One of the world’s most diverse and intriguing foods, the oyster is heavily influenced in its development and flavor by where it is grown. As the location of a vineyard can change the taste and texture of a grape -- a concept known as terroir -- oyster flavor is driven by merroir, the content and characteristics of the sea in which it grows.
Experimenting with different types of oysters is delicious, fun and enlightening -- especially when you do some research before diving into that dozen. The oysters mentioned in this article are grown in different locations across North America -- but they are frequently available at Chesapeake region oyster bars such as Ryleigh’s Oyster and Thames Street Oyster House, both in Baltimore.
MARYLAND OYSTER STEW
Ken Upton, owner of Annapolis catering company Ken’s Creative Kitchen, prepares a simple but decadent oyster stew recipe that is always a satisfying hit with partygoers. For cocktail parties, Upton recommends serving the stew in easy-to-sip demitasse cups.
¼ cup butter
1 pint oysters in their liquor
1 quart half and half
Salt and pepper to taste
Oyster crackers for serving (optional)
1 Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the oysters in their liquor and sauté for a few minutes, until the edges curl.
2 Add half and half and heat through.
3 Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Barren Island [Maryland]
Farmed in the Chesapeake Bay, the Barren Island oyster is plump and buttery with medium saltiness.
Lucky Lime [Prince Edward Island, Canada]
Inside its bold green shell, the Lucky Lime oyster is clean and well-balanced with moderate salt and sweetness.
Daisy Bay [Prince Edward Island, Canada]
Salty to start, with a sweet finish, the Daisy Bay oyster is plump with a clean and pleasant flavor.
Skinny Dipper [Maryland]
Grown where the Chesapeake Bay meets St. Jerome Creek, the plump Skinny Dipper has subtle salt and clean, crisp flavor.
Shooting Point Salts [Virginia]
From the north end of famous oyster haven Hog Island, the Shooting Point Salt is briny with mineral undertones.
Thatch Island [Massachusetts]
With a long, clean finish, the Thatch Island oyster from Cape Cod is plump and smooth with a slight seaweed flavor.
Katama Bay [Massachusetts]
Culled from the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, the Katama Bay oyster is intensely briny but finishes with a smooth, delicate sweetness.
Avery’s Pearl [Virginia]
Ryleigh’s Oyster’s signature house oyster, the Avery’s Pearl is small in stature, with slight sweetness to start and a briny finish.
Grown in the Mystic River, the Noank oyster is creamy, salty, plump and meaty.
Maine Belon [Maine]
The Belon, with its large, round, scallop-like shell, is an oyster species native to Europe with an unusual and powerful metallic flavor. That flavor lasts, so Belons are best enjoyed after other, milder varieties.
Kusshi [British Columbia]
This petite but plump West Coast oyster is clean and not very salty, with melon undertones and a smooth texture.
Quonset [Rhode Island]
The Quonset oyster from Narragansett Bay has clean, crisp flavor and a pretty scalloped shell.
Oysters courtesy of Ryleigh’s Oyster (ryleighs.com) and Thames Street Oyster House (thamesstreetoysterhouse.com). Shucking by Ryleigh’s Oyster owner Brian McComas.
PARTIES ON THE HALF SHELL
Experts offer advice on serving oysters at your next gathering.
Serving oysters at an event may seem intimidating. But with these tips from oyster-loving experts, it’s a breeze.
The first step is to figure out exactly what you’re serving and how many oysters you will need. Ken Upton, owner of Ken’s Creative Kitchen catering company in Annapolis, says that at a typical party, about half the guests will indulge in oysters. “I plan for six oysters per person, he says. “Some people will eat two or three -- and people like me will eat two dozen!”
Opting for a single variety of oyster may be the simplest strategy -- smaller oysters with mild flavor are often good “cocktail oysters,” says Brian McComas of Ryleigh’s Oyster, as they are crowd-pleasers and easy to eat with a drink in hand.
For more adventurous groups, or for an oyster-themed event, serving a variety of oysters will allow guests to experiment, figuring out what they like best.
“Everyone has a personal preference,” says Candace Beattie of Thames Street Oyster House. “I like oysters from the Northeast best that have good salt and brine and generally a more complex taste profile. Some people prefer the plump and mild oysters of the Chesapeake, or the fruity, creamy or metallic West Coast options. There are lots of unique options out there.”
Whether you serve one type of oyster or a dozen, buy from a high-quality purveyor and make sure they are fresh, says Nick Schauman of The Local Oyster, a Baltimore-based oyster shucking and catering company. He suggests asking for the shellfish tag. Every box of oysters sold has a tag that explains where they came from and the date they were harvested. “If you ask to see the tag and it’s more than a week old, you probably don’t want it,” he says.
For large parties, hire a shucker, says Ken Upton. “Don’t try to attempt to do it yourself,” he warns.
Upton suggests setting up an oyster bar, where the shucker has space to work. As a bonus, some shuckers, like Schauman, will answer guests’ questions about oysters, providing entertainment along with hors d’oeuvres.
For smaller groups, if you do choose to handle the shucking yourself, make sure your knife is as sharp as possible. Schauman says, “Usually, when you buy an oyster knife, it has a blunt end. It’s more like a lever. But with a sharper [knife], you’ll get through the hinge a lot cleaner and won’t chip the shell. Also, when you cut the muscle, you get a nice clean cut instead of mushing it up with a dull knife.”
Preparation and presentation
If you are serving oysters on the half shell, garnish with plenty of lemons and a few classic sauces, such as spicy cocktail sauce, mignonette sauce (red wine vinegar, shallots and black pepper) and hot sauce straight from the bottle. Some guests may also appreciate extra horseradish for their cocktail sauce.
Oysters on the half shell look lovely on large trays, nestled in crushed ice, says Schauman. Plus, it’s practical. “It’ll keep the oyster cold and keep it from tipping over,” he says. “When it tips, the good liquor comes out. You want to retain that in the shell.”
Though some guests will slurp their oysters straight from the shells, for others, small seafood forks will be a welcome sight.
Upton also likes party-friendly cooked preparations, including grilled, baked or broiled oysters served as passed hors d’oeuvres, oyster stew served in demitasse cups and oyster shooters, in which oysters are served in a shot glass with small shot of vodka or beer. “Even with a Bloody Mary,” he says. “Shooters are always fun and easy.”
Schauman suggests that as people eat, they take the time to chew and savor the oysters’ flavors. “Once you get the oyster in your mouth, roll it around a bit to get the mouthfeel, its texture. Take a couple bites and chew -- that’s when you release the flavor of the meat and all the minerals. Once it’s down the hatch, before you go on to the next one, try to figure out any aftertastes or brininess. Slow down and savor them!”
Oysters are traditionally paired with champagne or dry white wines, but they are equally at home with less elegant options, such as Flying Dog’s Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, or something as simple as a Pabst Blue Ribbon lager.
“It all depends on your party,” says Schauman. “Something crisp and dry -- that would be a fancy dinner party,” he says. “And when you’re hanging around in the backyard? A nice, cold lager is the way to go. They complement each other really nicely.”
After the party, consider recycling the empty oyster shells. Around the Chesapeake Bay, the Oyster Recovery Partnership’s Shell Recycling Alliance and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Save Oyster Shell (SOS) program work with restaurants and consumers to collect old shells, returning them to waterways, where they become a part of new oyster reefs.
For a list of shell recycling drop-off locations in Maryland, visit oysterrecovery.org or cbf.org.