We all love to order raw oysters when we are dining out, but have you ever considered bringing the half shell experience back home? It’s surprisingly easy, affordable, and fun! I will explain how.
Step 1: Buy the Oysters
I must have gotten my taste for oysters from my parents, because they love them as well. The last time when we all got together, we went out for oysters in their area. For my mom’s birthday this year I wanted to do things a little bit differently; I wanted to bring the oyster bar experience to them and into their home. So I ordered four dozen York River Oysters from Tommy Leggett and had them delivered to their doorstep in (the middle of nowhere) Connecticut.
From my experience, the best place to buy oysters are through the farmers themselves. Oyster growers such as Tommy or Jules/Sean of Walrus & Carpenter Oysters are the keepers of the freshest goods and tend to offer the lowest prices. You should be able to find East Coast oysters for $1 a piece or less and West Coast for $1-2 a piece. Farmers also are intimately familiar with their products so you know exactly where your seafood is coming from, and that is rarely the case at your local supermarket. A downside is that most growers only sell a few varieties, if any at all to consumers. If you want to sample a variety of oysters, investigate seafood distributors or retailers. While I have a trusted local source for my oyster indulgences, I quite like i love blue sea for buying West Coast oysters.
Here are some oyster glowers who sell directly to consumers:
- Alaska Kachemak Shellfish Growers
- Blue Island Shellfish
- Cotuit Oyster Company
- Glidden Point Oyster Sea Farm
- Hama Hama Oyster Company
- Hood Canal Seafood
- Island Creek Oyster Company
- Rappahannock River Oysters
- Thimble Island Oyster Company (CSF)
Tips on how to buy oysters from your local seafood counter:
- Ask to see the bag tag and examine the harvest date
- Ask to try a sample to determine its freshness (even if you have to pay for it, it’ll be well worth it)
- Ask to handpick the oysters if possible, and try to select the heaviest ones
If you’re not planning to consume the oysters immediately when you receiving them, store them in the fridge and cover them with a wet towel. They can be kept happy and alive for several days in that state. I’d still suggest opening at least one or two to check the quality upon arrival. Be careful if you want to keep them over ice. As the ice melts, the freshwater can kill the oyster if they’re submerged for an extended period of time. Fresh and live oysters will glisten in their shells and should also contain a good amount of liquor. To test its “alive-ness,” scrape a fork prong along its mantle (outermost circumference of flesh). It should/might slowly shrink back.
Step 2: Gather the Equipment
You don’t need to be equipped with much to enjoy raw oysters, but it’s important to be safe and use the right tools. All you need to be is:
- An oyster knife - not to be confused with a clam knife or kitchen knife, santoku knife, butter knife, etc.
- Some form of hand protection – kitchen towel or shucking glove (Some guys are even
cockyconfident enough to shuck barehanded, but I consider that to be a risky proposition.)
As an elegant alternative to a wearing clunky glove, consider the Littledeer Half Sheller (the maplewood egg-shaped board as shown above). I love using this shucking board to stabilize the shell and collect any runaway juices. It’s a must-have for the at-home shucker. Also doubles as an oyster coaster. Win!
If you’re looking to make a good presentation, you’ll also need:
- Crushed ice or rock salt – to place the oysters over
- Deep plate, platter or pan – to place the oysters in
- Trash bag or a natural body of water – to discard the shells
- Condiments – lemon wedges, lime wedges, mignonette sauce, freshly ground pepper
I brought my trusty oyster knife (Dexter-Russell Sani-Safe 4 Inch Oyster Knife), glove (Kevlar-coated, but I still managed to puncture it once), and Half Sheller with me for the occasion. Charlie Williams of BBQ Oyster Grill also graciously expedited over one of his fantastic oyster grilling racks for us to experiment with.
So now with all of my equipment and oysters ready at hand, it was now time to start shucking!
Step 3: Shucking The Oysters
When they proclaimed, “The world is your oyster,” they forgot to disclaim, “if you know how to shuck.” Once you learn how to shuck them, the doors to enjoying fresher, cheaper oysters will open easily for you. In reality, if you want to savor them raw and intact without paying a restaurant premium, you must shuck them yourself.
How much of a premium do restaurants charge for shucking, you wonder? Well, take the York River Oyster for example. Aquagrill in NYC charges $2.15 per piece for them, whereas I bought them for about $1 per piece (and that’s mostly the cost of shipping!). $0.25-$1.00 per piece is the range of fees for having someone else shuck them for you.
Now probably having shucked well over 500 pieces in the last two years, I can tell you that it gets easier with practice. I’m no expert, but I can hold my own. If you stick to the right size and shape of shell, the activity is reasonably easy–even fun! I won’t go into details about how to shuck in this article, but will send you off with this set of instructional YouTube videos.
A few practical tips to make the shucking experience run smoother:
- Make sure to have a platter of ice near you to transfer the opened oysters to.
- Have a clean towel on hand to wipe off mud or shell bits.
- Plan your oyster to plate ratio ahead of time so you don’t run out of display space.
I learned how to shuck oysters from Chef Laurence Edelman (of Left Bank, formerly of The Mermaid Inn) and have been passing down that knowledge to anyone who asks. I even taught my dad how to open them, and being the skillful engineer that he is, he immediately got the hang of it. My mom hanged back and just enjoyed the fruits of our labor.
Step 4: Prep the Condiments
I’m a naked kind of girl. As in I like to eat my oysters without any condiments at all. My parents like a little lemon on theirs, so that’s what we did. On occasion I enjoy drizzling a little bit of spicy and tart mignonette on top to liven them up.
Here are some tasty mignonette recipes to try out:
- Classic Mignonette – Food Republic
- Champagne Cucumber Mignonette – Food52
- Rosé Mignonette – Food & Win
- Highlands Mignonette – SAVEUR
- Tequila Lime Mignonette – ECSGA
- Pomegranate Mignonette – Tastespotting
By now you should be enjoying the oysters.
The York River Oysters were fantastically plump, buttery and simply beautiful to look at. They are grown by Tommy Leggett and his crew in the lower York River at York Town, near the Chesapeake Bay. The liquor was mildly briny and the chewy meat possessed a clean aftertaste. The white bellies were mildly sweet and delivered a depth of flavor that is unique for Virginia oysters. My mom, who is usually picky about her seafood (she’s quite sensitive to “fishiness”) claimed that she could taste the freshness.
The four of us slurped up half a dozen each in no time at all.
Amidst the oyster bellies, we found a few stowaways.
A few of the oysters had “cute” little translucent oyster crabs hidden inside. By the way, this is completely normal. They are simply using the oyster for protection and help themselves to the oyster’s food, but they don’t gnaw at the mollusk themselves. Back in the day, these little critters were considered to be a delicacy among epicureans. Despite being a little freaky looking, they’re quite tame. They can barely lift their little legs. Bryan had the guts to eat one alive. I don’t know why I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’ve definitely consumed more adventurous things before… like live (moving) octopus.
Step 5: Firing Up the Grill
It’s not over yet! I purposefully saved the biggest and most formidable oysters for last — to grill. Given their size (4+ inches), they would do well barbecued or oven-roasted. I couldn’t wait to try out the BBQ Oyster Grill rack. It’s a simple and efficient sheet of perforated, accordion-bent steel that allows for the oyster to be held upright no matter what the shell is like. I tried a combination of cooking them on the half shell and also leaving them completely closed. After a few minutes on the fire, they popped open with ease.
I can’t even imagine how grilling without this rack would work. On a flat or even grated surface, the oysters would most likely tip over and spill its juices. I suppose you could always make a ghetto rack out of aluminum foil, but who really has the time? This was definitely the way to go.
With grilling comes a whole new set of sauces and recipes. Hot sauce is a trusted standby, but I would highly recommend experimenting with others. I created a savory garlic butter sauce for our batch. The next time around, I’d opt for bolder concoction for this kind of oyster.
Here are some great BBQ oyster sauces to try:
- Kind of Complicated Grilled Oyster Sauce – Emeril Lagasse
- Variety of Sauces for BBQ Oysters – Various Authors
- Buttery BBQ Sauce – Bill Whitbeck
- Grilled Oyster Shooters – N1COLE
Naturally, the final family verdict on this seafood treat was a unanimous thumbs up! For more photos, check out my Flickr gallery.
If you are planning to enjoy oysters at your home for the first time, do let me know how it goes. If you have a question, feel free to ask in the comments section or email them over.
As a toast to the sizzling summer, a couple of friends and I decided to throw an event that was sure to be a crowd pleaser: an oyster and champagne tasting party. The affair was a huge success! Logistics went smoothly enough, but I still came away with a handful of valuable tips and to-do’s that could help improve future oyster parties. I thought it would be best to share them here, with you oyster lovers.
What’s not to love?
Beyond having an excuse to throw a rockin’ summer soiree for ourselves, this event gave each of us the opportunity to contribute our own unique strengths. My friend Chavelli designed a charming collection of invitations, tasting cards, and oyster identification cards (copy courtesy of W&T Seafood). Matt curated the champagnes and graciously hosted the party at his uber-posh West Village pad. I naturally organized the oyster front: sourcing (big thanks to my friends at W&T Seafood), shucking (big thanks to Eddie Oyster), and educating the masses. In our case, collaboration worked out well.
If you’re planning your party with friends, make sure that everyone knows their roles and responsibilities up front. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a main “party lead”–someone who is buttoned up and motivated–to manage the entire effort.
Start with the End in Mind
It’s useful to envision how you’d like the party to work before you think about what to buy. It’s especially helpful to talk this through with your co-organizer, since you want to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Mentally walk through the experience as a guest. Some questions to ask yourself:
- How much structure? For us, we were actually imagining a pretty disciplined tasting affair–everyone would try each oyster with each champagne. Based on this, we decided to supply guests with tasting guides (instructions on the front, a tasting grid on the back). Of course it didn’t happen the way that we imagined, due partially to the set up. A sit down, as opposed to a free-standing affair, would have been more conducive to a methodical tasting. However, the mood that we aimed for was spot on so the right thing was achieved!
- What kind of atmosphere? Is it an intimate gathering with close friends? Or a “mixer” among like-minded acquaintances? Since the three of us have pretty different circles of friends, it naturally became an event where new interactions took place. Due to building’s noise-level restrictions, we also decided to keep it between 30-40 guests total. It was an interesting challenge to select which guests to invite… knowing that they all needed to mesh well.
- How much information should your guests have? I personally wanted the party leave everyone with a little more knowledge about oysters than when they first came in. Different levels of familiarity or interest for oysters were also taken into consideration during the development of the invitation copy and tasting guide.
- What’s the budget? Be warned… an oyster & champagne isn’t cheap. You’re dealing with two relatively high-end products. What you can control is how much you’d like your guests to pitch in. We decided to require all attendees to bring a chilled bottle of champagne (one of the four on the tasting menu) to counter balance some of the costs. More on costs below!
Once the structure, vibe, and content of the party is settled on, then it’s time to think about the physical requirements needed to make it all happen. There are a few areas to focus on: space, oysters, champagne, and other items to help “party flow.” Here’s a basic breakdown of things to consider for each of these important aspects.
It’s easiest to start with a venue and try to develop a party that fits the space. If you have the flexibility to host the event in someone else’s space, make sure to discuss logistics early on.
- Where to have the event: ease of getting there, parking options
- When to have the event: afternoons are nice, but evenings can be just as fun (if not more glam)
- Where here to hold oysters and champagne: needs to be somewhere cold (fridge or on ice, not freezer)
- What should the layout be: consider how to reduce heavy traffic areas and how many people can comfortably fit
- What the deal with lighting: should be lit relatively well (the shucker needs light)
We were fortunate enough to have W&T Seafood supply our oysters, as their products are the bomb. W&T usually does not sell directly to consumers, but there are other online seafood companies that do. One that I recently tried and liked was ilovebluesea, a sustainable seafood retailer. They offer a wide range of West Coast oysters.
- Quantity: estimate 6 oysters per person minimum, 12 oysters per person ideally
- Variety: start with at least 1 East and 1 West coast kind (best to have two from each coast — e.g., British Columbia, Washington, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts); it is best to ask about what’s good–as they will vary from week to week
- Who’s going to shuck them all??? Hiring a shucker will vary in cost from $50/hr to $1/piece; have the shucker arrive one to half-an-hour prior to the party to set up and start shucking
- Where to shuck: a kitchen (sink and counter) is an ideal place to set up the shucker
- Condiments to supply: we had lemons, limes (makes for good decor too), mignonette sauce, and hot sauce; we also brought out some creme fraiche and caviar for extra indulgence!
At our party, we had 5 varieties:
East Dennis (MA) — bright and briny, the East Coast crowd pleaser
Moonstone (RI) — largest of the East, medium salinity, grassy and lemony notes, hearty texture
Chunu (VA) — mild and petite, a bit of a wallflower compared to the others
Pacific (WA) — big and bold, ultra creamy, sweet, and vegetal notes
Effingham (BC) — sweet and salty, creamy and crisp, the West Coast (and overall) favorite
- Quantity: estimate 1/2 to 1 bottle per person
- Variety: see links above; we decided to offer 4 different types of champagne… but honestly, i don’t think people were too fussy about having variety
- Who’s going to pop the bubbly??? We went ahead and made it “self-serve,” but having a designated bartender that can help explain the champagnes would add a nice classy touch
Other Party Items
While the party’s focus is on oysters and bubbles, there should definitely be other nibbles and beverages offered.
- Alternative food options: veggies, dips, and a lot of carbs (e.g., bread, pita plate, chips)
- Non-alcoholic beverage options: punch, ginger ale, juice, ice water, Prometheus Springs
- Champagne flutes: 1 champagne flute per person, but have a few extras on hand just in case; if you have no desire to keep the flutes after the party, you can also give them away as party favors
- Special utensils: have cocktail forks available, but encourage the classic “slurping” technique (see below)
- Oyster containers: stainless steel pots and pans added some cool depth to the oyster set up; we also substituted ice with rice & rock salt–less messy, no refreshing required
- Trash: don’t overlook the importance of accessible disposal bins! We used a large stainless steel bowl for shells
- Instructions: we decided to have educational “tasting” cards that gave a little background about each oyster (didn’t have any for champagnes, but that would also be helpful), as well as a tasters guide that included instructions on how to conduct a tasting and a grid to keep tasting notes (make sure to have golf pencils on hand)
- Music: make sure to set the playlist up prior to the party
- Decor: we thought it best to keep it simple (less logistics) and just grabbed a few bundles of fresh flowers
Lastly, don’t underestimate the importance/need of conducting a quick and swift clean up too. Oyster shells, no matter how fresh, will start to smell a bit funky after being out for too long.
These ballparks will naturally vary depending on the scale and scope of the party. For estimating purposes, I would be as conservative as possible.
Venue: free (someone’s house/apartment)
Oysters: $240 (20 guests x 6 pieces x $2 per piece)
Champagne: $400 (20 guests x 1/2 bottle x $40 per bottle)
Other food & drink: $150
Utensils & condiments: $50
Shucker: $200 (2.5 hours at $80/hour)
With a reasonable level of confidence, I estimate that given a $900 budget, you should be able to throw a decent (while straightforward) shindig for 20 people. To help keep costs down, ask friends to bring chilled champagne bottles to contribute to the party.
More ambitious assumptions:
Venue: free (someone’s house/apartment)
Oysters: $480 (20 guests x 12 pieces x $2 per piece)
Champagne: $800 (20 guests x 1 bottle x $40 per bottle)
Other food & drink: $200
Utensils & condiments: $50
Shucker: $240 (3 hours at $80/hour)
Decor & equipment: $100
If you’re going to have oyster newbies at your party, it’s probably a good idea to give them a little guidance on what to do. Below is a bit of copy that I wrote for our tasting guide. Feel free to borrow
- Similar to tasting wine, first smell the champagne’s aroma. Then take a small sip and observe its flavors.
- Use a small fork or your finger to gently release the oyster from its shell to ensure smooth slurpage.
- Raise the oyster shell to your lips, tilt back, sip the liquor and let the oyster slide into your mouth.
- Chew the oyster for the full flavor and texture experience. The longer you chew, the more sweetness and flavors you’ll discover.
- Before or after swallowing the oyster, take another small sip of champagne. Swirl the bubbles around in your mouth and observe how the flavors work with each other.
- Repeat using the same champagne with another type of oyster.
- Write down a “+” if you think that the oyster and champagne pair well together
- Write down a “0″ if you think that the oyster and champagne are neutral together
- Write down a “-” if you think that the oyster and champagne don’t go well together
- Also write down tasting notes or reasons why you have the ratings that you do
Remember to Enjoy!
Party planning can be stressful and overwhelming. During the event, make sure to enjoy yourself! (Otherwise, what was the party really for?) Our party turned out brilliantly. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the oysters and champagne. We even persuaded a few oyster newbies and non-believers to try a piece or two! Weeks later, I still hear about the “epic-ness” of the party from my friends. Now that’s a sign of a good time.
Well, I hope that you enjoyed reading this post and now are inspired to throw your own oyster & champagne party! If you have other ideas or tips on how to make such a party an even bigger success, please share them in the comments section! Also feel free to ask any questions that you might have.
A few weeks ago, my dear friend Nellie of W&T Seafood invited me out to a special Oyster 101 class that she and Michael Kidera were teaching at The Brooklyn Kitchen Labs. While it poured cats and dogs outside, our small group of twelve tasted five different kinds of oysters, learned how to shuck, prepared Oyster Rockefeller, created cocktail and mignonette sauces, and also deep fried some big oysters for some AMAZING fried oyster burgers. Not only was the class fun, delicious and information-packed, I also was able to meet some really cool people including Champagne guru Cynthia of cyn-et-vin!
For anyone who is curious about oysters and want to learn the basics of eating, shucking, and cooking them, then this is definitely the class for you. Plus if you ever want to get your hands on this heavenly oyster burger (including the secret recipe), you gotta enroll. I’m sure more Oyster 101′s will be scheduled this fall at either The Brooklyn Kitchen Labs or Astor Place. The best way to be notified is probably following W&T Seafood on Twitter.
In the meantime, check out my Flickr album for the rest of the pictures!