Experts share how to savor oysters at restaurants, and how to bring the experience home
There’s a stubborn old adage that oysters are at their best in the months that contain the letter “R.”
Whether or not that common wisdom rings true, peak oyster enjoying months are finally here again. Here at Southern Kitchen, we’d like to help you get the most out of your oyster experience.
Know what you like
The world of oysters is vast and varied, so it’s good to get a handle on what you like to eat, said Nashville chef Julia Sullivan, whose Germantown restaurant Henrietta Red is known for its oyster selection.
When customers are faced with a big menu of oysters with obscure names, all that choice can be overwhelming. Knowing whether you'd like a big, briny oyster or a small vegetal one can help your server guide you in the right direction.
There are no wrong answers. Sullivan said it’s all just a matter of taste. "One of the things we talked a lot about when first opened is that, typically, your preference will be the first oyster you ever ate," she said.
Taste the ‘merroir’
To become a true master of your oyster domain, Sullivan recommends first trying raw oysters without condiments. That lets you consider the flavor carefully. You can even take notes if you’d like.
"I usually order two of each type of oyster, eat the first one completely plain and make sure to chew, take time to taste it like I taste wine, and then I always follow up with mignonette," Sullivan said.
Mignonette is a classic oyster condiment. The original recipe of vinegar, chopped shallot and cracked pepper can be interpreted myriad ways. Here, for example, is a recipe for muscadine mignonette you can try.
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Though oysters can taste mostly like a briny splash of ocean water, some can be quite complex.
Like plants — wine grapes, for example — oysters pick up a distinct flavor from their surroundings, particularly from the algae they eat.
"But instead of terroir, we call it 'merroir,'" said Beth Walton, executive director of Oyster South, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Southern oyster farmers. "It's the sum total of all the things the farmer does."
Not all Southern oysters are created equal
"The thing about Southern oysters is that a lot of people think of the big muddy oyster you almost need to eat with utensils — and some of that is true," Walton said.
But with the rise of oyster farming in the South comes even more variety. Off-bottom oyster farming, or raising oysters in mesh bags or cages near the surface of the water, allows farmers to monitor the growth of shellfish, keeps them out of the silt and keeps the water and nutrients flowing.
And though some are available seasonally, tight FDA regulations mean you can eat farm-raised oysters any time of the year, making that old “R” month rule essentially obsolete, Walton said.
Among Southern oysters, chef Sullivan loves buttery Murder Point Oysters, farmed in the Gulf of Mexico near Alabama, a fleeting seasonal pick. She also loves briny Salty Birds from Pelican Oyster Company, also farm-raised in Gulf waters near the shores of Tallahassee.
"It's amazing how many different kinds of varietals there are, just based on who's growing (the oysters), how they're tending them and how the water and salinity varies from place to place," Sullivan said. "There are a lot of great things coming out of the Gulf these days."
Make it convivial
Picking the right drink to go with your oysters also elevates the experience. Some people like sparkling wine, while others swear by Scotch.
At Southern Kitchen, we love a good Albarino, a green-skinned grape frequently grown in the northern coastal regions of Portugal and Spain. It’s crisp and generally displays a nice minerality that pairs well with shellfish.
"I tend to drink a crisp white wine or a light beer or Saison," Sullivan said. "Something that pairs well with the oysters' salinity, but doesn't compete with its flavor."
Oysters are also best shared, she added. "It's convivial — people eat and taste together and see it as part of the communal dining experience. It's certainly celebratory."
Do try eating oysters at home
While the oyster experience has traditionally revolved around dining out, at-home oyster consumption rose during the pandemic, Walton said.
“If you couldn’t go out like last year, maybe you thought ‘let’s bring this home,’ and there was an uptick in interest in how to do that,” she said. “People began ordering direct from farmers who could make that shift.”
Learn more about enjoying oysters at home and find a list of oyster farmers selling direct with oyster expert Julie Qiu's In A Half Shell blog.
Here's how to buy the best and freshest oysters from your local seafood counter, courtesy of Qiu.
- Ask to try a sample to determine its freshness (even if you have to pay for it, it'll be well worth it).
- Ask to see the bag tag and examine the harvest date.
- Ask to handpick the oysters if possible, and try to select the heaviest ones.
- Examine your purchase: make sure none of the oysters are dead (the shells will be open and won't close when tapped).
- Take a look at Qui’s video on how to shuck oysters below.
Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South.
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