Top Your Oysters with Something Other Than Cocktail Sauce
Hint: Acid will always be your best bet.
Summer is here and that means trays loaded with ice and crowned with a beautiful display of fresh oysters. The sensation of slurping down an oyster is unmatched, but the experience can sometimes be dulled by the same toppings over and over again: lemon wedges, chilled cocktail sauce, and mignonette are classically delicious, but not the most exciting.
Luckily, new and innovative ways of approaching oysters are being discovered every day. Melissa McGrath, the chef at Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm in South Jersey, has a lot of experience with oysters. “Oysters are such a great vessel for plenty of flavors,” she says. “You could really do anything besides a traditional cocktail or mignonette sauce.”
Here are her best tips on getting creative with oysters.
Consider the type of oyster
Terroir is to wine as merroir is to sea. From the French word mer, which means sea, merroir refers to the flavors imbued in an oyster based on the conditions it was raised in. “Depending on the salinity content, you definitely want to adjust things like salt, fat, and acid in your pairing,” McGrath explains.
At Sweet Amalia, the namesake oysters are farmed just north of Cape May Point in the Delaware Bay, leaving them with what McGrath describes as a “buttery flavor profile and texture.” Sloop Points, a different type of oyster, are farmed closer to the ocean and therefore have a brinier flavor profile.
Depending on the type of oyster available, toppings should be adjusted accordingly so a serving of oyster isn’t too rich, too salty, or too tart.
Experiment with different types of acid
“Because of the natural salinity content of oysters, acid will always be your best bet,” McGrath says. The good news is that there are tons of acids to experiment with. Lemon can be swapped out for lime or other citrus juices, while the red wine vinegar base of mignonette can be traded for different types of vinegar.
Even fermented peppers or chili pastes would work. “There is a restaurant in Philadelphia called River Twice that is really doing some interesting oyster toppings,” McGrath shares. “Right now, they are serving our oysters with strawberry kosho and anise hyssop oil.”
Keep seasonal ingredients in mind
As with all foods, seasonal ingredients can really make a dish pop. Grab tomatoes, celery, and tomatillos in the warmer months, or fresh herbs, lime, and radishes in the fall. “If you have a box grater at home, try grating tomatoes in season and adding a little bit of vinegar and herbs to that,” McGrath suggests.
At Sweet Amalia, a riff off a Bloody Mary is served on top of oysters using seasonal ingredients. “We take tomato juice and add a lot of freshly grated horseradish, a housemade celery simple syrup, tons of lemon juice, black pepper, and Hank’s Cilanktro Hot Sauce,” she says. “The sweetness of the celery simple syrup, spice of the horseradish and hot sauce, and the acidity from the lemon and tomato really complement the sweetness of our oysters.”
Play with texture
One of the best parts of a mignonette is biting into scales of shallots. When replicating the success of that topping, don’t lose the texture that makes the topping so special.
“You [can] add finely diced cucumber, tomato, or radish to your mignonettes for flavor and texture,” McGrath says. “Cilantro stems also add a crunch and amazing fresh flavor to mignonettes.”
And don’t be afraid to bake or fry oysters
Baked and fried oysters also provide plenty of texture, and a new experience when it comes to devouring the shellfish. “Breadcrumbs add a delicious crunch, as does parmesan cheese when baked on top,” McGrath says.
At Sweet Amalia, fried oysters are dredged in a cornmeal crust, while baked oysters can either be topped with a garlic and calabrian chili cream, parmesan, and breadcrumb mixture or an equally rich and tart chili lime butter.
Chili Lime Butter for Baking Oysters Recipe from Sweet Amalia
(Enough for 24 oysters)
½ pound unsalted butter, softened
Zest and juice of 4 limes
2 garlic, grated
¼ cup plus more to taste of favorite hot sauce—we use Hank’s Cilantro
Salt to taste
1. Shuck oysters
2. Top each oyster with 1 teaspoon of butter and place on a baking tray
3. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 4 minutes. Make sure to pour all butter on top of oysters when plating.