An Expert’s Guide to Selecting and Serving Raw Oysters

As any bivalve enthusiast can attest, raw oysters are a deliciously decadent treat—so long as they are selected and prepared with care. For those who are interested in enjoying oysters at home but find the prospect of picking and shucking them to be intimidating, we reached out to Dave Brue, executive chef at Virginia Beach-based The Atlantic–Raw Bar & Eatery, for advice on everything from how to ensure freshness to the essential accompaniments.

Be fanatical about freshness. The first step in selecting your oysters is identifying a reputable seller, according to Brue. Once you’ve found your purveyor, follow these steps to make sure you select the freshest product:

  • Check the harvest date. Oysters should have a tag that indicates the date they were harvested. Choose the bivalves with the most recent date, Brue says, and never buy an oyster that was harvested more than a week ago.
  • Trust your nose. Oysters should smell like the ocean, according to Brue. Anything that smells fishy should be avoided.
  • Look for seaweed and small crustaceans. Brue says that fresh seaweed on the outside of an oyster is a sign of freshness. Additionally, often other small crustaceans will attach themselves to an oyster shell; these should smell fresh—not fishy, which will indicate an oyster is likely past its prime.
  • Consider the shell. If the oyster shell is open, this is a sign they are probably dead or dying, and don’t belong in your kitchen.
  • Look for liquid. Brue says that the liquor, or briny liquid inside the oyster shell, is another good indicator of freshness. If the liquid has dried out, you do not want to eat the oyster.

Know the different varieties. There are generally three varieties of oysters: those from the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coast, and each possesses a different flavor profile. Just like wine has a “terroir,” oysters have a “merroir,” and their taste depends on where they are grown—on a macro and micro level. “Oysters pulled out of the bay five miles apart will have a different taste, depending on many conditions, like how the tide flows and the type of algae that are thriving in that area,” Brue explains. It is these variables that makes tasting oysters such an exciting experience, and it’s important to explore all three varieties, from different regions, to discern what your personal preference is. Here, Brue breaks down the three main types:

  • Atlantic. In general, East Coast oysters are on the smaller side and have a significant brininess, with a taste of the fresh seas. Those further up the coast will be saltier, while those in the brackish Chesapeake Bay have a more balanced, salty and sweet profile.
  • Pacific. “West Coast oysters are a totally different species than those found on the East Coast,” Brue notes. They will be a bit sweeter, with hints of cucumber or melon, and sometimes a heavy vegetable seaweed flavor.
  • Gulf. Oysters hailing from the Gulf are the largest of the bunch, and are influenced by the fresh water infusion from the Mississippi River and other tributaries. They are the meatiest of the three, and are less salty than oysters pulled straight out of the ocean.

Follow proper storage protocol. “The number-one rule when dealing with oysters is to keep them cold,” Brue stresses. They’re fragile, and should be kept at a temperature around 36 degrees. It’s best to store them uncovered in a perforated pan with ice on the bottom and the oysters on top. “You want to make sure the ice doesn’t melt and seep into the shells, diluting the flavor,” Brue says. Also, since they are salt-water creatures, oysters will die if exposed to the melted ice. It’s always best to consume oysters when they are freshest, but they can keep for two days if stored properly.

Do the necessary prep work. Oysters can be harvested in two different ways: grown wild on the sea floor or raised in floating cages where they aren’t exposed to sand or dirt, and whether your oysters were raised wild or farmed will determine whether they require a cleaning pre-shucking. For the former, Brue advises, you want to brush off all dirt and sand before rinsing them to make sure it won’t get trapped inside when opened.

Invest in the right tools. There there are many different types of oyster knives, specially designed to open the mollusks from each region, says Brue, who recommends that home cooks consult an expert at the store for recommendations. You’ll also want to invest in a glove or a towel so you don’t put the knife through your hand when shucking.

Shuck like a pro. To shuck an oyster, hold the oyster in a gloved or towel-wrapped hand, and with your dominant hand, place the tip of your oyster knife at the base of the hinge. Give the knife a little twist, easing it into the shell, and pry open the hinge. Next, slide the knife under the top shell to give your oyster the convertible treatment, and remove it. Finally, slide your knife under the oyster to release it from the shell, taking care not to spill any of the liquid inside.

Ace your plating and pairings. Before plating your oysters, do a final inspection. Wipe down the exterior to remove any dirt, and make sure there aren’t any shell pieces left inside post-shucking. When preparing your serving vessel, remember that temperature is even more paramount than a beautiful presentation. “The most important thing is to keep the oysters as cold as possible,” Brue says, adding that he finds that a bed of crushed ice works best. Let the oysters shine by keeping your accompaniments simple; traditionally, oysters are served with cocktail sauce with horseradish, hot sauce, lemon, and a mignonette. Last but not least, go with a classic beverage pairing of a champagne or sparkling wine—though Brue notes that rosé, sherry, or a lighter-bodied beer will also work well with the dish.

TSG Tip 341 from Dave Brue, executive chef at The Atlantic in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The Atlantic appears in The Scout Guide Tidewater—Virginia Beach & Norfolk.