How to Order Oysters Like a Pro
Impress your friends and order those oysters like an expert.
As oyster farming has exploded over the last decade, oysters have evolved from seafood house specific snacks into a common bar fare. But much like with wine and old Russian novels, most of us wish we knew more about oysters than we actually do. Today, however, with the help of Erin Murray, former oyster farmer and author of the book Shucked, we will attempt to close that knowledge gap so you can order with confidence.
But first, let's deal with some of the basics.
As most oyster spots offer up their wares in sixes, by the half or full dozen, a good rule of thumb is six oysters per person at the table. One of the glorious things about oysters is tasting the differences in the various styles (which we will get into in detail below), so often there is a certain logic in breaking up a dozen or so oysters into three or four varietals as you can really start to figure out which ones you most enjoy.
Now, if you're in a fine dining restaurant, they might not give you a choice, as they want to shape your dining experience as much as possible, and that often means having a set raw oyster dish prepared and topped as they see fit. But in most gastropubs and more casual oyster spots, you'll be able to read a list of available oysters much as you would a wine list and get as many as you fancy.
Oyster species and regions
Though there are hundreds of varieties of oysters, Murray thinks it's important to understand that there are only a total of five main species. These breakdown into:
Atlantic Oysters: Native to America, and found, quite logically, all along the Atlantic Ocean down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Olympia Oysters: Native to the American West Coast, once thought to be extinct after over-cultivation in the late 19th century, found mostly in Washington state and Northern California.
Pacific Oysters: Also called Miyagi, these were first imported from Asia in the early 20th century and most often found in North America on the West Coast and in British Columbia.
Kumamoto Oysters: Native to Japan, mostly found in the same locales as the Pacific oysters.
European Flat Oysters: Also called Belons, though that gets complicated because they technically need to be from Brittany to be actual Belons per the whole French thing. These are the hardest to find in America, though you can occasionally find them in New England.
But, as we said up top, there are lots of varieties within those species, and, in America, and especially on menus, you tend to only get quick information, like the name of the varietal and its origin. The region where those oysters grew will affect their characteristics, including how they taste. So we asked Murray to give us a quick primer on four of the most popular oyster farming regions.
New England: All the way up to Prince Edward Island
Murray: "There is a huge variation here, but generally you can expect to be smacked in the face with salt, and go for a roll in the ocean. These oysters usually have a great finish, because they tend to grow slowly due to the cold water, which means they have a longer lasting, but pleasant aftertaste, more herbal and vegetal. The cup size tends to be on the small end, but they're usually packed with meat before they go dormant, so October and November are the best times to eat them."
Look on the menu for: Island Creek (Duxbury, MA), Nonesuch (Maine), Moon Shoal (Cape Cod), Irish Point (Prince Edward Island)
Murray: "Though these are still Atlantic oysters, things tend to taper off in the salt department compared to the New England ones, as they tend to grow more quickly in the warmer waters, which also means they tend to be much bigger." The Rappahannock Oyster Company (Topping, Virginia) is the major player here and their oysters are famous for being virtually salt-free, but smooth and sweet.
Look on the menu for: Rappahannock (Virginia)
Gulf: Primarily Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Florida
Murray: "The Gulf is probably the most interesting place for oysters right now. They are pretty much split into two camps at this point: the standard ones are big and fat and have mellow flavor, lower salinity, and earthier tones. But now, they're all these newer oyster farms (mostly in Alabama and Florida) growing them in a different way, farmed like in the North, so they're smaller and saltier and have that New England profile.
Look on the menu for: Traditional Gulf oysters like Louisiana Wild Gulfs or Apalachicola (Florida) or newer versions like Murder Point (Alabama) and Point aux Pins (Alabama).
West Coast Oysters: Primarily Northern California, Washington, and British Columbia
Common species: Kumamoto, Pacific, Olympia
Murray: "Mostly all of the oysters grown in the West tend to be variations on Kumamoto, Pacific, and Olympia species, all of which vary in flavors. With Pacifics and Kumamotos, you've got a lot of melon and cucumber up front, but the Pacific versions tend to be meatier, and neither has a ton of salinity. Kumamotos tend to also be extremely tiny and are very popular in British Columbia. Olympia's, at one point, were basically diminished as a varietal but were slowly brought back to life. They have a famously copper-y flavor that's also tinny and salty, which creates a really cool and funky combo. Super interesting."
Look on the menu for: Hog Island (California), Hama Hama (Washington), Taylor Shellfish (Washington), Kusshi (British Columbia)
Pairing with wine and beer
There is a certain logic to picking wines (or any drink) that might pair well with oysters. Saltiness of the oysters, especially the east coast version, means they go well with wines that show minerality, while bright, acidic, dry wines also pair well, as they basically act as a paddle shock of flavor much in the way that squeezing a lemon does. Muscadet is the most classic oyster-paired wine, with Champagne a close second, though Sancerre and Chablis are also great selections. If you're into beers, a "sessionable" (lower ABV) citrus forward IPA is a strong choice, as are most sours.
How to eat oysters
If the oyster shucker has done their job correctly, they'll have already freed the muscle from the shell while retaining as much of that glorious oyster liquor (the liquid inside) as possible.
Often the oysters will be served with a variety of condiments. Lemon wedges, hot sauce, cocktail sauce, and a mignonette of some sort are most popular. As this is a democracy, you are free to make whatever decision you want with regard to the condiments. But I will just say that if you truly want to appreciate the various differences in flavor, stick to a squeeze of lemon and a little spoonful of mignonette—cocktail sauce, after all, was originally used to mask the flavor of less-fresh oysters. These days your oysters will more than likely show up fresh as can be, so enjoy.