Overcome your fear of shellfish: How to cook with clams, mussels and oysters

Because I’m a food writer and recipe developer, my friends and family ask me for lots of cooking and recipe advice. More than half the time, those questions are about seafood, particularly oysters, clams and mussels. What should I buy? How do I know it’s sustainable? How do I know if it’s fresh? What do I do with it once I get home? Oh, and do you have a good recipe for it?

Don’t Miss: The Top 6 Fish & Shellfish You Should Eat—and 6 to Avoid

I can’t say I blame them. If you haven’t cooked shellfish at home, it can be intimidating the first time. But once you get over that hump, you’ll be doing it all the time. Here’s some expert advice from chef John Ash and the EatingWell food editors to get you more comfortable with shopping for and cooking these briny bits of joy.

Recipes to Try: Our Best Mussel Recipes
Oysters Rockefeller and More Healthy Oyster Recipes
Creamy Clam Chowder and More Recipes for Clams

Shellfish Shopping Tips
Ask at the fish counter what’s freshest. And use your nose: shellfish should smell like the sea and nothing else. The shells of fresh oysters, clams and mussels should be either tightly closed or just slightly opened. If they’re open and you tap them, they should close. If they don’t close, they’re not alive. Don’t buy them. Make sure your fishmonger displays the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP) tags. This program oversees commercial shellfish and certifies that it is harvested from waters that are safe. Wild shellfish gathered by amateurs is not regulated by the NSSP.

How to Store Shellfish Right
Remember that fresh shellfish are alive, so you don’t want to smother them in a sealed plastic bag. Place clams, mussels and oysters in a bowl covered with a wet clean towel. Put a few ice cubes on the towel so that it stays damp and keep the bowl in the coldest part of the refrigerator, which is usually on the bottom, in the back. Drain off any water that accumulates in the bowl. Use within a day or two.

How to Prep Shellfish for Cooking

Clams & Mussels—Scrub with a stiff brush under cold running water. Mussels may have barnacles attached; just scrape any off, using the shell of another mussel. Pull off the fuzzy “beard” from each one (some mussels may not have a beard). Discard any that are open and refuse to close when you tap them.

Oysters—Most recipes for oysters call for them to be “shucked.”

Watch It: Let Food Editor Jessie Price Show You How to Shuck an Oyster

One of my most fond memories of cooking in a restaurant was shucking oysters on New Year’s Eve. The customers ordered so many that that’s all I did for the whole night. Once I “got” it, I had a ball doing it. And it only took the first pop of the oyster hinge to get it. So here’s what you do:

How to Shuck an Oyster

  1. Rinse your oysters under cold running water.
  2. Get out an oyster knife and a clean kitchen towel. (Do not use a regular knife for this!)
  3. Place an oyster flat-side up on a work surface. Grip the oyster with a kitchen towel to help protect your hand (or wear a glove), leaving the narrow hinged end exposed.
  4. Place the tip of the knife between the top and bottom shells just adjacent to the hinge. Press inward, twisting and wiggling your knife tip, to release the top shell. At first, it may seem like you aren’t making progress, but continue with gentle pressure.
  5. Continue wiggling the knife while pressing inward until the shell pops open. Try to keep the oyster level so the flavorful “liquor” (briny, salty seawater) stays inside the deep bottom shell.
  6. Wipe your knife to remove any debris, then pry open the shell by inserting the knife tip in one or two other spots, twisting it to release the shell completely. Continuing to hold the oyster level, run your knife along the inside of the upper shell to cut the muscle that attaches the oyster to the top shell.
  7. Run your knife along the inside of the lower shell and gently cut the oyster free. Leave the oyster nestled in the shell. (If you open an oyster that has a strong, sulfurous smell, discard it. It’s dead.)
  8. Use the oyster as directed. Or to serve raw, transfer the oyster in its bottom shell to a bed of crushed ice, rock salt or crumpled foil that will keep the oyster level. Serve immediately, with cocktail sauce, lemon wedges or mignonette.

Now Get Cooking!

If you’re intimidated by shucking oysters, this recipe for Spicy Barbecued Oysters (recipe below) is for you. When you grill them, steam builds up inside the shells until they pop open. Then you slather a little garlicky red barbecue sauce on each oyster, put them back on the grill to get hot and bubbly, and you’re done. At a party, bring your oysters to the grill and show your guests how it’s done so they can barbecue their own.

Spicy Barbecued Oysters

Makes: 6 servings, 4 oysters each
Active time: 40 minutes | Total: 40 minutes
To make ahead: Cover and refrigerate the sauce (Step 2) for up to 3 days.

3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
5 tablespoons mild chili sauce or ketchup
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Few drops of your favorite hot sauce
24 large oysters

1. Preheat grill to medium-high.
2. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until it softens, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in chili sauce (or ketchup), lemon juice and hot sauce.
3. Bring oysters along with the sauce, a cutting board, an oven mitt, tongs and an oyster knife (or other small knife) to the grill.
4. Place oysters flat-side up on the grill rack. Close the lid and grill until the top shell pops open, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the oysters to the cutting board with tongs, keeping them as level as possible so the oyster “liquor” (salty seawater) doesn’t spill out.
5. Wear the oven mitt to hold the oyster and use the knife to remove the top shell, cutting the oyster away from the top shell and leaving it in the bottom shell. Periodically wipe your knife clean. Discard the top shells. Spoon about 1 teaspoon sauce onto each oyster. Return the oysters to the grill, close the lid and grill until the sauce is bubbling, 2 to 4 minutes more. Serve with small forks.

Per serving: 80 calories; 5 g fat (3 g sat, 1 g mono); 37 mg cholesterol; 5 g carbohydrate; 0 g added sugars; 4 g protein; 1 g fiber; 228 mg sodium; 119 mg potassium.
Nutrition bonus: Iron (16% daily value).

What food intimidates you most in the kitchen?

Carolyn Malcoun combines her love of food and writing in her position as contributing food editor at EatingWell. Carolyn has a culinary arts degree from New England Culinary Institute and a degree in journalism from University of Wisconsin—Madison. Carolyn lives in Portland, Maine, and enjoys cooking, gardening, hiking and running in her free time.


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