Where to Find the Best Oysters
Having explored most of the country and many parts of the world in search of great oysters, my service standard is pretty simple.
Can you shuck a good oyster or not?
Take a look at the picture. Top row are two Pacific oysters that have been shucked well (we’ll have to argue the merits or demerits of flipping later). Bottom row are what I cringe at.
People think that shucking an oyster is easy. (It is!) But shucking an oyster perfectly? That’s hard. Really hard. Especially when you’re pressured to get four dozen out to hangry dinner guests. But that’s what separates the amateurs from the pros.
After years of flavor and variety hunting, I have given up my ways. Instead of seeking out specific oyster names, I’ve been keeping tabs on where my favorite oyster service professionals and oyster specialists are based.
You see, the oyster itself is only part of what makes your half shell experience great (or terrible). Your shucker and/or server has quite a lot to do with how your adventure goes.
Think about it. We have our go-to wine sommeliers, mixologists, baristas, and butchers. Being taken care of by an expert changes everything. Oysters are no different.
My Species Standards
“Where are the best oysters from,” is a question that I get asked a LOT. It’s very subjective. Whether it’s flavor preferences, nostalgic ties, or regional pride, desirability is all pretty relative. Every oyster has the potential to be good. And when blessed with the right conditions, exceptional—even “the best”—is attainable. That said, I think that there are specific, objective measures of quality that should be discussed. These are attributes that I look for when I’m evaluating oysters, taste aside. Taste (salinity, sweetness, flavor notes, finish, complexity, mouthfeel, texture) is another conversation entirely. One way of thinking about it is to consider quality as hardware and flavor as software. Both work together to create a complete understanding.
Atlantic / Native East Coast
This species is native to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America. I look for teardrop-shaped, deep-cupped shells, opaque and cream-colored meats, and a prominent adductor muscle. Thin, dark, translucent oysters are never a favorite. Shell interiors should be white, with minimal mud blister worm scaring. My optimal half shell size is between 2 to 4 inches in length with 2:3 to 3:4 width/length ratio. Meat-to-shell ratio will vary depending on the grower’s tumbling strategy and growth rate, but I’m a fan of super plumpy East Coast oysters!
Pacific / Non-native West Coast
This species is native to Japan, but is cultivated worldwide now. It’s grown from Alaska to Mexico in North America. Pacific oysters have a natural petal or egg-like shape and can be decorated with fluted edges. I look for deep-cupped shells with a straightforward entry point, bright, creamy bellies and dramatic eyelash detailing along the mantle. A curled umbo (hinge) is acceptable, unless if it completely obstructs shucking access. My ideal half shell size is 2 to 4.5 inches with 2:3 width/length ratio. Large adductors are prized for their sweetness, and shell interior should be pristine white. When evaluating tide-tumbled Pacific oysters, high meat-to-shell ratio and hydration are of the utmost importance. Finally, there is nothing more sad than an underaged, skinny Pacific oyster.
Kumamoto / Non-native West Coast
This species is also native to Japan, but is primarily cultivated on the West Coast of North America. An adult Kumamoto (purebred, not hybrids) are petite, so I look for shells no bigger than 2.5 inches. Bottom shell has distinctive cat’s paw fluting, although some growers are tumbling this nice trait out. Premium Kumamoto oysters have a small lump of sweet, cucumber and melon rind meat. High meat-to-shell ratio is important for optimal enjoyment. Kumamoto-Gigas hybrids are prevalent nowadays and they possess traits from both species. They are larger in size, but have less of the Kumamoto’s signature flavor. In my experience, Kumamotos are often mislabeled and overpriced. I typically avoid them altogether while dining out, but happy to purchase them directly from my favorite grower.
Olympia / Native West Coast
This species is native to the Pacific coast of North America and adults are even smaller than the Kumamoto. Due to limited availability of these oysters, I usually take what I can get! I look for shells that are about 2 inches long, flat, with a subtle sheen. The signature shape is kind of like a guitar pick. Interior shell can range from cream to olive-colored, but usually has a lustrous or pearlescent glaze. Olympias are delicate so they must be handled with care. Opaque white or beige meat with dark edges are commonplace. Brown meat is less desirable. Despite its size, the Olympia packs an enormous concentration of flavor that mimic the metallic, coppery, and earthy taste of the Belon.
Flat or Belon / European Native
This species is native to Europe, but can be found in small pockets of the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. I look for round, intricately ridged, thick shells that feel weighty in the hand. Top shell is generally very flat, while bottom shell has a slight curve. You should be able to see concentric circles of growth on the top shell, like rings on a tree. Belons easily dry out (which is why you’ll see rubber bands around most, to keep them closed), so the meat must be well-hydrated. Opaque belly meats are commonplace and highly desirable. I tend to discard translucent gilled Belons. Adductor muscle is usually located near the center of the oyster and possesses a sublime amount of sweetness. My optimal half shell size is 3 to 4 inches. Too big, and they’re usually dried out. Too small, and the meat isn’t fully developed.
Other Species Available Globally
Ostrea conchaphila — similar to the Olympia oyster but grows in Baja California.
Ostrea chilensis — Bluff Oyster in New Zealand or Ostra Chilena in Chile… this species is native to both countries.
Ostrea angasi — Australian flat oyster or Angasi oyster, is endemic to southern Australia and Tasmania.
Saccostrea glomerata — Sydney Rock Oyster, New Zealand Rock Oyster, or Auckland Oyster, is a species endemic to Australia and New Zealand.
Crassostrea gasar — West African mangrove oyster.