The cheftestants’ families came to visit on Week 11 of Top Chef Boston, and part of the chefs’ challenge was to go out on a fishing boat and catch ingredients to use in the elimination challenge. Because of this caveat, most of the chefs ended up using the same ingredients. Almost everyone used oysters as an appetizer and lobster as their entree protein. I worked with lobster tail during the Thanksgiving challenge, and since 1) part of the purpose in doing this challenge was to try new things, and 2) I’m not cooking on a reality tv budget, I decided to work with oysters this week. I have always been intimidated at the thought of shucking my own oysters. Oysters seem like they are on a different level from comparative critters, such as clams or mussels. So I found a kick ass sounding fried oyster salad from Emeril Lagasse, and vowed to learn how to shuck.
Answering all of a beginners questions about oysters
I’m not sure why, but my brain believes that unless you were born in a seaside town and have magical shellfish knowledge passed down from generations of fishermen, then one can’t possibly know how to prepare oysters safely. I realize that this is ludicrous, but I also knew that I had a lot of oyster related questions I wanted to answer before I got started. Since I can’t be the only person who isn’t an oyster expert, I am going to share my quandaries and the answers I found.
My first question had to do with storage. What I found out was oysters should be stored in a similar fashion to mussels or clams. You don’t want to store oysters in water, but you want to keep them cold until you either eat them or cook them. Keeping them in the refrigerator covered with a damp town should do the trick. You don’t want to keep them on ice for too long, because when the ice melts, they may suffocate. If the market places them in a plastic bag, holes need to be punched into the bag, or else your oysters will suffocate to death. Just like mussels, if one of your oysters opens, it’s dead and should be discarded. Some websites said you can buy oysters up to 2 weeks before cooking, but unless you really know the variety you are buying, I would probably play it safe and only buy them in advance one to two days tops.
Since I’ve never shucked an oyster I did some research on a good shucking technique. I used this site as an example of how to shuck properly. Gloves and a kitchen towel were immensely helpful. I also tried out two separate knives- one was smaller, sharper, and more sturdy. One was longer, thin, super cheap, and flexible. For me, having a knife with a thin blade was key. I initially had a lot of difficulty figuring out where to insert my blade. I didn’t realize just how tight oysters really are closed, and I had a difficult time even seeing where the two shells were joined together. Using a knife that was too thick was almost impossible to insert between the tightly shut shell halves. But the sites that claim you MUST have a specialized oyster knife are total crap. I also found that having a trash can nearby was helpful for throwing away the discarded top shells.
For the shucking process, the instructions call to cut off the “flat” side of the shell. Some of my oysters had a “flat” side, and some of them were more difficult to figure out which side was “flatter” then the other. My oyster shells differed a lot in appearance. Some of them were easier than others to figure out which side was supposed to be the oyster “cup.”
The point is to try and keep as much of the oyster “liquor” in the shell as possible. This is mainly so the oyster doesn’t dry out before you cook it. Since I was shucking pretty freaking slow, this was a legitimate concern. Plus, some of my shucking was pretty sloppy. There was only one oyster that got both completely obliterated, and lost all of its juice- that one had to go in the garbage. The rest, I managed to save at least some of the liquor. In hindsight, I realize I had my oysters pointed downward, so I was probably loosing a lot of liquid. It might have helped to try and keep them horizontal at all times.
My final question had to do with whether or not oysters remain alive once you shuck them. Unfortunately, I found conflicting opinions to this question. I worried that, if the oyster is supposed to remain alive once shucked, is it possible to accidentally kill it? And once it is shucked, how would I know if the oyster is dead? And if I semi-mutilate the oyster while trying to cut it from the connector tendon, is it still edible? Sadly, I couldn’t find answers to these questions, despite conducting a semi-thorough internet search. My feeling on the matter is that I can’t see how the oyster could possibly be alive once you both break the shell open and cut the the connector tendons. But I don’t really know the answer. This led me to the conclusion that, these questions must not be all that important/my food safety does not hinge on the answers. Either way, I did cut into the oyster meat on a couple of attempts, while trying to cut the oyster away from the connector. Since I was frying mine, I wasn’t overly worried about it. The last piece of advice that I read was to shuck the oysters as close to the time you plan to eat/cook them as possible. That way, you don’t need to worry because you know that the meat is fresh.
Fried oysters give great texture to a bright and colorful salad
Beyond the anxiety I experienced worrying about oyster shucking, the rest of this salad is easy and comes together quickly. While I heated up my frying oil, I cooked my corn, bell peppers and onions to make the corn-jalepeno relish.
The bacon crumble and buttermilk dressing I made ahead of time, before I dove into my oysters. So all I had left to do was coat the suckers in the cornmeal/flour mix and fry them up.
They just needed a couple of minutes in the oil. When they were ready, they were visibly brown and floated to the top.
I transferred them to some paper towels.
And admired my handy work. Some of the oysters are plumper than the others. I attribute this to whether or not they got mangled during my poor shucking attempt. But for the most part I was really proud of myself. I bought 10 oysters and ended up with 8 that I could plate. Since I had really been worried I would end up with zero oysters to plate, I thought I did pretty good.
And once the salad was all put together, I loved how bright and colorful the entire thing looked.
I loved the saltiness of the bacon mixed with the crispiness of the oysters. The jalepeno-corn relish was yummy and went perfectly with the buttermilk dressing. The two things I didn’t love about Emeril’s recipe were 1) the jalepeno in the buttermilk dressing. For me it was waaaay to much spice. It blew out all of the other flavors in the dressing and overpowered everything else. If I made it again, I would only add a tiny piece of pepper. And 2) I probably wouldn’t coat the oysters in cornmeal next time. The cornmeal was more gritty than crunch for me. I would definitely experiment with a different oyster batter.
But overall, it was a great salad that had a lot going on, and felt fulfilling enough to serve as a meal. Luke is running the Tokyo marathon in 5 (!) weeks, so I’m hoping to experiment with more salad recipes while he gets closer to his event. Plus, I will definitely be practicing my oyster shucking skills. Generally in a restaurant, oysters cost anywhere from $2-3 per oyster. I bought mine for .60 cents per oyster. You really can’t beat that price.