Considering the hours I spent scrubbing, shucking, and cursing all manor of oysters during my stint working in a busy NYC restaurant, sometimes I surprise myself with my excitement at the (now) rare opportunity to pop open a few fresh briny bivalves. Here is a recent shot of Robin, Adam, and me in a shucking show-down in our Test Kitchens. Truth be told, it wasn’t much of a contest among the shuckers—the competition was more among the oysters themselves. We wanted to pass along recommendations for our favorites and learn first-hand about the differences between Atlantic and Pacific oysters. Of course, the common refrain is: West Coasters are fruity, creamy, sweet, and mildly briny, a great start for oyster novices and the less adventurous. While East Coast oyster lovers claim it’s not a real oyster unless it slaps you with a wallop of puckery brine and finishes with a strong metallic twang.
We ordered a sampling of different varieties from up and down both coasts and tasted them side-by-side. And while the exercise was enlightening and productive, the conclusions were a bit surprising. Namely, we didn’t come to a consensus about many universal truths regarding the oysters. Other than, and this is very generally speaking, there seems to be some truth to Pacific oysters leaning in a more creamy, fruity direction, but many of them also have assertive flavors and pack a briny punch. And of the Atlantic oysters we sampled, many did have a metallic finish, but we also detected some sweetness and hints of fruit and vegetable notes as well. In the end, while we declared some favorites (which we will reveal in our November 2011 issue), we established a few broad truths about how to guarantee a positive oyster experience. And it’s mostly about the company the oysters keep.
First, we tried all of the oysters completely unadorned. To be honest, I don’t recommend you try this at home. As much as I love oysters, this was a rough day at the office for me. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not one to smother these little gems in cocktail sauce (or even mignonette for that matter) and serve them up on a cracker. I’m pretty much of a purist with my preference for a single drop each of fresh lemon juice and Tabasco on every oyster. But, boy did I learn the value of this equation: acid + oyster = harmony. Just like the classic wine pairing rule, a little lemon juice or vinegar dulls oysters' natural acid and smoothes out sharp and brassy flavors.
Also like wine, temperature makes a difference, and oysters need to be ice cold. If you buy some and want to serve them raw at home, be sure to do a few things. First take them home directly from the fish market and scrub them well under cold running water. Examine each oyster as you work, and discard any chipped or opened shells. Then fill a colander or other perforated container with ice, and stack the colander over another bowl or pot, so the water drains off as it melts. (If you leave oysters sitting in fresh water, it may kill them.) Nestle the oysters into the ice, and try to eat them within 24 hours of purchase, freshening the ice as necessary.
It was a real ah-ha moment for me when I tucked into the first oyster of the day: Cotuit from Massachusetts, my personal favorite oyster in the world. (We ate them immediately upon arrival, so though they were chilled, ice cold they were not.) The first taste was the pure sweet ocean essence, and for just a flash I got a little bit of a sweet bell peppery flavor. But the sharp brine took over and the finish was a lingering and unpleasant metallic coppery taste. Now, I know all of these elements are the very reason the Cotuit Oyster Company is the oldest oyster company in the country. And the next time I take a stool at Legal Sea Foods, if Cotuits are on the menu, I'll order a dozen at least. But the oysters will be ice cold and I'll be armed with lemon and hot sauce. And I'll probably have a glass of crisp grapefruity sauvignon blanc to wash it all down. To my mind, there’s no better oyster experience.