Southern Kitchen’s guide to throwing the perfect oyster roast

Southern Kitchen

We all know the thought and sight of an oyster can be a little intimidating, but not to worry. Here’s a step-by-step guide to hosting a successful oyster roast complete with drinks, toppings and, of course, the oysters.

With their fortified exteriors and alien-like interiors, oysters aren’t exactly the most approachable choice of seafood out there, especially when encountered outside the typical restaurant setting. So it’s no surprise that the concept of organizing and hosting an entire party around oysters can be intimidating.

Having spent my childhood in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I’ve attended and hosted my fair share of oyster roasts. Even though I now live 1,000 feet above sea level in the landlocked city of Atlanta, my mother and I continue to indulge our need for those succulent morsels with regular backyard oyster extravaganzas.

One of the most common questions I receive from guests at these get-togethers is inevitably “how do I plan my own oyster roast?”

For me, it was just something I fell into naturally. I learned to finesse these craggy bivalve mollusks early on in life, shucking and slinging them like a pint-sized pro at my family’s annual holiday roasts in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.

Oysters thrive along coasts throughout the world, and despite their long history as a food mainly reserved for the working class and poor, oysters now persist as an expensive delicacy served raw in fine dining restaurants. Oysters boast flavor profiles as complex as wine and coffee. While the Pacific oysters of the West Coast are characterized by their deep cups, creamy texture and sweet flavor, the warmer inlet waters of the Southeast yield clustered Eastern oysters boasting plumper, brinier meat.

Just as batches of wine differ based on their unique environmental conditions — a concept known as “terroir” — the diverse mystique of oysters around the world can be attributed to their respective “merroir” (a wordplay on “marine terroir”).

“They are their terrain,” Rowan Jacobsen writes in his book The Essential Oyster: “It’s the salinity and temperature of the water, the particular mix of plankton they graze on, the wildness of the waves and the essential mojo of the spot.”

Hosting oyster roasts not only gives an excuse to consume excellent seafood in vast quantities, but also it allows us to share the distinct merroir and cultural traditions of the Lowcountry with friends and family who may be more familiar with the oysters of Washington or New England.

While it might seem a daunting prospect at first, with a little patience and the right equipment and tools, planning your own Lowcountry-style oyster roast isn’t difficult.

Here’s how to do it.

Before roasting anything, it’s important to gather the necessary accoutrements first, including:

An outdoor work table for people to gather around and shuck oysters. A popular and inexpensive configuration is to top two sawhorses with a sheet of plywood. 

An arsenal of oyster knives. Encourage seasoned shuckers to BYOOK (Bring Your Own Oyster Knife), and provide a range of different knife styles for any guests who don’t have their own. 

Several sturdy pairs of working gloves. Your best bet is either rubber-coated cotton gloves or stainless steel mesh gloves. 

Of course, you’ll also need to buy your oysters. It can be difficult to determine how many oysters to buy because oysters come in different sizes, configurations and price points. Ask your local seafood purveyor for recommendations.

Once you’ve acquired your oysters, you’re now ready to roast. Contrary to its name, the traditional way to “roast” oysters is actually to steam them over a fire.

Here’s what you’ll need

Fire wood

A steel sheet that is 4-foot by 2-foot and at least 1/4-inch thick.

Six cinder blocks

Burlap sacks to layer across the metal sheet

Bucket of water to soak the burlap

Square-point shovel

Start by digging a shallow depression about two to four inches deep in the ground and building a fire within. Surround the fire with the four cinder blocks then place the sheet metal on top. Wait a few minutes for the metal to heat up. You’ll know it’s hot enough when a splash of water boils off.

Shovel a few dozen oysters onto the sheet. Since they won’t cook evenly if they’re stacked in a pile, spread them out across the sheet so that each oyster is in contact with the metal. Cover the oysters with the water-soaked burlap and allow the oysters to steam for 8-10 minutes. The oysters are ready when their shells are just starting to crack open a few millimeters. Just keep in mind that the wider they crack open, the less juicy they will be. Since the oyster’s flavorful liquor is one of its most hallowed qualities, it’s important not to overcook them.

Once the oysters are done, scoop them up with the shovel and dump them on the table for your guests to shuck and enjoy.

How to serve

Alongside a generous supply of paper towels, the typical condiments you’ll find on the table at an oyster roast are saltine crackers, cocktail sauce, horseradish, lemon wedges and an array of hot sauces. Just remember — a little goes a long way with these toppings. While cooked oysters will not impart the same delicate merroir you might experience with raw oysters at a white tablecloth restaurant, it’s still worth taking a moment to appreciate them without an overdose of distracting flavors.

As for drinks, the traditional libation of oyster roasts is typically just a simple koozie of cold beer. Something light, dry or even tart can be magical. If you want to preserve the Lowcountry authenticity of your roast, consider a Gose or White Thai Wheat by Westbrook Brewing, a craft brewery based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Prefer wine? You can’t go wrong with crisp, dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet or Pinot Grigio.

Oyster roasts involve quite a few moving parts, but all that hard work is well worth it once that first batch of freshly steamed oysters hits the table. Don’t be surprised if a guest turns to you at the end of the night and asks, “how do I plan my own oyster roast?”