What Every Host Should Know About Serving Raw Oysters
Oyster connoisseur Julie Qiu of the beautiful blog In A Half Shell shares her expertise on all things half-shell.
Looking to upgrade your next dinner party? With prime oyster season back, there’s nothing more decadent or conversation-worthy than bringing the raw bar into your home. If the idea sounds daunting, don’t worry! Follow these guidelines to ensure a smooth and safe experience.
Quality is of the utmost importance when you’re consuming raw oysters, so be selective about your source. Buying direct from a licensed oyster wholesaler or a specialty seafood market might be your best bet. Ask about the harvest date (which is not the same as “they came in yesterday”). Most oysters can survive up to two weeks out of the water, but it’s best to consume the oysters within the first week.
When you bring home your live oysters, check to see if all the shells are tightly shut. Discard any that gape open, even after a light tap—it means they’re dead and unfit to consume raw. Place your oysters in an empty bowl or tray, covered with a damp towel. The optimal storage temperature is between 35-40°F. Any colder and the oysters may freeze to death. Although you probably see this often, be careful when you stick your oysters in ice. Submerging oysters in freshwater for an extended period of time will kill them.
Oyster knives are specially designed to pop the shells open with ease. Don’t substitute this important tool with a butter knife, steak knife, or screwdriver. Protect your hand with either a kitchen towel or thick rubber work glove.
How to shuck an oyster: Shimmy the knife blade securely into the hinge of the oyster, which is the pointed end where the top and bottom shell meet. The trick isn’t to pry, but rather rotate the knife blade as if you’re turning car keys in the ignition. You’ll know that it’s open once you hear a small pop. Move the knife blade across the top shell to sever the top of the adductor muscle. Remove the shell and then slide the knife under the oyster belly to cut the bottom of the adductor muscle. Wipe away shell fragments and dirt, but take care not to spill the precious oyster liquor. Every oyster will be a little bit different, so practice makes perfect!
The classic approach is to cover a one-inch-deep pizza pan or serving tray with crushed ice and place your shucked beauties in a circle or row. Short on ice or want to try something different? Try a pack of frozen black pinto beans or Himalayan rock salt as a base. Add a bit of color to the plate with leafy greens like mustard greens, fennel, or dill. If you’re serving multiple varieties, consider creating oyster labels to help your guests distinguish the different kinds.
This season, it’s all about building fresh, modern takes on tried-and-true classics. So dump the generic cocktail sauce for freshly ground black pepper or homemade wasabi-ginger dressing instead. Switch out the ultra-acidic mignonette with mellower ponzu. Throw out your preconceptions about only pairing oysters with white wine and champagne. Appeal to the beer lovers amongst your friends with a geuze or spicy saison. Or match up West Coast oysters with a minerally Junmai or Junmai Ginjo sake.
Want to learn more about oysters? Up your half-shell game with Julie Qiu’s “Raw, Delicious, and Alive” Oyster Mastery Class on Skillshare—visit to learn more.