All Your Questions About Oysters, Answered

Just-harvested Montauk Pearl oysters © Emily Siegel
By Emily Siegel Posted August 05, 2015

For National Oyster Day, we consulted with experts to find out when, how and with which intoxicating beverages to eat everyone’s favorite hermaphroditic mollusks.

We all know oysters are delicious. They’re salty and fresh, like taking a bite out of the ocean. But there’s far more to these bivalves than meets the tongue. For National Oyster Day (August 5), we consulted with experts to find out when, how and with which intoxicating beverages to eat everyone’s favorite hermaphroditic mollusks.

Aside from where they come from, is there a difference between East and West Coast oysters?
Yes, a big one: They’re different species. East Coast oysters are Wellfleets. Big and briny, they’re more sea-like than their western counterparts — a contrast James Kent, executive chef at New York City’s The NoMad, attributes to cold temperatures and high saline levels.

The Pacific, on the other hand, produces several different species (Kumamotos are the most famous). They’re usually smaller in size, with a sweet, creamy flavor.

If Atlantic oysters are all Wellfleets, why do they all have different names?
“There are hundreds of names for oysters on the East Coast, reflecting where they were grown,” explains Michael Doall, co-founder of the Montauk Shellfish Company. “Even though they’re all the same species, an oyster will taste completely different depending on the waters in which it was grown.”

Lisa Giffen, head chef at Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere, says the body of water in which an oyster grows has a similar effect as terroir has on wine. “I call it marine terroir,” she says. “Oysters from cold, icy waters in places like New England are sweet and snappy. But warmer bodies of water, like the Chesapeake Bay, produce bigger oysters with mineral flavors.”

What’s the deal with farmed versus wild?
95 percent of oysters are farm-raised. But unlike other seafood, farming oysters actually helps the environment.

“Oysters are bivalves,” explains Michael Martinsen, Doall’s partner at Montauk Shellfish, “which means they remove bad particles, like nitrogen, from the water as they eat. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water each day. Farming them is actually necessary to replace populations being depleted by humanity.”

Farmed oysters can also be tastier. “A farmer puts their heart and soul in the brand,” says Martinsen. “They have an interest in ensuring the quality and cleanliness of the oysters, whereas wild oysters can come from one of 2,000 baymen. You don’t know if they’re clean, or how they will taste.”

How long does it take to raise an oyster?
“Generally, it takes [our oysters] between 18 months and four years,” says Martinsen. “Warm waters make oysters grow faster, but old age can also contribute to their size.”

What should I drink with oysters?
“Traditionally, people pair oysters with Muscadet,” says Giffin, referring to the briny, high-acid white wine from France’s Loire Valley. “But at Maison Premiere, we love oysters with absinthe. The vegetable notes match the brine.”

When should I eat oysters?
The best months for oysters are December through June — months when they aren’t reproducing. “July and August are probably the worst months, as they prepare for their spawn,” says Doall. “Reproductive tissue can give oysters a watery, flaccid texture. But when they come out of icy, winter waters, they’re really hearty.”

That isn’t to say East Coast oysters can’t be enjoyed all summer long. “They’re still healthy in the summer,” Doall continues. “But they’re smaller and have a slightly different texture. Reproductive tissue gives oysters a creamy taste, so it’s the best time for someone who loves sweet, creamy oysters.”

Are oyster happy hours too good to be true?
$1 oysters sound suspect — but Giffen insists happy hours are a great way to explore inexpensively.

Kent’s advice? “Look for a cup that’s full of liquor — meaning the meat is still resting in a bath of salt water. Then, do a smell check. Oysters aren’t shy about letting you know they’ve passed their prime. If an oyster isn’t good, even your neighbors will know.”

And eating them at home?
“I feel completely comfortable buying oysters from good markets, like Whole Foods or Citarella,” says Kent.

Giffen agrees, but recommends asking to see the “bag tag.” This will not only tell you when the oyster was harvested, but also where it was farmed. Diners should avoid ordering oysters with a generic name (e.g., Peconic Bay oyster) and look for a brand name — like the Montauk Pearl — instead. A name is but a name, but an oyster without one was likely raised in the wild.

“It’s not that an oyster without a brand name isn’t safe to eat,” Martinsen expands. “It’s just that the quality will be better if it’s coming from a farmer who has their name attached to the product. Like I said earlier, brand-name oysters will always receive more love and attention than their wild counterparts.”

I got the oysters back to my house! Now what do I do?
Shuck them! Here’s one of our favorite methods.

Related: America's Best Oyster Bars
Delicious Oyster Recipes
Gulf Coast Seafood Recipes

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