Bringing the Raw Bar Home
While the slurping that’s typically involved may not be refined, eating oysters is still an indulgence. There’s just something about a dozen oysters on the half shell that turns a meal into a celebration. And when you factor in an oyster’s alleged aphrodisiac properties, well…that’s just an added bonus (provided you believe in that sort of thing).
It’s for these reasons—and many more—that the finest restaurants throughout the world offer numerous varieties of the bivalve, and it’s why dedicated oyster bars are proving to be equally popular. Yet oysters are not without their stigma. “It was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” wrote Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish poet; and while oysters no longer have an enigmatic reputation regarding their edible nature, shucking them at home remains, in many people’s eyes, a bold act in and of itself. However, as the popular saying goes, not all is not as it seems.
According to Stephen Oxal, chef de cuisine at B&G Oysters in Boston, shucking an oyster is easier than most people think. In fact, it’s one of the easier steps involved when serving the bivalves at home. The difficulty of the endeavor, he says, is finding fresh examples: “Once you have fresh oysters, the hard part is over.”
This is where those esteemed oyster bars will come in handy—but don’t expect them to sell you the oysters directly. An oyster bar needs special licensing to sell unshucked oysters directly to the public. The restaurant’s staff, though, likely will be forthright with information about local purveyors, which offer a greater variety of oysters to choose from and at more affordable prices than most specialty food stores.
When stored correctly (wrapped in a cold wet towel and placed in the refrigerator), oysters can stay fresh for about three weeks, which is a good thing, since most purveyors only sell them by the bushel (about 100 oysters). Just don’t put them in a plastic bag; oysters are still alive, after all. When it comes to identifying a healthy oyster—the only one you’d ever want to eat—Oxal says there are a few things to look for. “It should feel heavy for its size,” he explains. “Sometimes an oyster is smaller than your palm, but when you pick it up, it should feel heavier than it seems like it should.”
The sound that an oyster makes when you knock on it with a knife or some other kitchen utensil is also a good indication of its freshness. If it produces a hollow sound, you don’t want it; the oyster is likely dead, Oxal explains. But, as he reveals, “If it sounds like a cinder block, like it’s absolutely solid, that’s the one you want. That’s a good guy.”
As for the shucking, Oxal says the proper approach is less about strength and more a matter of finesse. Wrapping your hand in a towel before you begin is a good idea, since that will protect you from any slips with the knife; and if you want a few infallible techniques, take to the Internet. Shucking is a skill best learned visually, and—surprisingly—YouTube offers many useful instructional videos. In fact, Oxal acknowledges that he recently hired someone who learned the basics by watching video clips online but had never shucked an oyster before the in-person interview.
Ultimately, Oxal is effusive in his praise for all those willing to turn their home into a raw bar. “Give yourself a pat on the back,” he says. “It’s a good thing to do. It’s not every day that I do it, but when I do, it does feel like a luxury.”