Want to impress your date? Know how to order oysters.
Though there’s no scientific evidence that oysters are actually an aphrodisiac, they are a classy appetizer for when you want to seem like a modern-day Casanova.
But ordering and eating oysters is not intuitive for everyone.
We spoke with Sandy Ingber, head chef of Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant. Here’s his advice on what beginner oyster connoisseurs ought to know:
Taste and Texture
Oysters have a vast range of flavour profiles depending on where they’re from, also known as the “terroir.”
“From harbor to harbor, the oyster could taste totally different,” Ingber explains. “It has to do with the food, the current, and the nutrients. Since oysters are a water filter and water flows through them all day long, they pick up hints of what’s going on around them.”
Some of the more common flavours you may taste in an oyster are butter/cream, hints of melon or cucumber, sweet, salty or “briny,” and a rusty, copper taste.
Texture-wise, oysters are generally described as plump and springy.
East Coast vs. West Coast
There are five known species of American oysters that are commonly separated by east coast versus west coast, or Atlantic versus Pacific.
“On the west coast, oysters mostly have the same, sweet-tasting flavour profile,” Ingber says. “As you get higher north into Canada and Alaska, they usually pick up a little more brine, but in general they have a sweet taste with different finishes like melon and cucumber.”
There are three main species of west coast oysters:
1. Pacific: Introduced from Asia in the 1900s, pacific oysters have fluted, pointed shells that are rough and jagged. These oysters are buttery and sweet, with fruit or vegetable flavours to finish.
2. Kumamoto: Introduced from Japan in 1947, these oysters are smaller and come in a little shell that looks like a small bowl. They generally taste sweet, and have a nutty flavour, too.
3. Olympia: The rarest of the west coast oysters, Olympias are native to the Pacific northwest, but were almost wiped out during the Gold Rush in San Francisco. They’re tiny (about the size of a quarter), more shallow than Kumamotos, and have an intense, coppery flavour.
The east coast oysters are much different, and vary widely by where the oyster comes from. “Generally, we find that Long Island North oysters are mild, but from Rhode Island and Massachusetts all the way up into Canada, the oysters are much more briney,” Ingber says.
The east coast only has one species of oyster called the Atlantic, which makes up 85% of the oysters harvested in the U.S. There are a bunch of different types, including Bluepoints and Wellfleets.
East coast oysters also generally have a smooth, tear drop-shaped shell with ridges, and taste brinier with a more savory (not sweet) finish than their west coast counterparts.
How To Order
Experienced oyster lovers will probably already have an idea of the types of oysters they prefer.
But for those less experienced, it’s ok to ask your waiter for a recommendation. Ingber says beginners should generally start with medium-sized and milder, sweeter oysters that are described as less briny.
On the east coast, bluepoint oysters are an easy-to-eat, beginner-friendly choice. Most west coast oysters are good to try, too.
“You don’t want to assault a beginner’s taste buds with a lot of brine and turn them off. As they get to enjoy mild oyster, then they can move up to different flavours,” he says.
And if you’re really in doubt, order a platter. “We have one platter, we call it the Grand Central Oyster Platter. It’s four different oysters, and it gives them a sense of variety,” Ingber says.
How To Eat Oysters
At this point, you’ve done your research, ordered your oyster, and it smells and looks wonderful.
Now comes the part that trips up some people — it’s time to eat it.
Ingber recommends eating your first oyster “naked” or without any condiments. Take your fork and make sure the oyster meat is separated from its shell, and then slurp the oyster and all its juice out. Chew it a few times (don’t swallow right away) so you get the full flavour of the oyster.
Then eat the other oysters however you like — with shallot sauce, lemon, horseradish, cocktail sauce, Tabasco sauce, or mignonette sauce, just to name a few classic condiments.
Ultimately, eating oysters is about enjoyment, so devour yours however you see fit and that makes you the most comfortable. As Ingber says, “People like oysters the way they like them.”
When To Send Oysters Back
Oysters should have a fresh, sea-water smell, be full of meat, and come served in its own juices (known as its “liquor”).
First, smell your oyster. If it has an “off” smell, don’t eat it. Also make sure that your oyster isn’t served dry or with only a little bit of meat.
The other big thing to look for in the summer is when an oyster has a fat belly that’s leaking and turning the oyster juice cloudy.
“In the summer, oysters are spawning,” Ingber explains. “They have a big fat belly that’s leaking cream into the oyster’s liquor. It’s not bad for you (it’s just an oyster making babies!), but it doesn’t taste particularly good either.”
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