Though traditionalists still mark September as the start of oyster season, today’s motto could be, “If you love ’em, eat ’em year-round.”
If you don’t live near a seafood market or are seeking a particular type of oyster, don’t despair: Shopping online for the briny bivalves makes them more accessible than ever.
“Most people don’t realize how easy it is to order oysters online,” says Rowan Jacobsen, author of the James Beard Award-winning A Geography of Oysters (Bloomsbury USA, 2008), and the new The Essential Oyster, issued this month from Bloomsbury USA.
In addition to availability, there’s diversity. Rowan notes that there’s a vast variety of oysters with distinct flavor profiles that are often tied to their origins—what connoisseurs refer to as “merroir,” a made-up word that is to shellfish what terroir is to wine.
The most common East Coast oysters—generally brinier than West Coasters—are Wellfleet, Malpeque and Blue Point. From the West Coast, Kumamoto, Humboldt Gold and Hama Hama will express cucumber and melon flavors.
Jacobsen advises using your senses when oyster shopping in person.
Finely dice 1 small shallot and stir it into ½ cup red wine vinegar. Add ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and stir. Use a demitasse spoon to drizzle over oysters as desired. Makes enough for 24 oysters.
“They should smell more like the fresh ocean breeze than the bottom of a bait bucket,” he says. “They should also have their shells shut tight, an indication that they’re still alive. An oyster that’s gapping is either headed for the pearly gates or already inside.”
The classic way to serve raw oysters is on the half shell, atop a bed of crushed ice. Add an elegant touch with retro-styled oyster plates, easily found online.
Popular accoutrements include lemon wedges, mignonette or hot sauce. For New Orleans style, chargrill or broil them right in the shell and serve with hot sauce or a butter garlic sauce.
Eating protocol varies, but most agree that a good slurp is the easiest way to eat a raw oyster from the shell. If you’re shy about slurping, use a small seafood fork to help slide the meat out of the shell. Either way, hold the oyster on your tongue for a few seconds to savor the flavor. Chew it lightly, swallow and wash it down with a sip of wine.
Any style of oyster is showcased alongside a crisp, refreshing white wine. Champagne is a classic pairing, but for briny East Coast varieties, pour Albariño from Rías Baixas or Assyrtiko from Santorini. With sweeter West Coast oysters, enjoy Petit Chablis or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.