Don't tell purists, but in an absolute emergency, you can use the microwave.

By Regan Stephens
Updated August 10, 2020
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Courtesy of Rappahannock Oyster Co.

Since about mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic compelled those who could to stay home, a quick scroll of my Instagram feed at any moment shows that people are spending more time in their kitchens. Overpriced desk salads are now elaborate homemade stews; made-from-scratch fruit pies have become perfectly normal mid-morning snacks; and countless fresh bread loaves have sprung from sourdough starters. Out of boredom or necessity or probably both, the shrinking of options has inspired home cooks to push the boundaries of their comfort zones.

There are a few notable exceptions, though, when lack of expertise or equipment makes a dish too daunting—think sushi, perfectly crispy French fries, and oysters. While sushi and French fries are commonly ordered as take out, oysters can be trickier to enjoy at home. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. According to Ryan Croxton, co-owner of the Rappahannock Oyster Company, there are easy—if not somewhat unorthodox—ways to open oysters that don’t involve shucking them with an oyster knife.

Croxton and his cousin Travis Croxton are fourth-generation oyster farmers, running the Virginia-based oyster company their great grandfather started in 1899. When they relaunched the dwindling business in 2001, once-abundant oysters were nearly non-existent in the Chesapeake Bay. The self-taught aquaculturists took over their grandfather’s permit, and soon after their first harvest they were selling their Rappahannocks and Olde Salts to restaurants like New York’s Le Bernardin. Nowadays, besides helping to restore the industry and providing oysters to some of the country’s most notable kitchens, they run their own restaurants, including the waterfront Merroir tasting room in Topping, Virginia, and a collection of Rappahanock oyster bars in Washington, D.C, Charleston, and Los Angeles.

For the uninitiated, oyster shucking takes practice (and safety gloves), but it’s not the only way of opening the shell. “The only thing keeping the shell shut is the oyster’s adductor muscle that it clenches to keep the shell shut,” he says. “The second the oyster is no longer alive, it lets go of the shell.”

Once the shell is open, you can more easily (and with less fear of accidentally losing a finger) cut them out—Croxton likes the Toadfish oyster knife for its ergonomic handle and intuitive design. Below, find a few of Croxton’s simple methods for safely opening oysters at home. 

1. Freeze

Freezing and thawing is the easiest hands-off method of opening oysters, according to Croxton. “Honestly, a lot of these things happen to us on the farm—we have oysters that are exposed to low tide in the middle of the winter, and they get hit by the freezing cold, they'll die, and the second they thaw, they open,” he says.

“So if you want to bring that into the kitchen, just stick your oysters in the freezer, let them thoroughly freeze, and then put them in the refrigerator. As they start to thaw down, they'll pop up, and then you’re in. The nice thing about it is, once you put them in the refrigerator, the texture will come back, and it’s not going to change the flavor.”

2. Grill

Any type of heat—from boiling, steaming, even microwaving—will kill the oyster and release its shell, but Croxton’s preferred method is the grill. “You can get a lot more flavor in them with a grill.”

While the oysterman first shucks and stuffs his oysters before returning the shell and putting them on the grill, he says you can skip that step. “If you're, you're struggling to get into the oyster, you can just put it on the grill. It'll pop open, then you can add whatever you want to pile on to it.” A few of his suggestions: fresh spinach and cheese for Oysters Rockefeller, a simple garlic butter, or barbecue sauce.

3. Microwave

Purists might be horrified, and freezing is a much more sanitary method, says Croxton, but in a pinch, “You can go to the microwave if you’re in a real hurry, like if you’ve got people coming over five minutes.”

Arrange the oysters on a plate, cupped side down, and microwave them for less than a minute. They should pop open and be ready to serve—preferably on a plate with ice, as if you spent hours adeptly shucking each.