Posted on July 3, 2012 by Beth Yost
I recently became grossly consumed in learning more about the oyster. I’ve always enjoyed eating them, but when I look at them, I can’t help but wonder why. What a repulsive looking asymmetrical glob of smooth flesh that clings with slimy, sinewy little parts to an ugly shell. But as I write, I can’t help but to want to slurp one up. There must be more to the oyster.
A friend and I went to Taylor Shellfish Farms in Seattle to get to the bottom of this. We looked over the variety of oysters on the menu. Normally, I would just choose the smallest since I have an irrational fear of getting a huge oyster lodged in my throat. But this time, I asked the mother of all questions—“What’s the difference between all of these?”
Once the shucker started talking, I couldn’t get enough. Next thing I knew I was interviewing the owners, Bill and Betsy Taylor, sampling wines, taking pictures, taking notes, and trying all kinds of fresh, slimy shellfish straight off the knife.
Three hours later, we left Taylor Shellfish Farms completely seduced by the oyster. Prepare to be enlightened.
What distinguishes one oyster from the next?
As far as us beginners are concerned, three basic factors contribute to an oyster’s unique quality.
Species. At a glance,species vary in size and have different shell styles. Different species also spawn in different temperatures and endure different conditions. All of these circumstances affect species’ taste profile. And that’s just scratching the surface.
For example, the Olympia (aka. an Oly) is one of the smallest oysters with a tight, hard shell, while the Kumomoto is large with a fluted shell. Despite the Oly’s size, it packs a flavorful punch with an almost cucumber-like taste and strong metallic finish, and the Kumomoto has a mild, sweet flavor.
Habit. How the oyster is grown can affect its heartiness. If it has to deal with lots of tidal variance and shock, then it must adapt to the rough tumbling. Oyster shells typically grow outward and have a shallow shell. However, if the edges are constantly banging against one another and chipping, in an effort to protect itself, the shell grows down and develops amino acids, rather than growing out. A deep shell means there is a tough, meaty little mollusk in there.
The Shigoku oyster is the perfect example. Taylor Shellfish Company created the Shigoku. They’re grown in bags at the surface where they’re naturally tumbled more than other oysters. It’s got a deeper cup, smoother edges, and reaches market size much earlier than your average oyster. It’s one feisty and delicious oyster.
Beach. Water quality, purity, salinity, algae, and temperature variance of the beach impact the growth and taste of the oyster.
For example, Totten Virginicas grow in deep water thick with algae. Deeper water has less salinity, so this oyster tastes less like the salty ocean and has a stronger seaweed flavor.
What characteristics determine a “good” or properly shucked oyster?
Oyster Bill Whitbeck, (author and shucker extraordinaire) and the Taylor’s were happy to share a couple tips for the novice oyster lover. Despite what you may think, they told us that many restaurants serving oysters don’t know the first thing about properly shucking them.
1. Your oyster should never be partially attached to its shell. You should be able to slurp it right out.
2. Oysters should not have a smell.
3. It should glisten, and be full of what they call nectar, or the liquor. A dry oyster means the shell may have been cracked or the shucker sloppily spilled the good juices.
4. Oysters should look full, dense, and creamy. An oyster harvested too early will look clear and be ‘skinny’.
5. It shouldn’t be mutilated or have any cut meat, although sometimes if it’s a small slice, the shucker will flip it over, and that’s forgivable.
What’s the best way to eat an oyster?
“There’s nothing proper about it!” Besty Taylor laughs.
I’m starting to think that’s what I like so much about it. There isn’t an especially ‘correct’ way to eat them. Sure, if you want to really taste the oyster, don’t mess with it. Kumomotos, Shigokus, and Virginicas are especially wonderful as is.
The purist would tell you to enjoy it with a dry glass of white wine. Add nothing. Slurp it or scoop it from the shell with a cocktail fork. Chew it a couple of times, swallow, and sip your wine.
But no one is offended if you add a little flair to your oysters. Add Tabasco, or a splash of tequila with lime, flash fry them, whatever! (Recipe links at the bottom of this post.)
This is all you wanted to know, isn’t it!? You probably just scrolled to the bottom to see if this was addressed! Well, Oysters are loaded with zinc, which is known for kicking things up a notch in the sack, but after talking with Bill and Betsy Taylor, I think that’s only half of it.
I asked them to provide me with a few words they use to describe oysters. Betsy immediately responded with, “Sexy!” And that just got the ball rolling. We all started chiming in with, slurppy, slippery, fleshy, raw, juicy. Now throw a nice bottle of white wine in the equation. See what we’re getting at?
Sure, maybe there’s a mineral reaction, but the experience is totally uninhibited and primal, and I’d have to agree, it’s pretty sexy.
I’d like to thank the dedicated staff at Taylor Shellfish Farms for their time and expertise. They’re incredibly knowledgeable, passionate, and committed to producing a quality product, sustainable harvesting, and clean water.
Oyster Bill Whitbeck’s book, The Joy of Oysters
(I’d also like to share my idiot moment: After shooting some great footage with the entertaining staff on how to prepare an oyster, scallop, and goeduck, I lost nearly all of it in a kayak adventure the next day. I’ll post if I can salvage (dry out) the camera. But it’s not looking good.)
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