Love them or loathe them, oysters provide a memorable eating experience and a potent hit of shellfish tastiness. Read our comprehensive guide that covers everything from shucking to serving.
According to a survey we conducted for our 25th birthday, oysters are one of the nation’s least favourite dishes – 40% of respondents described them as ‘food hell’ (they were pipped to the top spot only by tripe and tongue). On the flipside, fervent fans of oysters are all but addicted to their mineral-rich flavour and theatrical serving method.
Whichever camp you fall into we recommend trying properly prepared oysters at least once; they don’t need to be wobbly and scary – they don’t even need to be tipped down your gullet in one go. Read our guide to buying, preparing and serving oysters and then let us know your favourite method in the comments below...
How to buy oysters
The two main types of oyster available from fishmongers in the UK are rock (or Pacific) and native oysters. Rock oysters are the quickest to grow and start their lives in hatcheries before being laid out to grow in the sea. As a result, they’re much cheaper than less abundant native oysters, which are only in season during months containing the letter ‘r’ (so, September through to April) – expect to pay around three times more for native oysters.
When picking oysters, look for those with tightly closed shells and avoid those with even the smallest opening. Fishmongers should hold a health certificate that lists the place of harvest and date of production, so if you’re worried about provenance, just ask. Oysters also vary in flavour and texture depending on the water in which they’re grown, so shop around if you want a particular taste profile.
Store oysters in the bottom of the fridge, rounded side down so they don’t leak any juice.
How to prepare an oyster
Closed oysters need to be ‘shucked’, which is something all fishmongers can do for you, but if you fancy taking it on yourself, it’s best to use a specialist oyster knife, which is short and blunt with a finger guard.
Watch our video guide to shucking oysters, or follow our three-step process, written by Billingsgate Training School tutor CJ Jackson.
1. Hold the oyster very firmly in a thick cloth to protect your hands, then insert the knife into the hinge, or pointed end, of the oyster.
2. Twist the tip of the knife into the hinge to get a very firm foothold. Once you feel the knife is securely in place, release the pressure from the knife and gently lever or twist the knife to break the muscle of the oyster – you can usually hear the ‘shucking’ noise as the two half shells part.
3. Loosen the opened oyster from the shell to make it easy to eat.
How to serve oysters
The customary approach to eating oysters is to serve them raw. Typically, raw oysters are served on the half shell with plenty of lemon for squeezing, Tabasco sauce and shallot vinaigrette (mignonette). The briney, sodium-rich flavour of oysters means they partner well with tangy Asian-style dressings, such as this spicy sauce by John Torode:
If you don’t quite fancy raw oysters, shuck them completely and serve them poached in a mild pasta sauce – use the same principle as that employed by Gordon Ramsay in this seafood spaghetti recipe:
If you’re serving oysters to a skeptic, opting for a fully cooked approach does remove some of the fear factor, but it’s also a nice option for those used to shoveling them down straight from the shell. Shellfish expert, Richard Corrigan, recommends choosing larger, meatier oysters for cooking. He says cream and butter are the perfect match for oysters’ “inherent salinity” and recommends baked oysters Rockefeller – oysters topped with a herby butter-based sauce and breadcrumbs before being grilled.
A note on the health benefits of oysters
Oysters are winners on the health front – low in fat and high in protein, they’re also packed with as much iron as red meat, making them a good alternative if you don’t eat meat. As for the aphrodisiac element, this comes from the fact oysters have high zinc levels – thought to be beneficial to male fertility.
What’s your take on oysters? Are they a food nightmare or heaven in a half shell?