Wednesday 12 November 2014

Shucking Oysters with Christina

Monday of this week I got together with my fellow MasterChef Canada season one contestant, Christina. We became friends since the taping of the show but career opportunities took her to Edmonton last April so we haven't been able to get together since. She made a visit to her native Toronto this week so we thought we'd use one of the days she had here to shuck fresh oysters. This is Christina's second appearance on the blog. She and I both checked out MasterChef Canada judge, Michael Bonacini's restaurant, Bannock, for Toronto's Winterlicious festival earlier this year. It was over our meal that we discovered we both enjoy raw oysters. I had only ever eaten oysters at restaurants, pubs or street festivals. Christina actually had experience shucking her own oysters.

The act of shucking is opening the oyster's shell with a specialized knife (aptly called an oyster knife) to release the fresh oyster meat and liquor from inside. Shucking requires skill and a lot of practice. This was my first time ever shucking and Christina had done it a few times before but not recently. She was much better than I was. If you are a skilled shucker of oysters then I would advise you to avert your eyes from this post as I'm sure it exposes all kinds of technical flaws in the photos. I'm not saying our shucking was perfect, but the product was very tasty.

Oysters can be eaten many different ways: fried, baked, stewed, smoked, steamed and pickled are some popular options. In my opinion, they're not bad, but the best way to enjoy an oyster is fresh and raw on the half shell. Just like clams and mussels, oysters must be eaten or cooked alive. They close their shells as a defense mechanism. If an oyster's shell is open and does not close after a few gentle taps, then it must be discarded. Shellfish degenerates quickly when it expires and it doesn't take very long before it could make you ill. If consumed properly, oysters are not only delicious but a great source of iron, protein, omega 3's, zinc and even Vitamin C. They can be eaten naked (as is), or dressed with fresh lemon juice or Tabasco sauce. Some people like a little freshly grated horseradish on their oysters. Those seem to be the most common dressings for oysters but there are an endless variety of others. Another one that I enjoy is a bit of the sweet brine from pickled beets.

We sampled six different varieites of oysters. I'd like to share a little bit about each one before showing the basic method of shucking oysters. As I mentioned, this was my first time shucking so I'm not qualified to be able to teach anyone how to do it just yet. This post is more to share the experience. 

First up, we tried Salt Grass Point oysters, from Mapleque Bay in Prince Edward Island (PEI is well-known for its shellfish). This was one of our favourites. Just a mild, refreshing oyster lifted by the bright sour-spicy acidity of the lemon and Tabasco. If you can find these, definitely give them a try. I didn't get a good photo but the shells have a beautiful army green colour.        

Next we tried Kumumoto oysters. This variety originates from Japan but these specific oysters came from Washington State. They were plumper and saltier in flavour. The shells were quite frilled on the edges, contained several pronounced bumps and were speckled black, grey, brown and white.


Then we tried the comically named Four Inches Of Pleasure, from New Brunswick. The name, as you might have guessed, refers to the size of both the oyster shell. These are definitely the largest oysters that I've ever tried. They had a nice mild flavour of the sea. The shells are rippled with off-whites and browns. We use this variety for the demo later.

Next we up we sampled the Japanese Kushi (or Kusshi) variety from British Columbia. These stood out as another one of our favourites. Plump, mild and refreshing. I would absolutely recommend these. The shells were a little more square in shape and were speckled white, brown and black. The reddish spots that appear in the photo below are Tabasco sauce. 

Then we tried the Wiley Point oysters, named after where they come from in Western Ontario. We both agreed that of the bunch, these were our top favourite. They were just everything a good oyster should be: mild, refreshing, just salty enough and simply satisfying. The red you see in the photo below is also Tabasco sauce. The shells are mostly brown and black with a few hints of green. If you find the opportunity to try these, take advantage!  

Finally we sampled Gigas that had just arrived that morning from Ireland. They had an aroma to them that made me think they might have a stronger flavour (kinda marshy), but luckily they tasted just fine. I should point out that fresh seafood should smell like the sea or nothing at all. Any fishy funk you may get is a sign of seafood losing its freshness and quality. With shellfish, like oysters, discard any that may have a foul smell. I just wanted to clarify the difference between the smell of oysters that have gone off and oysters with a marshy aroma. The shells very much resembled limestone. Overall they were not bad, but ended up being a nice finale to the different varieties we tried.   

Here are the basic steps in prepping and shucking an oyster. First you'll need to clean them thoroughly. Oysters that have not been properly clean can leave an unpleasant grit behind. Fill a bowl with cold water and scrub them clean. Generally they will already have been cleaned well when you buy them but this is still a mandatory step. Replace the water in the bowl once or twice if needed. 

You will notice that an oyster will be tapered on one end with a roundish butt on the opposite end. The butt end is the hinge and the area that needs to be pried apart first. Many professional oyster shuckers wear protective gloves, but a towel will also work. Hold the oyster with a bunched towel, exposing the butt and leaving your fingers behind the towel and away from the blade.


Just next to the middle of the hinged area, apply to the blade of the oyster knife and begin to "wiggle it" with some pressure. The knife should be inserted at the same angle of the groove of the shell (this will vary by oyster). This is the part that requires the most skill. 

Use too much force and risk possibly injuring yourself or literally stabbing through the oyster and ruining the presentation (the latter of which happened to many of the ones I did). Use too little force and you'll never get anywhere but slowly ruining the appearance of the shell. To gauge the right amount will take practice. There were some oysters that took two minutes, others a couple of seconds. The goal is to hear the popping noise that releases the two parts of the hinge apart.

Shimmy the tip of the knife around the rim of the shell until you are able to open the oyster like a book. Be careful not to insert the knife too far in or you'll slice the oyster. 

The oyster will be attached to one of the shells of the tapered end (opposite from where the butt was unhinged) by a muscle. Slide the blade of the knife under the oyster to cut through that muscle and release the meat.

When the muscle is severed, use the blade to flip the oyster over to expose a slightly more presentable side.

Then dress however you like and enjoy. 

So again, my apologies to anyone who is good at shucking oysters that I'm sure was able to make out all of the flaws, chipped shells and mutilated meat. With practice I'm sure I'll get better. Another thing to keep in mind is that each oyster also contains liquid referred to as the liquor. To eat a fresh oyster you would bring the shell up to your mouth and tip your head back allowing the oyster to be slurped up. The liquor adds flavour and assists with the transfer from shell to mouth. Be sure not to spill the liquor while opening the oyster. It is also customary to place the oyster on crushed ice once it is shucked and eat it right away. The ice retains a cool temperature and therefore freshness. 

Oysters are so tasty and a very occasional treat to me. This experience was a lot of fun and with good company. Together, Christina and I ploughed through three dozen oysters! If you get the opportunity to try shucking your own oysters give it a go. You might find that you're quite good at it! Who knows. A big thank you to Christina for being part of this post and for my first oyster shucking lesson!

I hope you guys enjoyed this post. Oysters may be an acquired taste for some and I respect if someone doesn't like them. In North America I have found that some people find the texture and appearance unappetizing. I have to admit, the first time I ever tried an oyster I wasn't sure if I was going to like it, but luckily I did. It's good to be adventurous in the things you will try (and this goes towards more things in life than just eating). Surprise yourself now and again.

Until we meet again Foodies! Take care,


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