Oysters 101

Last week, I began a series of informational posts on the important issue of  Seafood Sustainability with the idea of raising awareness and sharing  the wealth of information I gained from attending the first Seafood Summit sponsored by Bluewater Grill with experts from Santa Monica Seafood Company and the Aquarium of the Pacific presenting a mind-boggling amount of information on the complexities of sustainability, responsible farming, monitoring practices, and rating systems.

Chef Brian Hirsty at Bluewater Grill by She's Cookin'

After the presentation, we moved to the oyster bar where Chef Brian Hirsty talked about what to look for at the fish market to determine freshness and tips on cooking fish and Bluewater Grill co-founder, Jim Ulcicklas told us everything we ever wanted to know about oysters: the different species, the farming of these unusual creatures, the main elements that affect their flavor, and how to shuck an oyster.

It was a little like being in biology class, except that we were sipping a crisp Napa Valley Chardonnay and knew we’d be sampling from the lovely selection set out on the counter beside us.

Oysters are salt-water dwelling bivalves, along with clams and mussels, and members of the Molluska phylum . The term “bivalve” refers to how the oyster feeds itself. An oyster is like a filter – it extracts nutrients from seawater by pumping and filtering up to 25 gallons of water every day! So whether it lives in an estuary, where salt water meets fresh water, and feed on a diet rich in  plant plankton, or in the saltier water of the deep sea with a diet rich in zooplankton (microscopic shrimp and krill) determines its FLAVOR.

For all you oyster lovers out there – here’s the down low on the 3 main elements that effect the taste of an oyster are:

1. The Species:

There are six abundant species of oyster: from Japan the Crassostrea Gigas, East Coast the Crasostrea Virginica, the Pacific Northwest the Osrea Lurida or Olympic, from France the Ostrea Edulis or Belon, the Japanese Kumamoto (Crassosrea Sikama) and from Chile the Ostea Chilensis.

I realize that this is more than you probably want to know about oysters, so the down low is that  90% of the oysters in the US. are either Gigas or Virginica.

2. Farming Method:

Practically all oysters available for your enjoyment are farmed. Yes, farmed. (The days of natives  in loin cloths diving for oysters are long gone.) That includes farm raised in the wild, beach culture, suspended culture, rack & bag, poles or tray. FYI Wild oysters and those farmed on beaches and in inter-tidal zones have harder shells and less plump meats. Oysters grown in suspension nets, in deeper more nutrient rich water have plumper meat and more fragile shells. This makes sense due because there is less wav action and tidal movement so the oyster must expend less energy to “protect” itself by developing a hard shell. Oysters that are suspended or on racks above the sand/mud on the sea floor have a milder flavor.

3. Environmental Conditions: meaning geologic location and water character. Oysters can only eat under water, therefore time spent underwater and what they eat in that water determines growth time and taste. Oysters grown near fresh water inlets have less salty, less plump meat. Oysters grown in deep ocean waters are plumper and saltier.  The diatoms on which oysters feed are nourished by minerals like copper, iron, iodine, etc. This is reflected in the oysters shell color, meat color, flavor, and texture, but it is most evident in the finish or aftertaste – which ranges from cucumber to melon to metallic.

These tasting notes from the sampling may come in handy:

Blue Points (Long Island) – distinctive flavor, plump, salty & meaty

Malpaque (Prince Edward Island) – very juicy, very salty, delicate, dissolves in mouth

Fanny Bay (British Columbia) – very salty, firm, mineral notes

Hammersley (Hood Canal, WA) – medium salty, plump, melon

Kumamoto (Japan, raised in Hood Canal, WA) –  buttery, small

I’ve always preferred the small oysters because they just seem to have a more delicate taste and are more demure looking :-) The Bluewater Grill oyster tasting certainly whet my appetite and, over the weekend ,The Don and I savored a half dozen Malpaque’s that literally melted in your mouth and delivered a flavor of sweet saltiness. If the oysters you’re served are cold, fresh, cleaned properly (no grit) and with suitable accompaniment: an ice cold martini or crisp white wine; you can close your eyes and taste the sea! Sublime!

So what oysters do you favor? Or perhaps you’re one that has never fallen for their seductive allure, pity.

If you prefer your bivalves cooked, you might like:

Baked Oysters from Spinach Tiger

Spicy Clams with Abruzzese Sausage at Sippity Sup

Clams Casino at Steamy Kitchen

10 Responses to “Oysters 101”

  1. Kate@Diethood.com April 20 at 1:15 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this… Very informative post and I really really appreciate it. I don’t know much about seafood sustainability, but I am definitely a lot more aware these days.

  2. Tanantha @ I Just Love My Apron April 20 at 4:01 pm #

    i’m recently into raw oysters from my friends! it’s a lot of cholesterol but when eating it fresh it tastes so good! 😀

  3. fooddreamer April 20 at 5:35 pm #

    Great little tutorial. I am partial to the PEI Malpeque, but then, they are my fellow countrymen (countryfish?).

  4. chopinandmysaucepan April 20 at 8:49 pm #

    I live in Sydney we get great seafood and this seafood looks amazingly fresh!!

  5. Angie's Recipes April 21 at 7:23 am #

    I know you are talking about oysters…but what first caught my attention was the fish there…so FRESH, esp. that sockeye! Pretty pricy here these days…

  6. spcookiequeen April 21 at 11:21 pm #

    I agree with Angie, those pretty fishies caught my eye. I had no idea there was so much to know about oysters. I usually have them cooked, but I think I want to try them raw and see the difference. Hope you and your family have a Very Happy Easter.

  7. Pachecopatty April 22 at 9:58 am #

    Great info in this post 😉
    I’m a raw oyster girl or woman;-) Just try separating me from my raw oysters. I like all types, big ones, small ones and everything in between! Your photo of all the oysters on the ice is just perfect, oyster heaven in my book;-)

  8. FOODESSA April 23 at 8:41 am #

    Although, I’m really not an oyster fan…I did very much enjoy your post ;o)
    The accompanying photos were very attractive indeed.
    Well done Priscilla. I’ll be forwarding this post to a few friends who love oysters.

    Flavourful wishes,

  9. Magic of Spice April 23 at 12:47 pm #

    No natives in loin cloths? Bummer 😉
    Great post and looks like it was a very informative and fun presentation.

  10. Victoria April 25 at 9:35 am #

    I’ve had oysters before, both raw and cooked, but can’t tell you what kind they were, haha. I wish I knew, and would love to do a fun tasting of the various kinds to pick a favorite :) Maybe someday I shall. Thanks for all the great info!

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