CHS Guides    City, Food + Drink

Everything you need to know about oysters

Oysters on the half shell | Image via Pexels

It’s fall in Charleston, and while cooler temps might not bring fall foliage, they do bring oyster roasts.

Whether you’re hosting, enjoying or skipping out on oyster roasts this season, we’re sharing a guide on everything you need to know about these slimy shellfish, including info on oyster species, tutorials on shucking + a list of popular condiments to serve them with. Let’s dive on in. 👇

Types of oysters 

While oysters come in all sorts of varieties, there are only five species of oysters in the U.S. Here’s the rundown on their origin, qualities + locations:

Atlantic/Eastern | East Coast + Gulf of Mexico

○ Origin: Native to North America; originated in late 20th century
○ Look: Large + smooth teardrop-shape shell
○ Taste: Sweet + briny (varies depending on where they’re grown; brinier in the North)

European Flat/Belon | East + West coasts

○ Origin: Western European coast
○ Look: Moss-colored, smooth + saucer-like shells
○ Taste: Bold, crisp + meaty

Pacific | West Coast

○ Origin: Brought to the U.S. from Japan in 1920
○ Look: Fluted shells with a deep cup
○ Taste: A mild taste with slightly sweet hints of fruits + vegetables. Usually a good amount of briny (salty) + metallic taste.

Kumamoto | West Coast

○ Origin: Kyushu, Japan
○ Look: Fluted, pointy shells with deep cups
○ Taste: Mild, sweet + fruity

Olympia | West Coast

○ Origin: Native to the West Coast of North America
○ Look: Very small
○ Taste: Unique + pungent coppery taste
Olympia oysters were decimated in the early 20th century due to pollution and overharvesting. Wild populations still exist but are protected.

The “r” month rule

It’s a well-known + widely practiced rule that raw oysters should only be consumed in months containing the letter “r.” 

While this mnemonic may have been the case in 1599, when it appeared in the English cookbook “Dyets Dry Dinner”, due to our advances in refrigeration, regulations on harvesting during “red tides” (a.k.a. the discoloration of seawater caused by a bloom of toxic red algae) + the commercialization of oyster farming, summer months are now pro-slurping

It is to be known, however, that the warmer waters cause oysters to spawn, thus losing 30-40% of their body mass. The weight loss makes the oyster more watery + thin, hence changing the taste + consistency that most desire. 

Ways to prepare + eat oysters

While many oyster connoisseurs will tell you that raw is the only way to go, there are plenty of folks out there who prefer their meals cooked. Here are some of the most popular ways to consume oysters:

Raw
Roasted
Steamed
Fried

How to shuck oysters 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has accidentally sliced my hand with both the shucking knife + oyster shell. Good news: there are gloves for that.

Knowing how to properly shuck an oyster is not only important for efficient enjoyment, it is also important for your safety.

Did you know that you are supposed to open oysters from the bottom hinge? Check out America’s Test Kitchen’s 60-second video so you can shuck like a pro at your next oyster roast. (Pro tip: always point the knife away from your hand.)

What you’ll need: a small towel, gloves, an oyster knife and, most importantly, an oyster

Oyster condiments

Many will argue that oysters should be enjoyed without any condiments, they are commonly served with crackers + various sauces. Here are some popular add-ons to give them an extra kick of flavor: 

○ Sliced lemons
Mignonette
Horseradish/cocktail sauce
Oyster sauce

Whole bellies vs. scrambled 

There are some dos + donts when it comes to preparing oysters to serve. According to Rowan Jacobsenauthor of the 2007 bestselling book, “A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America– these are some qualities of well-prepared oysters that you should be vigilant of:

Meat should be opaque, not translucent.
Meat should be whole and not cut in any way (commonly referred to as whole bellied vs. scrambled).
There shouldn’t be much liquidknown as “liquor” – in the shell. (Larger quantities of liquid signify the meat being punctured.)

Additional info + resources 

Oyster shell recycling
History of oyster knives
Local oyster bars + restaurants
How locally-grown oysters are produced in Charleston
Local oyster roasts in 2020/2021
10 interesting oyster facts
11 oyster recipes to make at home

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