Eating Oysters

Eating Oysters

Whether enjoyed raw on the half-shell or in a creamy bowl or stew, no food so perfectly captures the sweet, salty taste of the sea as an oyster. In spite of the long list of names you may be presented with at an oyster bar, there are just four species of oysters - Atlantic or Eastern oysters, European flat oysters, Pacific or Japanese oysters, and tiny Olympias. What makes one oyster different from another depends on where it is grown.

When choosing, forget what you may have heard about not eating oysters in any month that doesn't have an "r" in it. The truth is that oysters are safe to eat all year round; they just aren't as good in the summer months, when the waters warm up. This is when the oysters spawn, and their normally firm flesh turns milky and soft. Winter is a better time to eat oysters because that's when the water are coldest and the oyster's flavor is best. When you're at the store, note how the oysters are displayed. They should be kept flat on a bed of ice or in a refrigerator. If they're all jumbled together in a bag, their juices will run out. Also, make sure that the oyster shells are tightly closed. If the shell is open, even a crack, the oyster meat will dry out. If you will be serving raw oysters on the half-shell, they will always taste best if shucked just before serving. When the oysters are to be cooked, it's generally okay to buy shucked, vacuum-packed oysters. All shucked oysters should be plump and uniform in size, smell sweetly of the sea, and have clear liquid often called liquor.

To eat oysters safely, stick with cold-water oysters. Those from the North Atlantic and Pacific Coasts are the safest bet. Gulf Coast oysters carry the toxic organism Vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacterium that has resulted in outbreaks of illness. Also, never eat an oyster that isn't icy cold. Harmful bacteria lie relatively dormant when it's cold, but once the temperature warms up, they can cause trouble. Keep in mind, too, that alcohol can lower your resistance to harmful bacteria. It's best not to consume too much alcohol if you plan on eating raw oysters. A final caution: If you are pregnant or your immune system is compromised, avoid oysters altogether.

Once you get the live oysters home, arrange them flat on a baking sheet or a plate, cover them with a damp cloth, and store them in the refrigerator. Depending on when they were harvested, live oysters will keep for about 1 week in the refrigerator, but they will taste best when consumed as soon as possible. Shucked oysters can be covered in their liquor and refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen up to 3 months. Avoid soaking oysters in water, however, which dilutes their flavor.

To shuck, use an oyster knife, which is short and sturdy, with a pointed tip for boring into the shell hinge to pop it open. You can also use the pointed tip of a can or bottle opener to pop the shell, then use a dull knife to cut the oyster meat from the shell. Avoid using a sharp kitchen knife, which could cause serious injury. Before you begin, cover your hand with a thick, folded dish towel, a pot holder, or a specially designed oyster glove to protect yourself from a slip of the knife and the rough edges of the shell.

To make oysters easier to shuck, place the raw oysters in the freezer for about 15 to 20 minutes, which will weaken the oysters and cause them to release their grips on their shells slightly. Of course, oysters are not quite as fresh when using this method. If the oysters are to be cooked, simplify shucking by placing them, deepest shell down, directly on a gas burner. Turn on the heat to medium for 3 to 5 seconds. The heated oysters should easily pry open. Or arrange 6 to 8 oysters around the rim of a plate, hinged side facing outward. Microwave on high power just until the shells begin to open, 30 seconds.

Oysters take literally seconds to cook. Heat a non-stick skillet until very hot. Add the oysters and stir until they plump, 30 to 45 seconds, depending on the number of oysters in the pan. Immediately remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Use the liquid in the pan to create a sauce. Be careful to avoid overcooking oysters, which causes them to become tough.

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