The Oyster Guide for Chefs: Does Cup Size Matter?

by Jessica Dukes
Shannon Sturgis
February 2011

Aphrodite sauntered off the half shell, and humankind has been smitten ever since. Whether you're considering rolling out a $1 oyster happy hour, or you've got this crazy idea for a raw bar in Aurora, Colorado, consider this your Kumamoto-Sutra: an all-bases-covered oyster guide for the chef who gets just a little shy around the sea’s sexiest (and most sustainable) shellfish.

Aphrodisia aside, what is it about oysters that revs the engines of oyster eaters? Is there a difference between oysters from the East Coast, the West Coast, and the Gulf Coast? Does size matter in our by-the-dozen snack? And does the perfect slurp come down to terroir (from sea to the platter?) or cultivation methods? Is it a matter of nature or nurture?

Read on for tips from oyster-friendly chefs on obtaining and training seasoned shuckers, staff education, avoiding storage mishaps, and creating the perfect happy hour hit list for your patrons.

Now let's get down to some bivalve business.

Menu Development: Making a Mix Tape for Your Diner

Each day, Chef de Cuisine Josh Even writes up six different oysters on the tiny whiteboard pegged next to the raw bar at the John Dory Oyster Bar in New York City: three East, three West. Within this framework, he tries to avoid repetitive flavor profiles. “If I order Saint Simons, then I won’t order Beausoleils, because they’re so similar,” he says. Even, who grew up on Long Island and counts oyster hatcheries as neighbors, carries certain oysters “in part, because they’re so near and dear.” At John Dory Oyster Bar, he also looks out for beginners, keeping “one or two [oysters] on the menu for the squeamish, hopefully to create new fans.” Choices like Beausoleil and Hog Island please oyster aficionados and newbies alike. “Connoisseurs love them, but they are also accessible,” he says. He has also dedicated time to developing a relationship with his purveyor, Blue Island Shellfish, who he trusts to fill him in on the hottest thing on ice each day. And it doesn’t hurt to have an oyster with an eye-catching name on the menu, like Blue Island’s Naked Cowboy, which also happens to be a popular local favorite.

Chef Sandy Ingber stocks his daily menu of 30 oysters at Grand Central Oyster Bar with roughly a third West Coast and to two-thirds East Coast, because he feels that East Coast oysters offer a lot more variety in terms of flavor. “Most West Coast oysters have fairly similar flavors. You have hints of this and that, but there is a fairly distinct sweet Pacific flavor.” When it comes to building a menu, Ingber knows that most diners coming through his restaurant don’t know or care that Hog Island Sweetwater oysters are purified with salt water that has been sterilized with ultra-violet light, or whether an oyster has been dive-caught or hand-harvested with tongs. For the young chef just starting out behind the raw bar, Ingber advises, “First and foremost, an oyster has to sell. Name recognition is important. Not every diner is educated. A lot of people come into New York and they don’t know a lot about oysters, but they’ve heard of Blue Points.”

Sweet meat draws diners during Happy Hour at the John Dory Oyster Bar
Sweet meat draws diners during Happy Hour at the John Dory Oyster Bar

Oysters: Where you From, Baby?

Ask around. Chef Ingber is not alone in his assessment of West Coast oysters as sweethearts. People generally agree that East Coast oysters are milder, and also saltier, than bivalves from the Pacific, a result of the Atlantic Ocean's higher salinity. But everything's debatable. While East Coast oysters often taste brinier than their West Coast counterparts, an oyster that lies exposed during low tide in Southern Puget Sound can also taste strongly of the sea. As for the Third Coast on the Gulf of Mexico, oysters there don't often mature beyond a mild flavor in their short growing period, but they're valued in cooking for their large size. Of course, Long Island Blue Point oysters are also large and mild. With oysters, it's not always easy to pick sides, or to classify them.

“To say that all East Coast oysters are briny would be like saying that all red wines are dry,” says Chef Sandy Ingber, a.k.a. the "Bishop of Bivalves", of Manhattan’s Grand Central Oyster Bar. And as with wine, marine terroir and different cultivation methods affect everything from the color of an oyster's meat to its texture, flavor, the hue of its shell, cup size, liquor (the liquid surrounding the meat), and depth of the cup.

An oyster spends its life sucking water and filtering it all day (up to 50 gallons a day, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation), so both time and place are significant factors in an oyster's upbringing. The salinity and temperature of the water, what kinds of algae and minerals the oysters filter and where the oysters grow—a grassy delta, ice-cold 40-foot depths, or a mineral-rich inlet fed by mountain snowmelt—all affect what gets gulped off the half shell.

Flavor profiles can even vary from harbor to harbor. Which is why oyster lovers love Cape Cod. Of course oysters from Brewster and Chatham are going to be completely different; they're harbors on opposite ends of the Cape (though less than 10 miles apart). Mild and firm Paines Creek oysters from the relatively quiet North Shore are distant cousins to the salty specimens culled from the cold hard sea off Cape Cod's sharp, Atlantic-jabbing elbow. But things get really interesting when you see that the folks working at Oyster Harbor Club in Osterville say they prefer Osterville West Bay oysters to those from Cotuit Bay, because they're local. Check it out on googlemaps—the chunk of land separating the two opposing harbors isn't even 3000 feet across.

The time of year, even down to the day, when an oyster is harvested can make a real difference, too. Imagine they pulled that baby out of a stream-fed inlet during a stormy patch of weather. Roiling with rainwater, the swollen stream will dilute the inlet, and you can expect oysters whose last meal was an injection of pure sweet water to taste even cleaner and sweeter than they would on a calm day. Whether or not that's your preference is entirely up to your palate.

A lot of people compare oysters to wine for their complexity, and compare notes on texture, mouthfeel, flavonoids, notes, and finishes. Common descriptors for these jiggly sea creatures include cucumber, lettuce, melon, smoke, seaweed, mineral, copper, and even pine. But as with wine, you can't go wrong. What you taste is up to your tastebuds.

Aphrodites on the Half Shell at John Dory Oyster Bar

Aphrodites on the Half Shell at the John Dory Oyster Bar

Does Size Matter?

Oyster seedlings latch onto a bit of shell in the water and begin to grow. Cocktail size can start at 1½ inches across, perfect for Washington’s pearl, the Olympia. But on the Third Coast, down in NOLA, they like their oysters stewed, fried, and baked, barbecued and scalloped at up to 4 inches across. Warm Gulf waters can produce an oyster of that size in nine months. It takes five years for the miniature Olympia to reach maturity. Some oysters are favored for their large size, as are Blue Points from Long Island, New York. Others are prized for being petite, like Shibumi oysters from Southern Puget Sound. A cute little West Coast Kusshi can be less intimidating to a first-timer than a hulking, hunky Naked Cowboy from Long Island.

But there's more to it than size. Some oyster connoisseurs and growers alike skip the size issue altogether and place a higher premium on age. Costly Raspberry Point oysters, for example, are prized for the six or seven years it takes them to reach their cocktail size of 3 inches. Oysters that develop over a longer period of time are argued to have a greater depth of flavor. As with wine and most people, so with oysters: Age matters.

From Novices to Don Juans: Staff Education

At Hank’s Oyster Bar in Washington D.C., servers taste oysters every day, although Chef Arthur Ringel rotates servers and oysters to collect a variety of opinions. He also has farmers come into the restaurant to talk to the staff about their harvest. Staff education even includes field trips. Last summer, Chef-owner Jamie Leeds took the staff down to Dragon Creek Oysters on the Chesapeake Bay. Together with grower Bruce Wood, the staff planted oyster seeds. Next summer, you’ll find Hank’s exclusive Hayden’s Reef oyster (named after Leeds' son) on the menu.

At Grand Central Oyster Bar, two shifts means two staff meetings per day, a byproduct of a menu that changes daily by 10 percent to 15 percent. Chef Ingber keeps it simple: name, flavor profile, and size. A lot of reinforcement and review are the keys.

Oysters don’t appear on printed menus at the John Dory Oyster Bar, so servers must name and identify them for diners. During staff meetings, Chef Even and servers discuss each oyster and frequently taste them. “Sometimes the oysters are spot on and compare exactly to the last time we tasted,” says Chef Even. “[Or] maybe it’s a little brinier this time; maybe the Skookums have more tannin, or are more unctuous … if we’ve got a repeat oyster we may quiz a server who’s been around for awhile.” Keeping a log of tasting notes is perhaps the best way to make lasting use of the cost involved with server tastings. Even says his meetings also encourage enthusiasm in his staff. “We treat all oysters like a special. We sit down and people scream out what they taste … it’s like a wine class; if you’re tasting an oyster, you’re not going to be wrong.”

A Don Juan at the John Dory Oyster Bar
A Don Juan at the John Dory Oyster Bar

Purchasing, Storage and Handling: How to Put the Moves on Your Oyster

For purchasing, Chef Ingber says a lot depends on how much you’re using. “Go directly to the farms, if you can. Or find a wholesaler who has a lot of oysters, where you can see a lot of movement, not somebody who carries just two or three.” He recommends Norm Bloom & Son on Long Island Sound for their huge Blue Points.

Chef Ringel recommends building relationships with lots of purveyors to ensure variety. Hank’s Oyster Bar is all about supporting small oyster hatcheries, so Ringel moves up and down both coasts as the seasons change. He likes independent farms like Dragon Creek and New Point in Virginia, or North Point on Prince Edward Island. Since lots of small farmers take summers off to focus on their cold winter harvest, he might even go so far as New Zealand for a mollusk, says Chef Ringel, “I can get a true winter oyster in July!”

All chefs that I interviewed agreed that oysters shouldn’t be served raw after more than a couple of days in your walk-in. “You’ve got to consider where they’re coming from. If they’re from the West Coast, then they’ve already been out of the water for one or two days,” warns Chef Even. Since they’re living creatures, don’t cover them with plastic, but with a damp cloth. And even if they’re being prepped for the oven, they should always be stored over ice. Clean them thoroughly before shucking with a soft plastic brush, like a mushroom brush, to protect the integrity of the shell.

You’ll also want to train your team to watch out for the Boring Sponge, a marine predator that can invade an oyster shell and leave the lip porous and shale-like—harmless to humans, although visually unappealing and a pain in the wrist. Affected oysters should be sent back to the purveyor. To avoid eating profit, make sure your staff knows how to spot a bored oyster (hint: they won’t be checking their watches). They look pock-marked and layered, almost like phyllo dough.

“Aw, Shucks!”: Accuracy follows speed when shucking is done well
“Aw, Shucks!”: Accuracy follows speed when shucking is done well

Shucking All Night Long

The vibe may be hopping at the John Dory Oyster Bar, but there is definitely not a whole lot of shaking going on. Before putting anyone behind the raw bar to shuck 600 to 1,000 oysters a day, Chef Even makes sure his shucker has enough practice not to shake an oyster.

Shaking, or piercing the flesh of that pearly (and costly) oyster, is not a smooth move. A suave, experienced shucker knows that if you happen to shiv the oyster’s liver, you’ll have a cloudy mess to show for it. A deft hand is needed to quickly and carefully open the shell, then dust off the bits of crumbled shell once the oyster’s laid bare. Chef Even recommends starting off slow: "Speed will follow accuracy."

Chef Ingber employs four full-time shuckers who speed through 4,000 to 6,000 oysters every day. Each shucker takes a while to train, and they’re not easy to find. “We promote from within,” says Chef Ingber, who says that in the past he tried everything from headhunters to Craigslist in his search for seasoned shuckers. Chef Ingber starts rookies off on Blue Points because their large size makes for an easy grip, and their relatively low cost takes away some of the pressure. In addition to shell size, deep cups and super-hard shells make your shucker’s life a little easier.

Wild Child or Cultivated Lady?

Does an oyster taste better if it's farmed or wild? How sustainable are oysters? And what are the effects of different cultivation techniques on that mignonette-bathing beauty? Let's talk a little about nature versus nurture.

Wild oysters are generally costlier than cultivated oysters, for starters. They had to find their way naturally to the oyster bed, wherever it may be. And stick around. In his book The Big Oyster: History on the Half ShellMark Kurlansky writes that oyster beds in the estuary of the lower Hudson dwindled from 350 square miles in the 18th century to zero in 1927. But technological advances in farming methods have allowed the oyster to make a comeback. The life of a farmed oyster won't differ too much from its wild cousins, beyond its arrival to the oyster bed. Oyster farmers rely on a variety of different methods, and happily, none of them harm either the environment or the oyster itself. Even "naturally set" oysters tend to be manipulated at some point during their maturation. Wild oysters on the Gulf coast are often transferred during their growth period to waters with higher salinity to increase their flavor.

In fact, because oysters filter so much water, their presence in the water is a boon to the ecosystem. Not only that, but their shells can be recycled be restaurants and thrown back into the bay, where more oyster seedlings can find a bit of shell to latch onto. Chef Ringel recycles oyster shells to feed back to the reef in Chesapeake Bay via the Oyster Recovery Partnership of Maryland. Chef Even collaborates with Sixpoint Brewery by collecting and handing off heaps of oyster shells that go into their briny Sixpoint Craft Ales John Dory Beer. And the Peconic Pearl oyster was recently launched at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, where 15 percent of proceeds go toward conservation, education, and research via the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative in Peconic Bay, Long Island.

All wild oysters are either beach- or bottom-cultured, which means that they lie around on the sea floor, be it shallow or deep.

Beach-cultured or intertidal oysters spend part of the day submerged, but during low tide they lie partially exposed, lounging around tidal pools. Their beach bum lifestyle make for bleached and weathered shells. A pounding surf produces a strong, knobby, and sturdy exterior, which can be flat or fluted. Strength means stronger abductor muscles, which yields more meat and maybe even a little chew. Since they stay clamped shut so tightly, they also have longer shelf life. Hama Hama oysters from Washington State and Colville Bay oysters from Prince Edward Island are intertidal oysters.

Bottom-cultured or subtidal oysters spend their whole lives submerged. Malpeque oysters and Raspberry Point oysters both hail from the icy Canadian waters of Prince Edward Island, and are both bottom-cultured. Barnstable oysters from Massachusetts and Hurricane Harbor Oysters from Prince Edward Island are two varieties of oysters whose cultivation is finished on the bottom of the sea floor, giving the oysters a chance to soak up the minerals and nutrients of the sea bed. Glidden Point oysters from Maine mature on the sea floor at a depth of 40 feet at the mouth of the Damariscotta River (famed as one of North America’s cleanest). And Gulf oysters, even if they spawn in the wild and are settle down naturally to grow (otherwise known as "natural set") are often transfered by farmers to waters with higher salinity to add some extra flavor towards the end of their maturation period.

Longline oysters cling to suspended lines (farmers dangle the lines either vertically in deep water or just a foot or two above the floor in the intertidal zone). Clinging is like calisthenics for underwater invertebrates, resulting in firm meat and shells. Kumamotos, grown along the West Coast, are longline cultivated, and are famed for their plump, sweet meat.

Farmers give suspended tray oysters, such as Beausoleils from New Brunswick, lots of love and affection. The mollusks do nothing but laze around on their shell backsides, drinking the cool, refreshing cocktail of deep, cold waters, giving them their characteristic mild, clean flavor and shells that are uniform knockouts. The only problem is that this sedentary lifestyle results in brittle, weak shells—tough luck for shuckers.

Rack and bag oysters grow in bags in the intertidal zone. By elevating the bags off of the bottom of the ocean via a rack, the oysters can better feed and grow. The bags also protect young oysters from predators. The shells of rack and bag oysters, including the prized Hog Island Sweetwater variety from Cailfornia, can also prove tricky for shuckers. As a result of their idle lives, shells don’t harden to the point of a beach- or bottom-cultivated oyster.

Tumbling can help whip brittle shells into shape. Not only are stronger shells prettier, but the meat will be plumper. Tumbling also lengthens the maturation period, allowing flavors to more fully develop. Like boot camp for bivalves, tumbling involves putting the oysters through a giant rolling canister every month or so. Like a manicure, the process chips off the new growth of weak, overgrown shells. Super-tumbled oysters like Kusshis from Vancouver Island and Shibumi oysters from Washington State have characteristic ultra-smooth shells as a result.

Rumored romantic benefits aside, oysters are a meaty topic. For any chef who wants to go diving for more information, try Rowan Jacobsen’s Oyster Guide, or download Oysterpedia, the new iphone app from Manhattan’s Mermaid Inn.