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Oysters
Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

With flavors that range from bland to salty, these plump, mineral-rich bivalves are the prize of epicures, who tend to enjoy them raw or barely cooked. They can also be steamed, baked, or grilled. Oysters are sold live in the shell, shucked, and in jars and cans.

Varieties

Eastern oysters, named for their place of origin (Bluepoints, Lynnhavens, and Chincoteagues, for example), account for most of the American oyster supply. Western waters produce Pacific oysters (which were originally eastern transplants) and Olympia oysters, a tiny native western species harvested commercially in Washington state. Most Pacific oysters are graded and marketed by size rather than by name.

Availability

Unfortunately, coastal development and pollution have reduced the number of natural oyster beds, but thanks to commercial oyster farming, these choice bivalves are still in good supply. They are at their best in late fall and winter.

Shopping

Oysters that are sold live should smell briny-fresh, and look bright and clean. Shells should be tightly closed (so that you can't pull them apart), or should close tightly when the shell is tapped; don't buy oysters with open shells. Freshly shucked oysters should be submerged in their own clear liquid (called liquor).

Storage

When you buy oysters, it is imperative to keep them alive until you are ready to cook and/or serve them. Live oysters can be stored in the refrigerator, covered with wet kitchen towels or paper towels. Do not put them in an airtight container or submerge them in fresh water, or they will die. The key is to keep them truly cold: if possible, at 32°F to 35°F. Within that range, oysters should keep (in a live state) for about four to seven days. Be sure to remove any that die (look for open shells) during that period so they do not contaminate the remaining oysters. Shucked oysters should be kept in tightly covered containers, immersed in their liquor; they, too, should keep for up to a week.

You can freeze shucked raw oysters in their liquor in airtight containers. They should keep for two months if the freezer is set at 0°F or colder. Be sure to thaw frozen oysters in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.

Preparation

Unless you have experience shucking live oysters, it's safer and faster to have this service performed by the fish seller. If that isn't possible, or you want to store the oysters unshucked, then do it yourself. First discard any animals with broken or gaping shells--they have died and are not edible. To prepare oysters, scrub the shells (with a stiff brush, if necessary) and rinse under cold running water. Scrape any tough encrustations from the shells with a sturdy knife.

Shucking oysters is easier if you have the right tools: An oyster knife has a very short, strong blade and a guard to protect your fingers. It's not uncommon for the knife to slip while you're applying pressure to open a shell, so wear a pair of heavy work gloves to protect your hands. To shuck an oyster, place it on top of a folded cloth (or hold it in a gloved hand) with the deeper shell downward. Hold it firmly as you insert the oyster knife between the two halves of the shell and twist the knife to pry the halves apart. Work the blade around to the hinge. Working over a bowl to catch the juices, cut the muscle that holds the shell together, then remove the top half. Slip the knife under the oyster to free it. Strain the oyster liquid before using it, to remove any broken bits of shell.

Broiling/grilling: Shucked oysters can be oven-broiled if given a crumb coating to protect them from the intense heat--a good alternative to frying them.

Poaching: This cooking method works well for shucked oysters. Poach oysters in fish stock, or a mixture of water and lemon juice or wine. Flavor the poaching liquid with herbs, if you like. Bring the liquid to a gentle simmer, add the oysters, partially cover the pan, and poach until the oysters are done.

Sauteing: This method for cooking shucked oysters traditionally requires quite a bit of butter or oil, both for flavor and to keep the delicate oysters from sticking to the pan and breaking apart. For a healthier low-fat saute, be sure to use a nonstick pan; spray it with cooking spray or brush it lightly with oil. A light dredging in flour or breadcrumbs will also help keep the oyster from breaking up. As a further precaution, shake the pan gently and turn the oysters carefully. Remove the oysters from the pan promptly when it is done, or it will continue to cook (and will be likely to overcook) from the heat retained by the pan.

Nutrition Chart

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Oysters/6 broiled

47
Total fat (g)
1.3
Saturated fat (g)
0.4
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.4
Dietary fiber (g)
0
4
Carbohydrate (g)
4
Cholesterol (mg)
22
Sodium (mg)
96
Vitamin B12 (mcg)
14
Iron (mg)
4.6
Selenium (mcg)
46
Zinc (mg)
27


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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