I learned to shuck oysters when I lived in New Orleans, where they thrive in warm waters and grow fat and plentiful. Gulf oysters have some drawbacks— they lack the clean, minerally complexity of those harvested in colder waters. The old adage about not eating oysters during months that don’t end in “R” holds true regarding the Gulf oyster. The hot summer waters create ideals conditions for the growth of vibrio vulnificus, a rare but dangerous bacterium most often transmitted to humans through raw seafood. Yet Gulf oysters are special because they aren’t associated with luxury and snobbery. In New Orleans, its common to buy a sack of 300 for about $25 as an interactive centerpiece for an outdoor party or kegger.
You quickly become skilled with the shucking knife when you have 300 oysters to deal with. Anyone can learn to shuck, but most people banish oysters to the “restaurant only” category. This is absurd because there’s no special preparation technique involved in serving them. They are raw! A dozen oysters could easily cost you $25 – $30 at a restaurant, but they are only $1 to $1.25 each if you buy them at Whole Foods.
To shuck oysters, you will need a dish cloth and a shucking knife. No, you can’t do this with a butter knife, I’ve tried. I got mine at a seafood market in New Orleans, but XOXO makes a version you can buy in many big box stores. They cost about $5.
After gathering your gear, examine the oyster. Did you ever notice that one side is flat and the other side is rounded, like a cup? When shucking, be sure that the flat side is facing up so that the delicious oyster liquor stays contained in the cupped side of the shell.
Now cover your left hand with a dish towel and grip the oyster so that the round side makes contact with the table. The towel will protect your hand when the knife inevitably slips while you’re battling a particularly stubborn oyster. Shucking knives are blunt, but they can cause a nasty wound. Believe me, I’ve done it to myself and seen it happen to others way too many times.
Gripping the knife in your right hand, jab the tip into the hinge of the oyster shell, and turn your wrist clockwise. Shucking an oyster is like picking a lock; you need to find the sweet spot in the hinge, and eventually the shell will loosen and separate. Here’s a great tip: sticking oysters in the freezer for 5-10 minutes makes shucking easier, just don’t forget them in there!
This short video by Hog Island Oyster company clarifies the shucking process. I trust them because I’ve had some of the best oysters of my life during their happy hour in San Francisco.
Oysters take on the flavors of the waters from where they are harvested, so different varieties require different accompaniments. Hot sauce is a must with Gulf oysters and West Coast oysters are great with lemon. East Coast oysters like these Beau Soleils from New Brunswick benefit from mignonette sauce. You can use my recipe for this classic French condiment that is ridiculously easy to make at home.
- 1 small shallot, finely chopped
- 1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
Combine the three ingredients and let sit for at least 15 minutes, allowing the shallots to mellow. Serve as a condiment for an oyster platter.
These are just my opinions, but you should decide for yourself. You will need to do lots of tasting, and serving oysters at home (or seeking out good happy hours) is the best way to do it without going broke.