For a historical background on oysters, please read Oysters Part 1-Introduction; The seduction from the sea.
Buying, Care and Cleaning:
Buy the freshest oysters possible from cold waters (look for oysters from the Pacific Northwest, both coasts of Canada, and places in the far southern hemisphere like New Zealand and Chile). Do not eat or buy any whole oysters which are open as this means they have died and are not safe for consumption. Sometimes a live oyster will open slightly. Give it a tap and if it snaps shut, it’s still alive. If not, toss it.
Store fresh oysters in the refrigerator with the cup side down and their flat side facing up. Cover with a wet kitchen towel. Do not store them on ice because sitting in melting fresh water can kill an oyster. Don’t store oysters in an air-tight container because lack of oxygen can kill them. Remember, they are living creatures until they are shucked!
To clean, place oysters in a colander in a sink and rinse under cold running water. If you can, cover them with crushed ice while shaking them under the running water. This will keep them colder and the ice will help clean away any dirt. If necessary, scrub off any mud and debris with a scrub brush.
Shuck oyster as close to possible to serving them. Set them on a bed of crushed ice and don’t leave them sitting for more than half an hour. If absolutely necessary, you can pre-shuck oysters into a bowl with their liquid and reserve in the refrigerator. Thoroughly wash and dry the bottom shell, making sure the inside is clean. Save these shells and fill with a shucked oyster and a little of the reserved liquor. Note; while you can pre-shuck them, I highly recommend you don’t; oysters are 100% better if shucked to order.
Have a party!
Even though oysters are often reserved for special occasion restaurant meals, there’s no reason you can’t shuck ‘em and eat ‘em at home for anything from an elegant dinner party to a casual buffet. An oyster tasting party sampling different varieties, similar to a wine tasting, is a fun event. Plan on at least three oysters per person for a sit down appetizer, fewer for a buffet with lots of canapé choices, or more if the crowd is filled with oyster lovers.
How to open an oyster:
First, get the right gear; an oyster knife and protective glove. Never use a regular knife; not only is there a much greater risk of injury to you, but an oyster knife is stronger than a kitchen knife which could easily break. The glove is important because it’s possible for the knife to slip or even go through the shell.
If you are right handed, wear a protective glove on your left hand. Hold the oyster, cup down, in your left hand with the back “hinge” facing you. Alternatively, you can hold the oyster down on top of a kitchen towel placed on a sturdy surface. Use your left hand to hold the oyster, and with your right hand insert the tip of the oyster knife in the hinge and push down, twisting the knife slightly to the right. This should release the top shell from the bottom shell.
Slide the knife inside the oyster, and move it along the inside flat part of the top shell. This will cut the oyster’s abductor muscle from the top shell. Remove the top shell.
Slide the knife under the oyster to release it from the bottom shell. Serve immediately on a plate covered with crushed ice.
For more on oysters, read Part 1, Introduction. Coming next…(Part 3) Sauces and garnishes for raw oysters and (Part 4) traditional Oysters Rockefeller.
Disclaimer #1: Standard health warning regarding oysters: There is a risk associated with consuming raw oysters or any raw animal protein. If you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood or have immune disorders, you are at greatest risk of illness from raw oysters and should eat oysters fully cooked. If you are unsure of your risk, you should consult your physician.”
Disclaimer #2: Parts of this post were originally written and photographed by me for the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Whisk Magazine.