How to store, open, prepare, cook and serve oysters.
Introduction to the oyster
Although oysters generally fall under the category of seafood and shellfish, they are actually classed as molluscs and belong to the same family as mussels, scallops and clams.
Other pages in our oysters section
Oysters are the most expensive shellfish available and are now considered a luxury, although this was not always the case. During the 1800's oysters were very common and were farmed in abundance.
It was only when high demand caused beds to become depleted and the price of oysters to rocket, which in turn led to its status today as an extravagant delicacy.
On the outside oysters are rough to the touch and dull in colour, yet it is their flesh inside that makes these molluscs such a wonderful treat.
Once the shell has been opened you will see a succulent piece of creamy / light grey flesh that is surrounded by a clear juice. It is often said that this colour and consistency is the reason why oysters are often considered an aphrodisiac, whilst various scientists and researchers say that it is due to the fact that the oyster contains a rare amino acid which raises the level of the sex hormones.
There are many types of oyster that range in size and flavour. The smaller varieties, such as the "Natives" that are farmed around the Colchester and Whitstable areas of the UK, are much tastier and flavoursome than the larger types and they are also more expensive.
In general, the small varieties of oyster are best eaten raw, whilst the larger varieties, such as the "Pacific oysters" should be cooked.
Oysters can be cooked by steaming, grilling, pan-frying, poaching or roasting and can also be pickled or smoked. Often, they are added to fish stews and soups.
Oysters are usually consumed from September - April, as during the summer months they spawn and their flesh becomes milky and too soft to be pleasant to eat.
It is best to buy oysters from a reliable source so that you know that they are good quality. They can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days but should really be eaten as soon as possible after purchase. If eating the oysters raw, they should be consumed immediately after shucking (opening).
Store the oysters on a large tray or plate, covered with a damp tea towel in the refrigerator until you are ready to prepare them. They should not be immersed in water, as this will kill them.
Cleaning the oysters
When you are ready to serve the oysters, if you are going to eat them in the traditional way, scrub the shells under cold running water with a brush to remove any dirt and debris. Discard any shells that are open, cracked or damaged. Allow 6 - 12 oysters per person.
Opening the oysters
Take an oyster and wrap it in a tea towel or cloth. Ensure that the flatter shell is facing upwards and that the hinge is pointing towards you. Grip the oyster / shucking knife firmly and insert into the small hole located in the hinge. If you don't have an oyster knife, use a short knife with a strong, blunt blade.
Do not use a sharp kitchen knife. Twist the oyster knife until the shells snap apart. Then run the knife blade backwards and forwards along the upper shell in order to sever the muscle that holds the two shells together. Gently remove the top shell, taking care not to spill any of the liquid inside. It is a good idea to open the oysters over a bowl. Finally, remove the black beard from the main body and serve.
Raw oysters are traditionally served in their shells with their juice on a bed of crushed ice. The classic accompaniments are cayenne pepper, a wedge of lemon to squeeze over the flesh and a thin slice of buttered brown bread.
Alternatively, they can be seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper with a dash of Tabasco sauce, whilst some restaurants serve them with a Mignonette sauce made from lemon juice or sherry vinegar, chopped shallots, mixed peppercorns and dry white wine.
In general, most types of oyster are eaten raw and this is the most popular way of preparing them. There are a number of well known cooked oyster dishes including the butter-rich Oyster Rockerfeller, Oysters Mornay, Angels on Horseback and Oysters au gratin.
When cooking with oysters, you should still work with live oysters and open them by steaming for a few seconds or by microwaving for 30 - 60 seconds. The oyster should be removed from the shell as above and then used in the recipe as instructed.
As the oyster has such a delicate flavour, most people prefer to eat them raw unless they are cooked very lightly in a matter of minutes or seconds.