge facing your dominate hand.
  4. With the other hand, curl the towel around your knuckles and push down from the top to secure the oyster.
  5. Use the tip of the oyster knife to gently but firmly push it into the hinge of the oyster shell. You only want to break the hinge on the shell; you don’t want to stick the oyster.
  6. When the hinge is broken, run the blade over the top shell and disconnect the oyster from the top shell. This shell can be discarded.
  7. Using the same motion, disconnect the oyster from the bottom shell, making sure not to lose any of the oyster liqueur.
  8. Place the oyster on crushed ice and serve with desired accompaniments.


The “R” In The Rule

There is an old rule that says you shouldn’t eat oysters in months that don’t have an “R” in them (May, June, July and August). There are a few reasons for this.

  • Oysters are filter feeders and there is a higher bacteria count in the water during warm months.
  • It is harder to transport oysters safely during warm months.
  • Oysters tend to spawn during summer months, making them smaller and not as tasty.

The “R” rule doesn’t always apply because …

  • Many oyster farmers have a depuration (cleansing or purifying) process that the oysters go through, purging them of any harmful bacteria
  • The shipping process of oysters has become much easier due to refrigeration
  • There are many types that do not spawn during warm months and still have great quality during the warm season.