All You Need to Know About Oysters

Danny Abrams and Sandy Ingber present the essentials of buying, preparing, and enjoying the pearls of the sea
by Carolina Santos-Neves and Kemp Minifie, Epicurious

Oyster varieties: (1) Totten Inlet Virginica (2) Royal Miyagi (3) Pemaquid (4) Montauk Pearl (5) Martha's Vineyard (6) Kumamoto (7) Blue Point (8) BelonOyster varieties: (1) Totten Inlet Virginica (2) Royal Miyagi (3) Pemaquid (4) Montauk Pearl (5) Martha's Vineyard … Welcome to Oysters 101: Everything you need to know about one of the ocean's tastiest bivalves. You can roast, bake, fry, or broil them, but slurping oysters fresh from the sea is the best way to enjoy them at their peak freshness. For expert advice, we consulted two authorities on the subject: executive chef Sandy Ingber (a.k.a. the "Bishop of Bivalves") of the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant and Danny Abrams, owner of the Mermaid Oyster Bar, both of New York City. Abrams is the creator of the Oysterpedia app, and Ingber is coauthoring, with Roy Finamore, The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant Cookbook: Recipes and Tales From a Classic American Restaurant, due from Stewart, Tabori & Chang this summer in celebration of the Oyster Bar's centennial. Read on to learn everything you've always wanted to know about oysters, from how to buy to how to shuck and eat them--plus, whether they really are the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Epicurious: What should you look for when shopping for oysters?
Danny Abrams: Only buy oysters that have closed shells, because oysters with open shells are dead.

Sandy Ingber: Look for shells that are tightly closed, with no foul odors. They should be deep-cupped and evenly shaped. Buy oysters from certified waters, ask your fishmonger to let you see shellfish tags, and only buy fresh oysters.

Epi: Do oysters have a season? Is there truth to the saying that fresh oysters should be consumed only in months with an "r" in their name?
DA: This is no longer applicable. Cultivation methods have changed, and oysters are good every month.

SI: Many oysters have a season when they spawn, and during that time they are not pleasant to eat, but they're not harmful, either. There is also a type of oyster called a triploid, which has an extra chromosome. It never spawns, and is in season year-round. The "r" month is mostly a fairy tale nowadays because there are so many different oyster varieties available now in the United States and Canada that when one oyster spawns there are plenty of other ones that aren't spawning.

Epi: How far in advance do you recommend buying oysters to serve at home?
SI: I recommend buying the oysters either the day of or the day before. East Coast oysters have up to a two-week shelf life, and West Coast oysters have up to one week, but I don't really recommend buying them that far in advance.

When purchasing oysters, a good rule of thumb would be to buy oysters that are close to your region. Oysters that are from surrounding areas have been out of the water the shortest period of time.

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Epi: What's the best way to store oysters once you bring them home?
SI: It's best to store oysters in a pan, covered with a moist towel and then placed in the refrigerator.

Just as they come, usually in a bag. Do not store in ice--if it's too cold, it will kill the oysters.

Epi: What's the best way to serve raw oysters?
SI: I place the oysters on the half-shell on crushed ice on a rimmed platter and garnish them with seaweed and lemons.

DA: I would serve them on some rock salt and fresh seaweed. You can ask your fishmonger for the seaweed when you purchase your oysters.

Epi: What preparations do you recommend for cooking oysters at home?
SI: Broiling oysters is easy and fun. They can be opened one hour in advance, and then right before serving, broil them on the half-shell with any flavored butter or topped with a spicy salsa. You can also cook closed oysters on a charcoal or gas grill just until they pop open, and eat them with a little melted butter on the side. Whichever method you choose to cook your oysters, they are a fun food.

DA: Baked oysters, similar to clams casino, are the easiest to prepare at home.

Epi: What are the most popular ways to eat oysters at your restaurants?
SI: For raw oysters, the most popular topping is cocktail sauce. For cooked oysters, the most popular preparations are our oysters Rockefeller and fried oysters.

DA: Dead simple: on the half-shell, with a little mignonette or cocktail sauce.

Epi: What beverages do you recommend serving with oysters? What's the perfect wine? Beer?
DA: Anything cold! Perhaps a pale ale or a nice Sancerre.

SI: I like Champagne, Chablis, or Sauvignon Blanc. And for beer, I like stout.

Epi: What are your favorite oysters from the West Coast and East Coast?
SI: West Coast favorites would be Kumamoto, Royal Miyagi, Totten Inlet Virginica, and Yaquina. And East Coast would be Blue Point, Pemaquid, Belon, and Martha's Vineyard.

DA: My favorites from the East Coast are Montauk Pearls and Mermaid Cove, and Kusshi from the West Coast. I chose the East Coast ones because they're clean and not too salty, and the Kusshi from the West Coast because they're the deluxe version of the Kumamoto and have a little deeper body.

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Epi: What's the best way to convert an oyster-phobe to an oyster lover?
SI: Have them try fried or roasted oysters, and then experiment with a raw mild oyster like Blue Points on the half-shell.

DA: I would suggest the smallest oyster possible, perhaps a Beausoleil. It's small, thin, and packs a lot of favor. I would also recommend a little mignonette for first-time oyster eaters.

Epi: Are oysters an aphrodisiac?
SI: I believe they are! Zinc is the culprit.

DA: Yes, I get this question all the time. There is something sexy about sucking down oysters with a partner; it has a type of savage procedure about it, eating with your hands and slurping with your mouth. Casanova, the 18th-century lover who used to breakfast on 50 oysters, has been vindicated by a study that proves they really are aphrodisiacs.

Set the stage:
Set yourself up with a short, sturdy oyster knife, a towel, and a strong glove, preferably an oyster glove. And keep in mind that opening an oyster demands a certain amount of force. Clean and prep: First, scrub the oysters thoroughly with a stiff brush under cold running water. Set an oyster flat side up on a folded towel--so you will not lose any of the tasty salty liquid (known as oyster liquor) inside--and fold the end of the towel over the wide end, leaving the hinge end uncovered.

Twist and slice:
Holding the oyster steady with your gloved hand, insert your oyster knife into the narrow-hinged end and twist until the shells loosen and the hinge pops open. Then, slide the knife blade against the flat upper shell to cut the large muscle and free the oyster. If the shell crumbles and will not open at the hinge, aim your blade for the wide end of the shell instead.

Loosen and serve: After prying off the lid, slide your knife along the bottom shell to loosen the oyster completely from the shell. Use the towel to clean up any shell debris left in the oyster. If you're serving oysters raw, "You always want your guest to be able to pick up a clean oyster and slurp it down," as Abrams puts it. And if you prefer to cook your oysters, see the recommended recipes for inspiration.

More from Epicurious:
Essential Tools for Portion Control
5 Most Common Recipe Mistakes People Make
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