Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Oysters

You don't have to be a food snob to enjoy oysters. Just remember to chew!. gori910/Shutterstock

The first thing you need to know about eating oysters — oyster snobs should know this already, though the uninitiated and semi-squeamish probably don't — is that you need to chew.

You don't just throw your head back, slurp that baby down and grab for the nearest chug of beer. The idea isn't to sneak it past your taste buds as quickly as possible.

You need to bite down. A couple times. You need to taste.

"It doesn't compare to any other food experience. That's what's so fun. It's a whole different animal (so to speak)," says Rowan Jacobsen, who knows the first thing — and just about everything — about oysters. "A good one should hit you like a wave at the beach up front, and then follow through with a sweet chowder finish."

But only, of course, if you chew.

"The sweetness comes out when you chew," says Jacobsen. "And you mix the salty belly with the sweet muscle."

Jacobsen is the author of the 2007 bestseller "A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America" and has a hand in both the Oyster Guide and Oysterater, two sites that display just how bonkers he is over the bivalve. He also has a new book, "The Essential Oyster", due in Fall 2016.

Many years ago, summer used to be the worst time for eating oysters. But the old rule that no one should eat oysters in any month that doesn't contain an "R" (May-August) is moot now. With improved food safety regulations, better harvesting and shipping means, eating oysters is safe year-round, as long as they're kept on ice.

Oysters are even a "Best Choice” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch for their sustainability. Farmed shellfish don't need food thrown in the water, like farmed seafood. Oysters strain their food straight from the water in the form of microscopic plankton.

So with summer here and oysters ready for shucking, MNN asked Jacobsen — he's won a couple James Beard Awards (the Oscars of the food world) for his writing — about this sustainably wonderful and, to the uninitiated, slightly scary delicacy.

MNN: Oysters have wildly different tastes depending upon where they're from. Can you describe?

Rowan Jacobsen: The best way to do this is to take a Pacific oyster from the West Coast and an Eastern oyster from the East Coast. The Pacific will taste sweet, cucumbery and fishy, while the Eastern will taste briny and corny. Worlds apart. Then there's the rare European Flat, which tastes like licking a piling. Crazy different.

What do you do with someone who has never tried an oyster?

I assess them. If they are a little squeamish, but I see that risk-taker sparkle in their eye, then I give them a smallish, very salty, very fresh oyster, and have them instantly chase it with a swig of beer. Usually, very good things result. If I see that I'd-rather-be-eating-Funyons squint, I cut my losses.

Which kinds would you suggest for a novice?

Beausoleil, Kumamoto [and] Island Creek. Small, sweet, salty, easy to like.

A plate of oysters with lemons
A close-up of oysters. Jeremy Keith/flickr

Oyster tasting, like wine tasting, is a big thing in some areas. Are oyster lovers like wine lovers? Can one be an oyster "snob?"

Absolutely. And regretfully, I feel that I've created some of these snobs. Mea culpa. I was kind of a hardass in my first book. There's a new generation that loves parsing the minutiae of oyster flavors and meroir, and sometimes they don't see the kelp forest for the trees. Oysters, and wine, should be consumed with attention, but not geekery.

Are there signs that a restaurant will be good for oyster eaters before you even sit down?

The single best sign is a menu that lists not just the provenance of the oysters but the cultivation technique and — even better — the grower. Island Creek Oyster Bar [in Boston] is the only one I know in the country that goes that far. Beyond that, I'm looking for well-iced piles of oysters on the bar and a designated shucker who clearly knows what he's doing.

At a restaurant, what's the first thing you're looking for in an oyster?

Easy. Whole bellies. The pet peeve of all the oyster insiders is the "scrambled" oysters (to use the industry term of art) that get served all the time at raw bars, even good ones. An oyster should be opaque, not translucent, and it should be whole, not cut in any way. There shouldn't be much liquor in the shell. But the majority of oysters I see have been slashed during the shucking process; they look like a scrambled egg, and they have spilled the contents of their bodies into the shell. Amazingly, nobody complains.

What is your stance on cooking oysters? Blasphemy? Are there good ways?

Yes, if cooked very gently and quickly they can be good. But what's the point? So many other good cooked foods out there.

As a purist, what would you say about the guys at the table next to you who are heaping mounds of horseradish on their oysters and slurping them down?

I'm fine with it. I just think that, at three bucks a pop, that's a lot of money to spend just to eat horseradish. I like horseradish and cocktail sauce as much as the next guy, but I eat it on saltines.

Shucking scares some people. What’s the main tip/trick/technique for shucking?

Go slow. Point the knife away from your hand (toward the table). Nothing that bad can happen.

A plate of iced oysters with lemons and knives
A plate of iced oysters with lemons and knives. Jameson Fink/flickr

What's a good portion to eat in one sitting? When do you start feeling like a pig?

Two dozen max. I tend to eat about a dozen these days. You just need that brief, intense moment of ritual sacrifice.

You told Bon Appetit that oysters at a restaurant "should smell fresh and tasty. If they don't, don’t eat them." Can you elaborate? Would an oyster novice know a bad one?

Hell, yeah. It'll clear the room. (Or should.)