oysters etiquette: rules for serving and eating oysters appropriately

Oysters Etiquette: 4 Basics For Serving And Eating Them​

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About this micro-class

Oysters etiquette is the set of rules for appropriately serving and eating oysters on any social occasion.

This micro-class is recommended for waiters and restaurant staff, restaurant guests, and house-party hosts and guests.

1. How to choose the best oysters

What you should know about oysters

Oysters are bivalve mollusks found in saltwater or brackish environments. They are prized for their delicate, briny flavor and are often served raw or cooked.

Season and availability 

Oysters are typically available year-round, but their flavor and quality can vary depending on the season and location.

Certain types, like Pacific oysters, are available throughout the year, while others, such as Eastern oysters, may have peak seasons in colder months.

In general, the best months for oysters are usually between late September and April. 

Types of oysters and how to choose the best

Types of oysters:
Popular types include Pacific oysters (e.g., Kumamoto, Miyagi), Eastern oysters (e.g., Blue Point, Wellfleet), and European flats (e.g., Belon). Each type has distinct flavor profiles and textures.

Choosing and finding quality oysters:
Look for oysters that are tightly closed or close when tapped – a sign of freshness. Avoid ones with a strong, unpleasant odor. Quality oysters are typically found in reputable seafood markets or restaurants with high turnover.

Alternatives to oysters

Clams, mussels, and scallops are common alternatives to oysters, offering similar flavors and textures.

Oysters are not typically substituted for other foods due to their unique taste.

2. How to serve oysters

How to store oysters

Store live oysters in the refrigerator at temperatures between 32°F to 40°F (0°C to 4°C).

Oysters need to breathe. Don’t soak them in freshwater, place in a sealed container, cover in plastic, or store in ice. Keep them in a mesh bag or on a tray with a damp cloth covering. Consume them immediately or within a few days for the best quality.

Cooked oysters should be stored in airtight containers in the refrigerator and consumed within 1-2 days.

Spoiled oysters will have a strong, fishy odor and may appear dry or shriveled. Discard any oysters that do not appear fresh.

The shell should be closed. When you find an open shell, tap on it. If it closes, the oyster is fresh. If it stays open, the oyster is dead and you must discard it.

How to prepare oysters

Oysters can be served raw on the half shell or cooked in various ways, such as frying, grilling, or baking.

Use a shucking knife and a pair of protective gloves to open raw oysters safely.

Place the oyster on a cloth, the large shell-side down. Hold the oyster down with one hand. Press the oyster knife into the hinge and twist the knife; the upper shell should pop open. Cut the upper and bottom abductor muscles between the shell and the meat. Finally, remove the top shell and any shell fragments and leave the liquid in the shell. 

Don’t wash or soak oysters in freshwater, as it kills them.

How to serve and present oysters

Serving and presentation:
Oysters are often served as an appetizer or starter, presented on a bed of crushed ice or seaweed. They can also be served as part of a seafood platter or in a seafood tower for a dramatic presentation.

The shells should be open and the flesh should be detached from the shell. It is best to serve them half-shell, without the top shell. 

An individual serving is usually 6 oysters per person. Serve at least 3 oysters per person.

Serving occasions:
Oysters can be served at both formal and informal occasions, depending on the setting and menu. They are a popular choice for special events, celebrations, and seafood-focused meals.

Optimal serving temperature:
Serve raw oysters chilled on ice to maintain freshness and enhance their briny flavor. Aim for a serving temperature around 38°F (3°C).

Tableware and accompaniments:
Use oyster forks or cocktail forks for easy consumption. Accompaniments may include lemon wedges, horseradish, cracked black pepper, hot sauce such as tabasco, and vinegar-based sauces like mignonette.

Oysters dietary restrictions

Guests with shellfish allergies or sensitivities should avoid consuming oysters due to the risk of allergic reactions.

3. How to eat oysters

Food pairings

Oysters have a distinctive, delicate yet bold flavor. They pair well with acidic components like citrus, as well as savory ingredients like bacon or herbs.

Beverage pairings

Champagne or sparkling wine is a classic pairing, but crisp white wines, light lagers, dark beers such as Guinness, and dry ciders also complement the briny flavor of oysters.

Popular white wine pairings include Chardonnay wines such as Chablis, Muscadet, Pinot Grigio, Albariño, or Sauvignon Blanc. Rosé wines can pair well too.

Avoid heavy or overly sweet beverages. Red wines should be avoided as the tannin covers and spoils the oyster’s flavor.

The appropriate manners to eat oysters

Eating oysters:
Use an oyster fork or small fork to detach the oyster from its shell. Tip the shell to slurp the oyster and its liquor directly from the shell. Chew gently to savor the flavor.

Handling etiquette:
Alternatively, you can pick the flesh with a small fork and drink the juice from the shell. Avoid slurping loudly or making excessive noise while eating.

You can eat the oyster with or without any condiments. Chew the oyster or swallow it whole, both methods are acceptable. Place the empty shell back onto your plate or in a spare plate.

Oyster forks, small forks, or even cocktail forks are appropriate for eating oysters. A shucking knife is necessary for opening raw oysters.

Discarding parts:
Discard the empty shell halves after consuming the oyster. Some may prefer to discard the muscle attachment (the “foot”) if it’s tough or chewy.

4. Etiquette mistakes when serving or eating oysters

Etiquette mistakes (eating):
Avoid using excessive force when shucking oysters, slurping loudly, or consuming oysters too quickly. Respectful dining behavior includes savoring each bite and engaging in polite conversation. Avoid eating oysters with your fingers.

Etiquette mistakes (serving/preparing):
Mistakes include serving oysters that are not fresh, improperly shucked, without their juice, or failing to provide appropriate accompaniments and utensils.

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