Restaurants take care of the tedious oyster shucking process for anything you order, but if you’re headed to a Lowcountry roast, you’ll need to know how to open an oyster. We’ll teach you how in these 5 easy steps.
Long ago considered a luxury for the elite, a resurgence in oyster farming has spurred lower prices for all. Ostreophiles — lovers of the addictive and intoxicating ocean jewels — actually owe the bountiful array of today’s oyster supply to Victor Coste, the French aquaculture innovator who invigorated oyster farming when he single-handedly endeavored to save France’s native oyster beds in the 1860’s. Thanks to his passion and dedication, bivalve choices today are widely assorted, and affordable.
Whether you prefer wild grown, or appreciate the cultivated melange, there’s a crustacean waiting to meet your lips in Charleston.
Oysters hold flavors distinctive to the waters in which they grew, like grapes on the vine absorbing flavor from the soil. A wine’s terroir is an oyster’s merroir, with flavors varying from briny to sweet, mineral to crisp. Regardless of origin —naturally native or farmed — the real pearl in the shell is the oyster itself.
Let’s get shuckin’!
To open an oyster, the right tools make all the difference
- clean rag or dishcloth
- shucking knife
We’re partial to the shucking knife style illustrated as the knuckle guard prevents accidental cuts, and a sharper tip allows for easier prying into the tight oyster hinge.
Find the hinge, firmly but gently work the tip of your favorite oyster knife in, give it a twist and listen for the “pop.” Slide the blade in, sever the adductor muscle (yes, that’s ‘a-D-d’, not unlike our a-B-ductors), flip the top shell off and get ready: all that rich flavor ain’t just for the rich anymore.
No matter how conscientious your oyster farmer or fishmonger might be, oysters inevitably retain muck and grit from where they grew. Native local oysters grow in Carolina deep brownish black plough mud, a thick pudding-like sodden dirt; farmed oysters grow suspended in cages. Both varieties inevitably collect extra sand and muck from harvest to your table. Before you try to open an oyster, rinse the shell thoroughly under cold running water (but never soak or you’ll dilute its flavor.) If you notice a strong fishy or funky odor and it doesn’t smell like the fresh sea, DO NOT EAT IT!
Place the oyster between your gloved hand or folded rag with the hinge side exposed at the heel of your hand. The hinge is where the oyster naturally opens and closes to filter ocean water and its nutrients through the shell; it’s almost always more narrow than the opposing curved end. Be sure to position the curved cup side of the shell on the bottom, and the flatter side facing up.
3. Making the insertion
With the oyster secured in one hand resting firmly against a surface, place the shucking knife tip into the deepest crevice of the hinged knuckle. Exerting a fair amount of pressure, firmly wiggle the tip into the groove until the hinge releases, then twist to pop the hinge apart. Imagine duplicating the same action as opening a door knob but be extremely careful not to let the knife slip off the hinge into your flesh. Don’t be discouraged — this step is often the most difficult to master as it relies more on feel than written instruction. You’ll know it when the tip is placed correctly to apply the right pressure and voila! You officially learned to open an oyster.
4. Severing the adductor
Fully insert your knife and slide the blade edge down the shell to sever the small but tough muscle that connects the oyster to the top shell. This adductor muscle is what opens and closes the shell so the oyster can absorb nutrients.
5. The final cut
Pull back the top shell and discard; run the tip of the knife blade under the oyster in a slow near scraping motion to sever the muscle from the bottom shell. Keep the shell level so as not to lose the liquid that holds the oyster’s merroir.
6. The finishing touches
Almost there! Remove any small bits of shell scaling or other debris from the liquid. If you find a tiny crab, don’t panic. Known as pea crabs, they indicate healthy oysters from quality water. Considered a delicacy, pea crabs are also considered a sign of good luck. If the sight or thought of consuming one is off-putting, simply remove and discard.
The health benefits of oysters may surprise you; naturally in low fat and high protein make them a great red meat alternative. High zinc levels are attributed to male fertility, lending to oyster’s aphrodisiac reputation.
While purists insist oysters are best enjoyed straight up, others prefer a touch of lemon, various mignonettes, or cocktail and hot sauces.
For a tasty mignonette to drizzle over your fresh shucked oysters try this basic recipe:
- 1/4 cup Champagne vinegar
- 1 tablespoon minced shallots
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Mix all ingredients and rest from 6 hours to overnight
- Refrigerated for up to 30 days
And these more complex recipes from BBC’s Good Food:
- Finely chop the peel of 1 preserved lemon and put in a bowl
- Stir in 1 tbsp bitters and 2 tbsp fresh orange juice
- Very finely chop 3 coriander sprigs, 1 small deseeded red chilli and 1 tsp sushi ginger
- Stir in the juice of ½ lime
- Mix ¼ chopped pack of dill with 1 tsp small capers and the zest and juice of 1 lemon
- Combine 25g pomegranate seeds, the zest and juice of 1 lime and 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- Very finely chop 1 small celery stick and mix with 2 tbsp dry vermouth