When it comes to oysters, there's usually no middle ground...you either love them or you hate them. But as Valentine's Day approaches, there should be plenty to love about them. You get the benefit of their aphrodisiac reputation, plus the chefs at The Culinary Institute of America have a great suggestion—share some oysters raw on the half-shell with classic Mignonette Sauce topped with a bit of caviar.
Whether it is an urban myth or partially true, many people believe that oysters should not be consumed in a month without the letter "r." There are perhaps two reasons for this belief. First, the months from May through August are the hottest of the year, making it difficult to maintain proper shipping temperatures. The other is that the oysters spawn during the warmer months—the ones that don't contain an "r"—and their meat becomes spongy, bland, and shrunken as a result.
Oysters are a variety of bivalve mollusk found in fresh or salt water. Filter-feeders, they are notably high in protein, as well as a variety of vitamins. They are also low in cholesterol, rich in zinc, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and iron. With a complexity of flavor comparable to wine, oysters should be soft and slippery, and are most flavorful when consumed raw. Although oysters can live up to two weeks out of water in a cold damp environment, they are at their peak when freshly harvested.
The most common variety of oyster in the United States is the Blue Point Eastern Oyster, which measures 2 to 5 inches across and can be found from the Gulf of Mexico to Prince Edward Island. They also have regional names: Apalachicola (Florida), Bluepoint (New York), Breton (Louisiana), Chincoteague (Virginia), Malpeque (Canada), and Wellfleet (Cape Cod).
Store oysters in the refrigerator, for no more than 48 hours, in a container or pan that allows for air circulation. Always scrub the outside of oysters under running cold water prior to opening to help keep the inside meat free from any residue that may transfer in from the outside shell during the opening process.
"Pack scrubbed oysters in ice or place them in the freezer for an hour; this loosens the shell and makes it easier to open," says CIA chef Gerard Viverito. "The secret to keeping oysters delicious is to make sure they are fresh and always kept very cold."
All oysters eaten raw should be firmly closed and alive. Discard any open oysters. Because oysters—or any raw fish or shellfish—may contain harmful bacteria (mostly from unregulated waters), pregnant woman or those with compromised immune systems should avoid eating them.
You can find more information on shellfish, along with the following instructions, in The Culinary Institute of America's Guide to Fish and Seafood Identification, Fabrication and Utilization by CIA chef Mark Ainsworth (2009, Delmar Cengage). The following recipe is adapted from The Culinary Institute of America's Garde Manger, The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen (2008, John Wiley and Sons, Inc.).
To Open an Oyster:
- Place the cup-shaped portion (the part of the shell that looks to be the strongest) side down on a towel on a flat surface. Work the tip of the oyster knife into the hinge.
Force the knife down or snap it with your wrist, using the bottom portion of the shell for leverage. Repeat as needed until the oyster opens.
- Draw the knife along the top shell to remove the shell.
- Draw the knife along the bottom of the opened shell to release the meat.
- Inspect for any shell fragments and release the meat with the knife.
- Place the oyster in the shell on crushed ice and serve immediately.
Nutritional information for Mignonette Sauce per 1-ounce serving: 10 calories, 0g total fat, 0g protein, 0mg sodium, 3g total carbohydrate, 0g dietary fiber.