There’s nothing better than a dozen oysters and a good glass of bubbles. This pairing is my favorite hors d’oeuvres for a girls’ night out, yet many people shy away from trying oysters. So we’re here to clear the air and offer a few pearls of wisdom on the elusive mollusk.
Timing is Everything
The adage goes that one should only eat oysters in the months that have an “r.” Those months are when oysters are the freshest and at their peak. Oysters in the off-season can be flabby, have a less desirable taste, and run a higher risk of contamination.
Location, Location, Location
The first consideration when ordering is the oyster equivalent to terroir – its address on the water.
East Coast Versus West Coast
Water temperatures vary between the east and west coast, which ultimately has an impact on flavor profiles. East coast oysters tend to be crisp, springy, briny and often described as clean (my personal favorite). West coast oysters are sweeter and less briny, usually with a creamy texture. A rule of thumb is the more opaque or off-white the oyster is (versus greyish), the more creamy it tastes.
Warmer water makes oysters generate more biofluids, which is a taste most people don’t want to pay for. So when eating oysters from warmer waters like down south, the oysters are usually cooked instead of raw (a la Oyters Rockefeller).
The Perfect Pairing
When it comes to pairings, we love a great glass of dry bubbles – rose or white. There’s just something about a salty oyster and an energetic glass of wine that play so well together.
Before you indulge in your first oyster, there’s a few more things to know. First, you should actually eat your oyster and not just swallow it whole. Chewing the oyster will allow you to fully appreciate the flavor profile. Swallowing it whole just wastes the experience. Also take note of the liquor, which is the clear and salty liquid that sits in the shell around the oyster. Be careful not to spill, as this liquid is part of the tasty experience!
If you’re a mollusk novice, it’s recommended that you first try the oyster as is before doctoring with sauces, so you can get an unadulterated idea of what an oyster tastes like. Once you come to appreciate the flavor of the oyster, then you can begin developing sauce preferences.
Personally, I love oysters with a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice or sometimes a dab of hot sauce. But oysters will often come with house made sauces, most traditionally a mignonette, which is a blend of minced shallots, pepper and vinegar. Whichever sauce you prefer, it is etiquette to only put it on one oyster at a time.
You’ll usually receive a small fork with the tray of oysters. You can use this to make sure the oyster is loose in the shell (the oyster is actually connected to the shell when it’s first shucked). Once it’s loosened up, you’ll be able to easily slurp it down! The shell itself serves as your spoon, so no other silverware is needed.
When you’ve finished an oyster, place it face down on the bed of ice, indicating to your table mates that you’ve finished that oyster.
Complete Sensory Experience
Eating oysters is a complete sensory experience. The rough, edgy feel of the shell, the unique geographical coloring of oyster varieties, the flavor profile, the smell and finally the slurrp…it’s all part of the allure.
One rule of thumb to follow (thanks to evolution) is the nose knows. Before eating oysters, especially at a place that may not sell a lot of oysters daily, do a quick smell test. You’ll know instantly if something smells off, and you should steer clear of the oysters. Don’t be afraid to send them back because of a bad oyster. And also don’t be afraid to cancel your order if you’re uncertain of the freshness.
Our Top Picks
I prefer to eat oysters at locations that specialize in oysters or are known as oyster bars. Not only will they have the freshest inventory, but they’ll also have the scoop – and connections – to the best oysters.
Our favorite places for oysters in Minneapolis are St. Genevieve (best happy hour oyster special around!), Martina and Meritage. Folks here are very knowledgeable about their oysters and are happy to walk you through the flavor profiles and experience.
Once you come to appreciate oysters, there’s no turning back.