Advice on Seafood: Choosing the Right Oysters (Even If You Live Inland)

Oysters When it comes to choosing oysters for the first time, it is easy to be intimidated, especially if you live inland and are not sure what is available, or what to look for while shopping.  All it takes...


When it comes to choosing oysters for the first time, it is easy to be intimidated, especially if you live inland and are not sure what is available, or what to look for while shopping.  All it takes is one glance at the alien looking bivalve to realize that whomever took the first plunge in eating an oyster, surely must have been starving.  Yet, what an unexpected treat they must have gotten for their effort.

Oysters have become an increasingly popular food item on both coasts of North America, and world wide--thanks to the growing popularity of oyster bars, and other seafood based eateries.  However, sales have risen for home based epicureans looking to create delicious oyster hardy meals as well.  More and more supermarkets are carrying fresher and more varied seafood for their customers.  Or, if the supermarket is not an option, mail order mollusks are now commonly being safely delivered to doorsteps worldwide, as fresh as one might find at a warf-side fishmonger's stall.

If you are looking to branch out into the exciting, and delicious world of oysters, there really is no reason to be overwhelmed.  With the right information, shopping for, and choosing the right oyster (even for in-landers) is easy!

Oysters can be purchased in differing varieties that are almost always categorized by where they are harvested from, or their "terroir".  Although it may seem like a lot to remember, there are really only five major categories of oysters, under which different subcategories exist.  These main five are composed of the popular Pacific Oysters, the nutty Kumamoto Oysters, the meaty European Flats (also sometimes called Belons, although not all European Flats are Belons), the varied Atlantic Oysters (including Bluepoints, Wellfleets, etc.) and the tiny, yet tasty, Olympia Oysters.

Like grapes grown for wine, an oyster will take on characteristics of the terroir it develops in.  If the water is high in salinity, such as is the case with true ocean varieties, the oyster will tend to posses a more briny flavor.  Whereas those developed in a bay terroir such as Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Maryland, or Tatamagouche Bay in Nova Scotia, will have a milder, less briny taste.  The type of algae present, or the minerals found in the terroir will also impact an oyster's overall flavor.

An oyster's flavor can vary from not only its variety, and terroir, but the time of year it was harvested in as well.  Historically, the general rule of when best to eat oysters fell under the "r" rule, which stated that it was safe, and advisable, to eat oysters during months containing the letter "r," but not in months which do not contain the letter.  This of course meant that the traditionally warmer months of the year in North America, beginning in May and June, but specifically in July and August were not considered good months to eat oysters. Although modern harvesting practices makes this rule more of a suggestion than a standard (as oysters are generally safe to eat year round these days), it is a solid suggestion since oysters tend to be larger, and more flavorful during the Winter months.

Choosing a good oyster should be based on three basic areas of observation: appearance, texture and most importantly, smell.  Live, fresh oysters should be stored in well drained, iced beds and should be tightly closed.  If open at all, a fresh oyster will clamp tightly shut when tapped.  If they fail to do so, they are not alive and should not be eaten.  An oyster's shell can be smooth, or bumpy, can have ridges and points and can even have barnacles attached, but should not be chipped, cracked, or be slimy, growing algae, or mold.  Oysters (when whole, or even after shucking) should smell slightly like the water they grew in, but should not smell fishy, and should never smell at all of ammonia.  Any questionable smelling oysters should be discarded immediately.

However, the best advice on seafood, particularly when purchasing oysters, is to always buy from a trustworthy fishmonger.  While many bigger supermarkets now carry a variety of oysters, they may not all be familiar with the correct way to keep live oysters fresh and safe.  You should feel comfortable asking not only where the oysters are from, but how they were harvested and more crucially, how long they have been out of the water.  If they are more than two to three days out of their terroir, they are not fresh and are best avoided.  If a fishmonger cannot, or will not, answer your queries, move on and find one that will.

Of course, picking the right oyster for your culinary adventure is just the start.  Contact us today at Cilantro, A Cooks Shop for all your seafood and oyster needs and advice.  From handy oyster knives to the perfect gratin dish for oysters gratin, Cilantro, The Cooks Shop can make sure you have what you need!