(Photo: Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

Why It's Time to Embrace the Oyster

They're both sustainable and delicious, so why are so many people afraid to serve oysters at home?
Sep 11, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Consider the oyster. Chances are you have before, maybe at a $1-an-oyster happy hour, tipping back a tray or two of Beausoleils and Barnstables, seawater still pooled in their shells. “What a deal!” you may have thought. Then you lost count of how many you ate, because you were also partaking of that fine muscadet. Any savings were suddenly awash on the briny wave of a second, third, and maybe even fourth platter (but boy, that was fun).

Have you considered eating oysters at home?

“As far as I know, 99.9 percent of oysters are eaten in restaurants,” said Kevin Joseph, cofounder of New York Oyster Week, an annual event that kicks off Sept. 11. “Educating people on how to procure, open, and serve an oyster at home is one of the main reasons we created Oyster Week.”

He sees it as a win-win-win proposition. “Eating oysters is good for you, good for the environment, and good for the economy,” Joseph said. (As for your personal economy, consider this: At Chez Vous, there’s no 300 percent markup on the cold white wine.)

Joseph isn’t alone in wanting to encourage more people to shuck at home. Steve Malinowski has farmed oysters at Fishers Island Oyster Farm for 30 years; his younger colleagues call him “a dinosaur” of the Northeast oyster industry (“not sure how to take that,” he laughed). Forget cooking wild-caught salmon at home. With oysters, “you’re eating something that’s absolutely sustainable and hopefully is a local product,” he said. For the past four years, Malinowski has sold his Fishers Island Oysters for 75 cents each, a home-cooking-friendly price if there ever was one.

Farmed Filtration and Sustainability

When it comes to oysters, “farmed” is not a red flag. “Oyster farmers are not harvesting a dwindling natural resource,” Malinowski explained. “With an oyster farm, you’re actually putting into the system every oyster you take out. That makes it truly one of the most sustainable seafoods out there.” The bivalves are also a boon to their surrounding ecosystem. By sucking in and cleansing 50 gallons of water per day, their filtration system removes an overabundance of nitrogen that can lead to algae blooms, which harm the water quality, decrease biodiversity, and cut fish and other sea life off from their source of oxygen. “When you’re adding oysters to the environment, you’re creating a net positive effect for the environment,” Malinowski said. Seafood Watch gives oysters a "best choice" rating.

Shucking (and Eating)

“If you’re going to enjoy the full benefit of what that beautiful food has to offer, you have to shuck it right before you eat it,” Malinowski said. He insists it’s easy, but “it’s very important to have the proper tool.” Don’t use any old kitchen knife; the blade will be too sharp and flexible for this job. A quality oyster knife has a blade that’s dull and thick so it can serve as a lever to pry open the shell. Food52’s Provisions sells a handsome one made of rosewood and brass, but well-made, cheaper options will also get the job done.

Beginners should try shucking with the countertop technique rather than holding the shell in their hands. “If you use that, you should definitely have some protection,” such as a heavy glove, Malinowski advised. (Pictures are worth a thousand words, so here’s a photo guide to shucking.)

The reward for your effort is an oyster, of course, but be careful not to spill out the liquid in the shell when you pry it open. The sea or estuary water in which the shellfish was harvested, called the oyster liquor, covers the edible body. It’s part of the reason you went to all this trouble. “It’s important to have all the liquor inside the oyster when you eat it,” Malinowski said. You want to be able to taste the “little bit of the ocean in every oyster.”

Then There’s the Lazy Way

That said, the reason you’re not eating raw oysters at home is likely because of the shucking. “It’s like kayaking in white water,” Joseph said. “You gotta commit to learn that, and you’ll have scars to prove it.” Those not interested in Class IV rapid–style seafood prep need only be able to answer one question to eat oysters at home: “Can you put it on the grill and wait five minutes for it to open up? It’s just that easy.”

Apply a little heat—if you’ve put away the grill, try the broiler or an indoor grill pan—and there’s no shucking necessary. “Heat up an oyster, and it’ll open,” Joseph said. “You end up with beautiful, succulent, juicy meat. Dip it in aioli or garlic butter. It’s phenomenally delicious, and you don’t even have to shuck it.”

Then there are canned and smoked oysters, which can be stirred into bisques, stews, jambalayas, and stuffing, and—fingers crossed—could one day lose their “no, thanks” image.

Hey, it happened to sardines.