November 7, 2011

Oysters at Home

Getting live oysters to your home has become quite easy since the advent of the internet, as many producers (even some smaller ones) now sell direct to customers, often in a variety of quantities. Many of the nicer fish markets will stock a selection as well, and if you're lucky enough to live near oyster-producing areas you might even be able to pick some up at your local greenmarket. However you purchase them, you'll need to know a few things to keep them happy until you're ready to shuck them:

Once you get your oysters home, it's often a good idea to give them a good once-over. Some producers clean their oysters so you don't have to, but that is the exception; often, oysters get from the water to you with a minimum of handling, so give them a rinse under cold running water to get rid of the majority of silt and algae. If they are exceptionally dirty, you can use a stiff brush to scrub them off -- I almost always go this route because the shells are often quite beautiful and I'm a bit too anal retentive to leave them dirty for long. Also, some types of silt or other material on the shells can start to decompose out of the water, which can smell horrific but does not affect the quality of the oyster inside. Some of the farmers I have talked to swear that they stay good longer if your don't clean them right away, but I've never tested this and the concept doesn't seem to make any sense scientifically. Which ever way you go, make sure that they are mostly clean before you start shucking, at least around the hinge where you will be opening them.

Once cleaned (or not), find a space in your refrigerator large enough to accommodate your oysters. Crisper drawers are a favorite if you can spare them. They should be stored cup-down and covered with a damp towel. You can stack them in a container to save shelf space, and just cover the top as completely as possible with the towel. Just remember to keep the towel damp and remove any liquid from the bottom of the container; oyster may live in water, but their natural habitat and what ends up in the bottom of your crisper drawer are different things, the latter often containing high levels of nitrates from the excrement of other oysters and is basically toxic. DO NOT store them packed on ice, as this also can kill them by freezing. Oysters served on the half shell are often presented on ice, but this is only to keep them chilled in warm ambient temperatures.

Unless you plan to open your oysters by grilling or roasting, you'll need a way to open your oysters. The safest option is to buy an oyster knife, which is meant to withstand the forces required to pry open your precious bivalves. There are hundreds of variations on the oyster knife (I personally like the New Haven style), but be sure that the one you pick is very sturdy and comfortable in your hand. Once you have your knife, you'll want a small towel and probably a sturdy rubber or metal glove in case you slip. These knifes may not feel sharp to the touch, but they can inflict serious damage with enough force behind them; almost every serious shucker has a horror story about an injury received or seen. If you're new to shucking, here are some videos to get you going. Try to keep as much of the liquid in the shell as possible, there is a lot of flavor in that liquor (as it's often called).

This is where a lot is left to the individual, as everyone has a different way they like to eat their oysters. The simplest option: shuck and pass. No plates, no ice, no other tools necessary. If you want it to look a bit more professional, arrange a large plate or tray with crushed ice (or small ice cubes), rock salt, seaweed, etc. to hold the oysters still, and place the oysters atop this layer. The more serious oyster restaurants have special machines that can shave ice cubes, or ice machines that are designed to make small ice pellets. Obviously not practical for the average consumer, but they exist.

As a purist, I usually refuse to add anything to my oysters because I want to taste the oyster, not a sauce. However, the average person likes a little something added in. Sliced lemons are de rigueur, but mignonette, horseradish (fresh-grated is always best), and cocktail sauce are also common. Mignonette is a classic sauce for oysters which contains at least minced shallots, crushed (not ground) black pepper, and vinegar. Hundreds of variations exist, but the basic uses wine vinegar, red or white.

Spotting a Bad Oyster
No one wants to eat a bad oyster. At the minimum, the flavor will be unpleasant and the meat will be dry and unappetizing, and the worst-case scenarios all end in death. If you pay attention, you should be able to go your whole life without ever getting sick. Here's what you need to look for:

- Oysters should smell like the sea, and little else. If they don't, they're probably off, and I practice the "better safe than sorry" rule here
- The meat of an oyster should range from pale ivory to beige, with a few exceptions. If the meats have spots of other colors or are another color entirely, discard them
- Oysters should contain a good amount of liquid inside them, which is what keeps them alive out of the water. If the meats are dry or shriveled up, they are bad

Unfortunately, some of the worst diseases that you can contract from oysters have no effect on the smell or taste, and can be very serious if not treated quickly after symptoms begin. Buy your shellfish from someone you trust; all retailers are required to keep records and should keep up on fishery closures due to diseases. You can always ask for a photocopy of the shellfish tag that comes with each shipment. When ordering direct from a farmer, you're probably safe, and if nothing else a shellfish tag will come with each shipment as required by law.

Here's a brief list of companies selling oysters direct:

Island Creek Oysters
Taylor Shellfish
Kachemak Shellfish Growers
Rappahannock River Oysters

Be safe, be smart, and ENJOY YOURSELF! 

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