It’s no secret that oysters are an aphrodisiac (to get technical for a second, the ocean-dwelling mollusks contain amino acids, which trigger the production of sex hormones). Science aside, oysters have come to represent everything sexy and luxurious about Valentine’s Day, but despite their popularity, they’re also shrouded in mystery: what’s the difference between an East Coast and West Coast oyster? How do you actually crack one open without injuring yourself? And what’s with all the liquid sitting inside the shell?
Foodies, fear not! Cynthia Nims, the author of Oysters: Recipes that Bring Home a Taste of the Sea ($16; amazon.com) and former editor of Simply Seafood magazine, is here to help you become an oyster pro just in time for Feb. 14. “With more oyster bars popping up across the country and new oyster growers bringing more of the briny delights to our table, there’s never been a better time for oyster aficionados to get their fill and oyster novices to learn what all the fuss is about," says Nims. Read her top tips below.
Know your species. “On the East Coast, you’ll find the Eastern species of oyster, known for its light, briny flavor, while the West Coast’s Pacific oyster tends to be more complex, verging on melon and cucumber,” says Nims. “It’s important to note that the flavors of oysters vary quite a lot based on the waters in which they were grown, so species isn’t the only taste determiner. Other species you may see include kumamoto (easy to love, a great 'starter' oyster), Olympia (tiny, native to the West Coast) and the European Flat (very limited availability from both coasts).”
Embrace variety. “Oysters travel quite well, so don’t be surprised to see geographic diversity represented when browsing an oyster bar menu," she says. "Though the closer you are to oyster-growing territory, the more likely the menu features distinctly local selections. Try tasting three or four different varieties (Eastern and Pacific oysters are usually identified by the place they came from rather than species name), to better appreciate their distinct character and learn which ones you like best.”
Start shucking. Albeit carefully. “Shucking requires practice to get a feel for where to insert the tip of the oyster knife (be sure to use a tool made for this purpose, not any knife from your kitchen) to begin separating the shell halves at the tapered hinge,” advises Nims. “Next, you scrape the knife blade along the flatter top shell to sever the adductor muscle, and once that shell is removed, slide the blade under the oyster to sever the bottom side of that same muscle. Safety is paramount: be sure to wear a shucking glove and/or protect your hand with a heavy kitchen towel.” Nims adds, “Keep an eye on what the shucker’s doing next time you’re sitting at an oyster bar, and maybe even ask for some tips.”
It's called "slurping" for a reason. “It may not be the most graceful form of eating, but it is perfectly acceptable to lift the shell to your lips and tip its contents—both the oyster and its bracing liquor (the clear briny liquid surrounding the meat in the shell)—into your mouth,” says Nims. “Alternatively, there’s likely a small seafood fork served with your half-shell oysters, which you can use to lift just the oyster to your mouth and later sip the liquor from the shell, if you wish.”
Don't get too saucy. “The purists among oyster lovers consider the liquor to be the only garnish needed for a half-shell oyster. Though common accompaniments, such as lemon wedges for squeezing or a bit of freshly-grated horseradish, add a bright complement to the oyster,” explains Nims. “The quintessential sauce for oysters is known as mignonette: red wine vinegar, a bit of minced shallot, and a dash of freshly ground black pepper. From this foundation, oyster bars craft countless variations on the theme, sometimes in frozen form as a granita. Whatever’s available, use sauces judiciously so the oyster still shines through.”