Have you always wanted to try oysters or simply just venture outside of your same old standby? Are you not sure how to choose one or do you get overwhelmed by the endless varieties available? Let us help break it down for you a bit and, hopefully after reading this, you will have more confidence in what you want and what to expect after ordering one. There is truly an infinite number of oyster varieties out there for the tasting so let us help you chose wisely.
There are 2 types of oysters: wild and farm-raised. About 5% of oysters are wild-caught and it takes approximately 2-3 years for an oyster to reach adulthood. That being said, because it takes so long to grow oysters in the wild, 95% of oysters are farm-raised. This takes place in a hatchery which cuts down on growing time. Farmed oysters are more consistent than wild ones and they are also potentially cleaner.
There are 2 methods for oyster growing: bottom culture, which means the oysters are grown on the bottom of the ocean, and off-bottom culture. What’s the difference between the two? Bottom culture farming typically will produce oysters with heartier meat and stronger shells. They grow naturally on their own and these oysters get “handled” a lot less. However, the loss on these types of oysters is unpredictable for the growers. Off-bottom culture oyster farming means the oysters are grown in cages and there is lower potential of loss than with bottom culture farming. Off-bottom culturing produces oysters with cleaner shells as well.
What makes oyster varieties unique? There are four key factors including oyster species, grow-out location, grow-out method and branding.
Let’s review oyster species since this is what has the greatest impact on flavor and texture. These include North Atlantic or Eastern(typically known as Bluepoints) oysters that have a signature teardrop shape. The flavor and texture of North Atlantic oysters can vary depending on where on the east coast they were grown, but they tend to be chewier and saltier that west coast oysters. Second, are Pacific oysters which have a creamy finish, a melon-like flavor and their shells are fluted. Third, are West Coast or Kumamoto oysters and these have a cucumber, creamy finish, are pretty small in size and a bear claw-like shell. Fourth, are the Belon or European flat oyster and these have a fan-like shell and their flavor is mineral-like sort of similar to a copper penny. Lastly are the Olympian West Coast oyster and these have a mineral flavor and are savory in taste. West coast oysters definitely are creamier and sweeter overall and have more of a melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Just like anything else that comes from nature, oysters have seasonality as well. During the spring and early summer there are typically a limited number of oyster varieties available and fall is the best season to eat a variety of different oysters. Overall, they are safe to eat year round and it doesn’t matter the season.
So here are some steps on how to buy oysters. First, look, smell and listen. Oysters should be alive when you buy them. If an oyster is open, it may be dead. Tap it—if it’s alive it will close tight. If it stays open, don’t buy it. Because oysters should have their liquid intact, they should be sitting cup-side down in the store. If an oyster feels light, it means it’s probably dry. Don’t buy it if this is the case and same if it has an off smell. Make sure the store keeps the oysters at the proper temperature around 40 degrees. You can also ask to see the shellfish tag. The retailer is required to have this on file for 90 days. Some retailers will allow you to sample as well and it never hurts to ask.
The next step is to go out and try a new oyster based on the information we have just given you. Be adventurous and, you never know, you may find yourself a new favorite!