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Oyster 101: How to Eat Oysters

Oyster 101: How to Eat Oysters

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For being so small, oysters are a big source of stress when it comes to eating them in public. They're squishy, shelled, and slightly sensual, and those who frequent seafood spots often avoid them out of sheer etiquette ignorance.

"For beginners and maybe for all oyster eaters, be open-minded," encourages Sheila Lucero, executive chef of the Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar in Colorado. "I think for those that are not oyster eaters, there tends to be some intimidation when people hold their first oyster up in front of their mouth. There needs to be a level of open-mindedness that gets them to eat and enjoy that first oyster."

But getting to that level of comfort can be tough when you aren’t sure what to do with your food. While you should always taste the unknown, being prepared never hurt either. Here are some tips for enjoying oysters the proper way:

Think About Your Tastes

You know what you like best when it comes to taste. Do you like acid? Sweetness? Minerality? Decoding oyster types is the first step to enjoying them. An oyster’s flavor, appearance, and quality varies depending upon the conditions of the environment.

"Think of the five species of oysters cultivated commercially in North America as you do wine grapes," suggests chef Lucero. "This can help a server or fishmonger determine which kind to recommend."

A Little Bit of Lemon

To complement the natural flavors in the regional oysters, a little squeeze of lemon can go a long way. "It enhances an oyster’s natural sweetness," explains Lucero. "It contrasts the natural fats and oils, and complements the saltiness."

There Are No Limits

"Slurp it, chew it, relax, and enjoy the fresh ocean like flavor from where that oyster came from. Repeat," instructs Lucero.

Because they are so versatile, oysters can handle being prepared in a multitude of ways, like boiled, baked, or fried. However, Lucero just suggests trying them naked to get a sense of what type of oyster you enjoy most.

Leave the Liquor

Though it may be tempting to expunge all seemingly excess fluids for the sake of avoiding slurping, Lucero begs you to resist.

" When picking up the raw oyster on the half-shell, be careful not to pour out the liquor," she warns. "The liquor is the liquid sitting in the shell with the oyster. It is an essential complement to the flavor of the oyster."

Click here for the Oysters with Frozen Champagne Mignonette (Granite) Recipe:

Oysters eat phytoplankton or small bits of algae suspended in the water. They are filter feeders, which means that they obtain their food by filtering water in and over their gills. Sometimes they're referred to as bottom feeders, but don't mistake them as detritivores. Whatever they can't eat or digest, they expel as feces and pseudofeces. Not unlike myself, oysters are voracious eaters. Adult Virginica oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. To demonstrate their filtering power, here is a fascinating time-lapse of some oysters in a tank doing their thing.

You know that saying, "you are what you eat?" It's just as true with oysters as it is with anything or anyone else. While I am highly suspect that algae and water composition impacts the taste of the oyster, it is quite difficult to quantify. Fortunately, there's an easier way to prove the link.

Have you ever come across a green-gilled oyster?

No, they're not sea sick. The greenish-bluish color is caused by a special type of phytoplankton known as Navicula ostrearia. The effect has been studied by scientists as early as 1820, and I found this research paper from 1885 most intriguing. The green tint is temporary and doesn't change the taste. If the presence of this diatom subsides, then the oyster would also turn back to its original color in a few weeks. Green oysters enjoy a positive and desirable reputation in France, where they are specially cultured in Marennes, but they can just as easily occur in nature without any human interference. The photos above are of oysters from the Rhode Island and Long Island Sound, respectively. Green oysters have also shown up as south as Lynnhaven, Virginia.

You're also probably wondering about the darker side of this equation: are oysters also eating things that can be harmful to us? It is possible, but it all depends on the location. Trace metals, chemicals, and bacteria can find their way into oysters if they are present where the oysters live, which is why you don't see any oysters being consumed from New York Harbor anymore. (Btw: I found this blog post by Chris Len for Deep Sea News that is worth a read.) In general though, this shouldn't be a concern. The oysters that you find in today's restaurants and seafood markets are perfectly safe to consume. They are properly harvested from highly regulated waters that contain minimal levels of contaminants. I tend to think that people are more dangerous to your health than the oysters themselves, and this is why you should always buy your oysters from trusted sources.

Got a burning oyster question you want answered? Post a comment below or tweet me at @inahalfshell.

Simple Steamed Oysters (One Dozen)


12 fresh, unopened oysters


  1. Scrub the oysters to remove any mud and grit. Rinse with cold, running water, but do not let the oysters stand in water.
  2. Dispose of any oysters with broken shells or any that have opened.
  3. Place the oysters in a steamer pan or basket in a single layer with their cup side down. Don’t pile them on top of each other. You don’t want to lose their tasty liquor.
  4. Place the steamer pan (or basket) over boiling water and cover with lid. The boiling water should not touch the oysters.
  5. Steam until the oyster shells open. Most people prefer a 5-minute steam depending on the size of your oysters. At 10 minutes, the oysters will start to overcook and get tough and rubbery. TIP: Keep in mind that the shells will be very hot and the oysters will continue to cook for a minute after they are removed from the steamer.
  6. Using tongs, transfer the oysters to a serving tray or plate.
  7. You may need to use a shucking or paring knife to separate the oyster from the top and bottom shells.
  8. Serve with lemon, hot sauce, and your favorite toppings.

We’re still in the glorious “r” months (from September through April), the traditional season to enjoy the silky brine of Chesapeake oysters on the half shell. Harvested locally, shucked fresh and served up raw, oysters represent a culinary Chesapeake tradition that’s been around as long as people have lived in the watershed.

There’s been a sea change of sorts, however, for Chesapeake oysters in the last decade. Native oyster populations were suffering the catastrophic impacts of disease in the 1980s and '90s, and as a result, Virginia and Maryland embraced two new initiatives to aid the dwindling stocks: intensive oyster farming and oyster sanctuaries.

Particularly for oyster lovers, oyster farms have transformed the selection of oysters available at your local raw bar. Where you used to be able to order only “local Chesapeakes” and pretty much know what you were getting, today the choices for consumers can be overwhelming. Do you want wild or farmed? Virginia or Maryland? Sweet or salty? Local divers or just locally caught?

Navigating the menu in this new world of oysters can be fun—and tasty— once you understand the lingo. Here are five pointers to quickly get you slurping like a true connoisseur.


This term is pretty broad. ‘Local’ can mean anything from “caught 300 yards from the restaurant” to “caught 50 miles away.” Want to get a bead on where your bivalves came from? Ask for the tag. All shellfish sold in the United States has to be tagged to identify when and where it was caught. Location is important because oysters will often taste quite different depending on where they were harvested in the Bay. Upper Bay oysters are sweeter, mid-Bay are complex with a note of salt, and low Bay oysters can be very salty—so “local” matters!


Wild oysters are a native, naturally-occurring oyster species, Crassostrea virginica, that are caught by watermen who employ a few methods to harvest them— mainly dredges (triangular rakes with nets dragged behind oystering boats) or tongs (scissor-like rakes used by hand or with a mechanized system to harvest oysters). ‘Diver’ oysters are the same kind of oyster—just harvested by a small population of actual divers in wetsuits, who swim down to pluck each oyster individually from the Bay’s bottom.


Unlike many fish species, which are lower in quality and sources of significant pollution when farmed, oysters are actually good for the environment, sustainable, and in some cases even better when cultivated on an oyster farm. Just like wild oysters, farmed oysters are the same Chesapeake native species. Most are sterile, known as “triploids,” which makes them more resistant to disease and faster growing. Most oyster farmers specifically raise their oysters for the half-shell market, so they have deeper reservoirs, or ‘cups,’ in order to reserve all the precious liquor inside. Farmed oysters also have a consistent flavor—something that isn’t true of wild oysters, which are harvested wherever available and might be salty, sweet, or somewhere in between, depending on where they were caught.


The best rule of thumb is to taste your first oyster without any cocktail or hot sauce. Know what you’re getting. A fresh oyster should smell like the ocean, and should be shucked and served immediately so that the delicate flavor and liquor is preserved. Condiments can mask that— and can hide a variety of sins. So, eat your first oyster naked. Anything to follow is fair game for lemons, cocktail sauce, Tabasco, or any other favored fillips.


Oysters should be fresh—the fresher, the better. It doesn’t matter how local they are—if they were harvested a week ago, or were shucked and sitting out for hours in advance, they are much worse than an oyster harvested yesterday on the other side of the country. Two ways to deal with this: either shuck your oysters yourself or make sure your oysters are shucked in front of you (many raw bars are out in the open just for this reason), and when in doubt, ask to see the shellfish tag that will tell you not only where but how recently your oysters were harvested.

BC Oysters 101: Lessons from The Oyster Bar

Whether you’re on a romantic date, out with friends, or on a business meeting, oysters are an impressive, satisfying, and interactive choice. High in zinc, iron, calcium, selenium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin B12, these bivalves are as nutritious as they are delicious with only 110 kilocalories in a dozen raw oysters. But eating oysters isn’t as simple as mindlessly munching away on some chicken strips. Many find oysters intimidating, confusing or just plain odd and are reluctant to give them a try. Even those who slurp back this shellfish without any apprehensions may have some questions, so to tackle the mystery of the oyster, we’re providing our readers with a brief lesson.

THE CLASSROOM: The Oyster Bar, 614 Humboldt St., Victoria, BC. Phone: 250.385.5562 Website:

THE TEACHER: Umut Cetin is The Oyster Bar’s head chef and has many years of oyster experience behind him, including a previous position at Vancouver’s popular Rodney’s Oyster House. This oyster enthusiast has shucked millions of shells and is more than happy to guide patrons through a personal consultation with suggestions based on experience, tastes and preferences.

LESSON 1: The Varieties

: A Spread of Oysters (From Top: Effingham, Chef Creek, Kusshi, Malpeque, Fanny Bay, Whale Town)

Just like wine, the climate, surroundings and methods of growth will yield a different appearance, texture and taste to each oyster. Although the word “farmed” has a bad name with seafood such as salmon, Umut explains that it’s a completely different story with oysters. In order for oysters to meet health and quality standards, they must be heavily regulated which can only be done in a controlled environment. So next time you see that an oyster has been farmed, don’t coil back in fear that your food will be bland and unethical, take comfort in the fact that quite the opposite will occur as you will enjoy fresh, flavourful and most importantly, safe seafood.

LESSON 2: How to Score the Best Shuck

Like all fine skills, shucking takes practice. The goal is to have a clean cut without any shell remnants and without losing all the juice. Make sure you have a sharp knife, a small towel and dish handy to place your oyster on once it has been opened. Hold the oyster firmly on top of the folded towel, insert your knife, and cut the adductor muscle clamping the two sides of the shell together. Scrape the blade across the top of the shell by rotating the oyster until the adductor muscle is on the far side of the shell, then rotate the oyster so the adductor muscle is now directly in front of you again. Slide the knife under the muscle to loosen the meat, and check for any shell fragments or grit.

LESSON 3: Eating The Oyster

To truly savour the delicate flavours of the oyster, Umut recommends eating it raw. For optimal tasting satisfaction, squeeze a small amount of fresh lemon juice on the meat, knock it back and chew ever so slightly to unlock the flavours. If you’re looking for a bit more kick, Umut suggests the traditional topping of freshly grated horseradish, Tabasco sauce, or one of Oyster Bar’s signature house-made sauces including ginger lime vinaigrette, cucumber vinaigrette, their classic cocktail sauce or French vinaigrette. Oysters are also delicious when pan-fried, baked, barbecued or roasted. For cooked oysters, Umut recommends rich toppings like cream cheese, bacon, rock crab, and parmesan which can be found with baked Fanny Bay oysters on their menu, or something with a lighter Asian influence such as their Oyster Motoyaki with miso aioli, mushroom and green onion. One important thing to remember when cooking oysters is that too little will leave them with an odd mushy texture and a somewhat fishy taste, while too much gives them a hard, rubbery and flavourless result.

LESSON 4: Your Plan of Attack

Oyster with Crab (baked in cream cheese, bacon, rock crab, and parmesan)

If you’re a beginner, Umut recommends going for cooked oysters, which are often less intimidating than their raw counterparts. A more familiar texture and lots of toppings will help ease you into the taste. If you’re new to the oyster scene but feeling somewhat adventurous, Umut suggest going for small raw oysters like Cortez Island’s Kusshi variety which are easy to chew and light in flavour.

However, you’re no stranger to oysters, Umut invites you to sit at his bar with the whole gamut in front of you to discuss likes, dislikes and preferences. If you’re looking to try a wide variety of oysters, the only thing Umut asks is that you get at least two of each type so that you can really savour the oyster for a more memorable tasting experience.

LESSON 5: How to Not Spend the Rest of your Night in a Bathroom Stall

The most important part of oysters is freshness. With a maximum time out of the water set at 13 days, Umut notes that the ideal standard is no more than 3 days. That being said, it’s hard to ignore if you’ve been given an old oyster. Oysters that are past their prime will have a fishy, muddy and dry taste. Even before it hits your tongue you can tell if the oyster is bad, as it will not only have a lighter feel, but the shell will be thin and less robust and will not make that distinct clicking sound when popped open. Furthermore, the meat will be less vibrant and there will be a reduced amount of juice surrounding it, giving it a drier more shrivelled appearance.

LESSON 6: Alcohol Pairings

With oysters it’s simple – drink what you like. Umut explains that while some like the soft earthy companion of a Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, others enjoy a strong pint of beer such as a thick and hearty Guinness. Crisp sparkling wine or a savoury Caesar are classic selections, or simply simply stick with water to allow full attention to the oyster.

LESSON 7: Are Oysters Really an Aphrodisiac?

The mystery stills remains. Guess you’ll just have to head down to The Oyster Bar and try some oysters yourself to find an answer.

Oysters for Earth Day!

Join Craig Sewell on Earth Day, April 22 at 6 p.m., for his ongoing virtual cooking class series “In a Cook’s Kitchen” and learn how to make delicious Oysters Rockefeller. The webinar series is sponsored by Essex Bank and brought to you by What’s Up? Media of Annapolis. Register for the free class here

For 16 years, Craig Sewell ran one of the first locally sourcing restaurants to open in Annapolis where he offered a local foods distribution chain and taught LOTS of cooking classes. One of the most popular classes was ‘The Basics’ – a six week-long class whereby through teaching recipes people could learn cooking skills along the way.

In the ‘Cook’s Kitchen Series’ each class builds upon the previous class – “We’re not just demonstrating a one-off recipe we’re bringing you everything you need to know to create delicious meals in your home kitchen. One of my fundamental principles about food is to buy the best, freshest ingredients from places as close to you as possible with growing/raising practices that are respectful to the environment and animals as possible, and then, to the best of my ability stay out of their way and let them speak for themselves.”

Looking for fresh local oysters near you? Search the Southern Maryland Oyster Guide and check out The Chesapeake Bay Oyster Recovery Partnership list of oyster farms offering direct-to-consumer sales of Maryland oysters for Earth Day and beyond.

Find more “In a Cook’s Kitchen” recipes, video cooking demonstrations and everything you need to know to bring local foods to your table on the Southern Maryland Meats website.

From Roasted to Rockefeller: Our Favorite Ways to Eat Oysters

Whenever a dozen oysters are served to a table full of people there’s always at least one extremely awkward and confused person. “How the heck do I eat this thing?” That brings us to the question…is there a proper way to eat oysters? Whether you’re dining at a five-star restaurant or kicking back at a beach cookout, there’s no right way to slurp ‘em down. So put your worries aside and enjoy a little slurp of heaven with one of these preparations:

Head to the grocery store and look for heavy, tightly sealed oysters. Before you prepare them to serve, make sure you give them a nice rinse under cool water. Now…onto the good part. Use an oyster knife, not a regular knife, to pry open the oyster shell. Don’t have an oyster knife? A screwdriver is your next best bet. Throw away the top shell and try to keep as much remaining seawater in the bottom shell as possible. Add whatever seasoning you enjoy and slurp that oyster down!

Stop into Marker 32 for our take on raw oysters: Oysters On The Half Shell – ½ dozen/cocktail/mignonette/horseradish

If you’re new to oysters, Rockefeller is the place to start. Let’s get real…anything doused in butter is bound to be delicious! The original recipe dates back to the 1800s in a little New Orlean’s restaurant, but there have been thousands of variations created over the decades. Oysters Rockefeller becomes the fabulous appetizer that it is by combining a variety of garlic, spinach, watercress and scallions as the stuffing. Then, that yummy mixture is topped with butter, breadcrumbs, fennel and hot sauce.

Although Marker 32 doesn’t have Oysters Rockefeller on the menu, we do have our spin on this classic dish. Give this a try on your next visit: M32 Broiled Oysters – bacon/pecorino/spinach/sun dried tomatoes

It really doesn’t get easier than this. Roasting oysters is such a simple way to take full advantage of the briny oyster flavors with a minimal amount of ingredients. Begin by placing about 15 oysters on the half shell on a baking sheet with a thin layer of rock salt below. Top each oyster with a mixture of hot sauce and browned butter, then roast in a 500-degree oven for about five minutes (or until edges of oyster begin to curl). Serve with a sprinkle of chopped parsley and bacon.

We can’t wait to see you for a tasty oyster appetizer or an entire meal. If you’re fairly new to the world of oysters, there’s a good chance you have no clue what drink pairs well with this unique shellfish. Lucky for you, we’re here to help!

Nancy’s Open-Faced Oyster Sandwiches with Blue Cheese Crumble

This is a new creation with fried oysters, taking them to a place they have never been before.


  • 3 Packages Willapa Steak Oysters
  • Seasoned Flour
  • 1/2 C Chopped Parsley
  • 1 Cube Butter – Melted
  • 1/4 C Blue Cheese Dressing
  • BBQ Sauce (Recipe Follows)

How to prepare

Drain Oysters and toss in seasoned flour. Dip in melted butter. Place oysters in grill basket and BBQ over medium coals until nicely browned, turning frequently. Remove the oysters from the grill basket and toss with BBQ sauce and parsley. Serve with Blue Cheese Dressing for dipping. Note: Oysters may be pan fried instead of barbequed. Oysters may be skewered (fold if necessary), or placed on vented foil to BBQ. Goose Point Western BBQ Sauce 1/3 C Hot Pepper Sauce 3T Honey 3T Butter 1/2t Garlic Powder Combine all ingredients in small sauce pan and heat until warm, stirring constantly. Do not boil!! Keep warm until use. Serves 3-4


They're at their freshest when packaged! Canned Smoked Oysters are usually steamed when they're fresh, smoked for extra flavor, and finally packaged in oil.

They're easy to find! You can get them at just about any grocery store in the same section as canned tuna and crab.

They're affordable! They are anywhere from $2 to $3 for a small can that will have anywhere from 20 to 30 small oysters in them.

They're a lovely way to eat "rich" on a budget! They're just so darn fancy looking, and they have that slight fishy taste that makes you think of caviar. Now, let me get this straight, they are NOT the flavor of caviar, they just can be served similar and have that slight "ocean" taste.

5 Ways to Eat Oysters for Brunch

Here, five excellent ways to serve oysters for brunch.

This afternoon, star chefs including Tyler Florence will shuck and serve delicious oysters at the New York City Food & Wine Festival&aposs Oyster Bash. If you can&apost make it to the event, you can still enjoy fantastic oyster dishes at home. Here, five excellent ways to serve oysters for brunch.

1. On Toast.
Oysters gently pickled in warm Champagne vinegar, lime and lemon juices are delicious served on grilled bread.

2. Fried.
These crunchy oysters are fantastic with a crisp pilsner.

3. Topped with Champagne.
Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi created this dish, which features a Champagne-infused foam, as an homage to Jay-Z.

4. Smothered in Butter.
Star chef Bobby Flay tops his oysters with a blend of butter, tarragon and hot sauce.

5. Vietnamese-Style Pancake.
"Don’t be put off by the loosey-goosey nature of this crispy, egg-filled pancake," says Andrew Zimmern of this incredible oyster dish.