Oysters are exotic, mysterious, bizarre, gross, sexy, and just plain old provocative. No matter how you feel about them, there’s a good chance they stir your imagination in one way or another. If they don’t, this post probably isn’t for you. Look at this instead!
I don’t know about you guys, but I Google a lot of weird stuff. Sometimes, a simple answer comes up immediately. Other times, not as quickly. With oysters, it’s rather hit or miss. I thought it would be helpful to provide one place to get the answers to all of your most wondered about questions. Disclaimer: a few might be a little “TMI” for the casual oyster eater, so please read with caution. Ignorance could be bliss. 😉
1. What do oysters eat?
The truth: 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. Adult Virginica oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day. Sometimes they’re referred to as bottom feeders or detritivores, but don’t turn your nose up at them because of that.
To demonstrate their fascinating ability, here is a time-lapse of oysters in filtering action.
The whole truth: So now you’re probably thinking… if oysters are equal opportunity eaters, and they’re in water that’s full of “nutrients,” thennnn aren’t we just all eating crap? Well, that is why you can’t get New York Harbor oysters anymore and also why we seriously need to protect our waters from becoming even more mucked up. I found this guest blog post by Chris Len for Deep Sea News that is worth a read. Oysters are voracious vegetarians, but fairly picky about what they nosh on. Despite the absence of a brain, oysters “know” what they can and cannot digest. Bob Rheault, Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association elaborates, “Even as a dust-speck sized larvae they do this. Identical sized algal particles (say Isochrysis and Chlorella) will be sorted with 90% efficiency even when mixed with a soup of thick silt to confuse them. The Isochrysis goes into the gut and the Chlorella and silt goes into the pseudofeces (rendering it bright green!). I have done this with radio tracers and the degree of efficiency is remarkable. It is one reason why the American oyster is so adaptable and can survive in high silt loaded waters while many other organisms struggle and suffocate with fouled gills.”
What I’d personally like to find out: Knowing that oysters taste like where they’re from — everything in the environment has an impact — my continuing question is just how do specific algaes or water composition affect the taste, and is there a finite way to measure it?
2. Do oysters poop?
The simple truth: Yes, yes they do. Oysters expel both real poop AND pseudofeces, which are particles of non-food things in their food. It’s called “false feces” (#fakepoop) because the particles never enter their digestive tract.
The really “you asked for it” truth: See Erin Byers Murray, author of “Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm,” blog post about it.
My pet peeve: When you google “oysters” and “poop” together, the conversation takes on a depressingly misinformed, ignorant, fearful form. Some particularly one-sided, skewed articles by fairly prominent publications aren’t helping the cause. I mean, can someone just register oysterpoop.com and clear the air about the whole subject of oysters and foodborne illness? It happens, but it doesn’t happen nearly as much as it does with other stuff we eat. I just don’t understand why the same people who cringe at raw oysters are happily scarfing down meat and poultry (or even lettuce) from sketchy fast food joints.
3. What is that green stuff in my oyster?
The truth: If you come across an oyster with green-tinted gills, like the ones as shown above, consider yourself lucky. The greenish color comes from a particular type of blue diatom that the oysters are eating. It’s not harmful to eat an oyster like this, and in fact, its flavor is highly sought after. In France, the “verte” oysters are considered to be a delicacy and demand a higher price than its “blanc” counterparts. You can also find them in US at random, but more frequently in the winter when the blue diatoms are more abundant.
Watch out for that marketing: I’ve noticed that oysters with green gills tend to be hyped as a “rare specialty” and marked up in price accordingly. Don’t fall for it.
What I’m looking forward to: According to a research study published in May 2014, scientists have proposed that the blue pigment, known as marennine, has been found to have powerful antioxidant, antibacterial and antiviral properties. So perhaps the green oyster will one day be considered a super sexy superfood.
4. Are oysters alive when I eat them?
The truth: You don’t want to eat a dead oyster, raw. Oysters should be kept alive right up until the moment when they’re shucked. The heart is right next to the bottom adductor muscle, so in most cases, it’s killed when you separate the meat from the shell.
How can you tell if it’s dead or alive: A living, unshucked oyster will be fully closed up, like a rock. Its working hard to avoid being your dinner. If the bill of the oyster gapes open and doesn’t close with a few taps, it’s probably dead (or it might be really cold and sleepy… so give it a minute if you just pulled them out of the fridge). If you bought a bag of freshly harvested oysters and some are dead, they could still be cooked and enjoyed. Just throw them on the grill or fry them up. Masterful shuckers will toss out the dead ones long before they reach your platter. Sometimes, I will poke at the outer edges of the mantle with a fork tong to see just how “lively” they still are.
What I found out the hard way: The French take quality assurance to the next level by leaving the bottom adductor muscle attached. This allows you to experience the freshest, most alive oyster as possible… but prepared to do some work (and get silently judged on it).
5. Do oysters feel pain?
The truth: It’s still up for debate. We don’t really know. Some say no while others say yes. From an anatomical standpoint, oysters do not have a brain or a central nervous system, so it is not likely that they would experience the world in the same way that other animals do. That said, it is unclear whether or not you need a brain in order to “feel” or process pain.
I asked Guinness World Record Oyster Shucker and restaurateur Patrick McMurray for his thoughts. “My belief—as I am not a scientist—is that oysters feel pain as much as plants feel pain. Pain is a perceived sense—what your brain chooses to “feel” when nerves are activated. Oysters do not have sensory perception or ability to sense. Oysters react— close when touched, use cilia to move food particles etc. Some plants react the same way—flowers open and close, Venus Flytrap per se.”
My two cents: A lot of people ask this question, but in my mind, it’s kind of a trick. This question is not about the oyster at all. It’s about us and what we choose to believe, and how we want to live in this world.
6. How can you tell if you have a bad oyster?
The truth: Have you guys heard of the egg test (good eggs sink, bad eggs float)? I wish there were something as simple as that to gauge the quality of an oyster. There is no straightforward way to tell, but you can train your senses to pick up red flags. I asked my favorite SF Oyster Nerd, Greg Babinecz to take a crack at this one in a few sentences. Greg, true to his oyster-nerdy-nature, couldn’t help but submit a comprehensive perspective on the matter.
Greg’s cliff notes version:
1) If it’s open and does not close to the touch, throw it away*.
2) If it smells strongly sulfuric or rotten, throw it away.
3) If it is very dried out and has no juiciness to it, throw it away*.
*or compost (see #9)
The full enchilada:
Smell: Anything slightly afoul to your innate sense of what smells right, I would say is best to avoid. Certainly there are oysters that inherently have a little “funk,” and are prized as such, but anything that strongly smells of rotten eggs, petrol, or fish tank gravel, go ahead and light a match and toss it in the trash (outdoor trash, preferably). Some oysters will have unique “low tide” or metallic smells and are good, but those are rare and if you’re seeking those out, you’re probably not a novice shucker.
Look: A good oyster looks plump, juicy, and has a glistening sheen to it. It simply looks fresh. Quite often you’ll open an oyster and it will have a dried out, Jackson Pollock-esque splatter look to it. If they still smell okay, they aren’t necessarily bad, they just aren’t good. Best use them for fried or BBQed oysters, or simply discard.
Taste: Several oysters I’ve shucked have passed the previous two tests, but then just taste like they’re spoiled. It will look great, smell fine, but upon consumption, taste terrible. And there is a discernible difference between a strongly flavored oyster and a bad one. Copper, musky, and even low tide flavors don’t mean it’s bad. A very noticeable lack of salinity and a sulfuric-gaseous pop once bitten and you’ll immediately know it’s bad. These rogue goblin oysters are the bane of many shuckers around the world.
Lastly, shell inspection: This should come first, but not without understanding smell and look. A good rule for any bivalve is that if its shell is cracked, has holes, or is open and will not close to the touch, it’s best to avoid (mussels and scallops are kind of an exception). An open bill that will not close to the touch usually indicates the oyster is dead. All oysters should be alive right before they are shucked, and eating a dead one can be dangerous (see #4). Even if it smells and looks fine, but was open, I’d say best to avoid. I’ve certainly gambled on some open bivalves before and been okay, but it’s best to play it safe. But hey, it’s your stomach and your dice to roll.
7. There’s a tiny crab in my oyster… is that normal?
The truth: “Sure it’s normal; it’s called a pea crab and lives her entire life inside the oyster. The crab doesn’t hurt the oyster and it won’t hurt you to eat both. In fact it’s good luck to eat the pea crab. Enjoy!” That’s reassurance from Chris Ludford, grower of Pleasure House Oysters and full-time fire boat captain for Virginia Beach.
What do they taste like? Not much. Salty like the sea, and the texture is like kind of like alfalfa sprouts. If eating them alive makes you squeamish, then pan fry them up with a dash of Old Bay.
Are they in all oysters? In my experience, pea crabs are most commonly found in Eastern oysters from brackish water. In fact, I can only recall finding them in oysters that are harvested from the Long Island Sound and inlets along the Chesapeake Bay. That doesn’t mean they’re not elsewhere though! Random fact: male pea crabs will move from oyster to oyster to do “house calls,” while the ladies stay put.
8. There’s a creepy looking worm in my oyster… is that normal?
Stay calm and slurp on: Every time I hang out with a buddy of mine from LA (who’s not an oyster fan, but we get along anyway), he never fails to tell his story about that one time when he encountered a massive, horrendously large worm in his oyster, “like it was Dune or something.” It’s a disturbing visual and pretty unappetizing. Fortunately, it’s not abnormal or alien. That said, I don’t take photos of oyster worms so I’m sharing a photo from the Eastern Shore to help relax you instead.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s oyster farmer Matt Gregg of Forty North Oyster Farms, who has encountered his fair share of weirdness, on the subject: “Oysters can be the perfect host for many tiny marine invertebrates, none of which, to my knowledge are harmful to humans. Oysters that grow in muddy and lower salinity environments tend to harbor an organism called a bloodworm. If you’re squeamish (most oyster eaters are not) stick to oysters that are grown close to the ocean, bloodworms can’t survive those conditions.”
9. What happens to the shells?
The truth: In most cases around the country, the shells that we leave behind at the raw bar go straight into the garbage, which is truly a damn shame. Oyster shells can be recycled and repurposed for a number of things such as chicken feed booster, garden fertilizer, wedding decor, and most notably, as the perfect substrate for baby oysters to grow on. Unfortunately, running a shell collection program is logistically challenging and pretty expensive. But what’s the opportunity cost? One seaside village in China has put a reclaimed value of approximately $3200 USD per ton of shell (for fertilizer and construction material.) That number would certainly be higher if you considered its restorative value back into our environment.
The exception to the rule: The symbiotic relationship between a traditional oyster planter and the oyster shucking house creates a closed loop system. Since all of the oysters are shucked in one spot, all of the shells are returned to the oyster farmer to be “replanted” for the next crop. But demand is starting to swing in favor of half shell consumption, which means we’re still running on a national shell deficit.
What I’m hoping there will be more of: Oyster shell collection and oyster restoration initiatives have been building momentum around the country, such as along the Chesapeake and the Gulf. I’m personally rooting for NYC’s own oyster restoration & education program. Pete Malinowski, Director of Billion Oyster Project explains:
“The vast majority of oyster shells generated in New York City’s restaurants are packed into plastic bags and driven to points South to be landfilled. At Billion Oyster Project, we need oyster shells for our restoration projects and work hard to recover as many as we can from restaurants. Right now, we are collecting shells from 45 restaurants four days per week. We average over one ton of shell per day and are on track to collect 210 tons this year. The shells spend one year curing at the NRG Arthur Kill Power Plant in Staten Island. (Check out some of my photos from BOP’s previous curing site on Governors Island.) Once cured, we place the shells in tanks with oyster larvae. The larvae set on the shells creating the clusters of oysters we use for reef building.”
And on that note, I want to quickly plug in Billion Oyster Project’s upcoming fundraiser oysterfest, the Billion Oyster Party on May 19th. 40 oyster farms + dozens of NYC’s top restaurants + music + shucking contest + great venue. It’s going to be off the hook. Hope to see you there! I’ll be hosting a couple of pretty fun contests for oyster farmers and attendees that you won’t want to miss. (Many thanks to my friend Chavelli Tsui for doing the kickass “Shuck Me Beautiful” hand lettering!)
Got another oyster-related question that you’re curious about? Leave a comment and I’ll see about getting it answered!