Opening Oysters


Classic Method
Clever Method
Commercial Method
Clumsy Method
Oyster Knives

The Classic Method
John McCabe

This method opens an oyster via its hinge. Properly executed, it will always result in the classic look of oysters destined to be served on the half shell. The lower (cupped) shell portion where the oyster meat rests will remain undamaged and retain its rugged beauty. A classic oyster feast starts well before the oysters are actually slurped. It begins with the flawless presentation of the oysters, upon which the eyes will feast first.

After briefly listing some advantages and disadvantages of this method, my little report will try to demonstrate how opening via the hinge is commonly done with the Pacific and Eastern oyster. Then we'll touch on opening the European oyster and Olympia oyster via the hinge. After that, the delicious Kumamoto oyster will receive honorable mention. The report will close with a few general pointers.

Please note: Novices will benefit from reading the introduction page first before reading this or any of the other reports on opening oysters. Click here to go there.

* The lower shell edge remains undamaged, thus enhancing the oyster's natural presentation.
* Proper opening by the classic method minimizes the chance of small shell fragments ending up in and around the oyster meat.
* Attractively shaped shells can be boiled and cleaned after the feast to be reused for presenting many cooked oyster dishes. Most desirable is an oyster shell that will sit stable and level on the table without the help of rock salt, crushed ice, or bunched up aluminum foil.

* Not well suited for Pacific and Eastern oysters beyond medium size. The hinge sector in a larger oyster has grown very strong and frequently proves to be difficult to penetrate and break. It can also be difficult to cut the adductor muscle on large oysters with long and oddly shaped shells (so called bananas). The point of using this method on larger sizes is rather mute, as they are only rarely (if ever) served raw on the half shell. Proper presentation is thus not an issue as the meat of larger sizes is usually cooked. Although many oyster lovers will also slurp medium sized oysters, the principal sizes associated with serving Pacific and Eastern oysters on the half shell are small and extra small (a.k.a. petite, bistro, yearlings,…).
* Not an efficient commercial method where the main objective is to open as many oysters as possible for meat destined for cooking purposes. The clever and clumsy methods are easier, the commercial method by far more efficient.
* Hinge opening is more prone to damage the liver of the oyster (described below) than other opening methods.

Pacific and Eastern Oysters
The oyster is held down firmly with the gloved hand on a stable work surface (like a wooden cutting board). A right handed person would use his or her left hand to hold the oyster. The right hand holds the oyster knife. The hinge is always a little recessed in the "beak" of the oyster, so chipping away a little shell with the point of the oyster knife is common. Watch for any mud, impurities, and excessive shell splinters while getting at the hinge. Quickly rinse impurities off under running water before proceeding.

The fist step when reaching the hinge is to patiently start digging through it with the tip of the oyster knife. The hinge can be surprisingly tough on larger oysters.

Note: Brute force must be avoided, as it will only result in the hinge snapping unexpectedly, the blade slamming into the oyster meat, or worse, cracking the shell in the process or gouging the hand holding the oyster.

Soon the hinge will be perforated by the tip of the oyster knife. Resist the natural temptation to run the blade into the oyster at that moment. Instead, break the hinge completely and spread the shell a bit with a twist of the knife handle. Note: This is also the moment where the leverage benefit of an oyster knife with an upwardly formed tip (unlike the one I'm using) would come into play (examples pictured below).

Then the flat side of the blade is slid along the inside of the top shell towards the approximate location of the adductor muscle. A little back and forth horizontally will cut it. The adductor muscle is very soft despite being very strong. Too much back and forth with the blade must be avoided, as will turn the delicate oyster meat inside into unsightly gray or brown mush. Note: Some openers will guide the blade inside and around the right side of the oyster shell to achieve the same result. The right sweep is essential when the blade length is shorter than the distance from the hinge to the adductor muscle. In this picture I have the luxury of easily capping the muscle directly with my long bladed Boston oyster knife on this fairly large oyster.

Once the adductor muscle is cut, the oyster's mighty shell fortress has fallen. The top shell will come right off. If a little of the oyster's mantle flesh is still attached to the top shell, just scrape it onto the oyster meat in the lower shell half. Note: The oyster I used in this picture was rather large and unshapely for slurping purposes (a medium Pacific oyster size). It did prove to be delightfully fat. I had little choice but to take a short break and slurp it right there on the spot. It was delicious.

Visually inspect the opened oyster for any potential shell splinters that may have snuck in. Briefly sniff the aroma of the oyster flesh to make sure it smells fresh and delightfully reminiscent of the ocean shore (get rid of it immediately if it smells odd or bad!). Then gently slide the tip of the oyster knife under the meat to cut the base of the adductor muscle. Optionally, the meat of the oyster could be flipped over at this point (described below under pointers). Deposit the half shell oyster on a prepared plate (as described in the introduction). Done!

Before opening the next oyster, briefly look at the glove that held the oyster and wipe or rinse off any shell splinters that may be attached.

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European and Olympia Oyster
These two elegant oyster types are more delicate and should be opened with more diligence. Many pros don't bother with the hinge. They avoid the hinge and use a horizontal blade entry between the shell halves to cut the adductor muscle. Some even hold the oyster in their bare hand while doing so. Then they flip off the top shell and "voilà!". They make it all look so easy. It's not! Under no circumstance is the horizontal side entry recommended for novices without first chipping off some shell on the edge vertically to produce an opening (as described in The Clever Method).

Inset images: Above, a nice batch of European oysters. To the left, a nice batch of the petite Olympia oyster.





The European and Olympia oyster are designed quite differently than the Eastern and Pacific oyster. They are rounder, flatter, and the "beak" (hinge section) is far less pronounced. The hinge is readily accesssible.

Above image: Hinge sector or "beak" of a European oyster.

Although a large selection of different oyster knife styles will do a good job on Eastern and Pacific oysters, choosing the right oyster knife is important with European and Olympia oysters. Overall, European style oyster knives work better on these oyster types than most North American oyster knives. They have rather short blades, a very sharp point, and frequently one or both sides of the blade have been sharpened. Hence they are also more likely to cause injuries.
Inset picture: A French oyster knife design with a very pointed tip and one sharp edge. It works well on European oysters.

However, after opening a few hundred of these European and Olympia beauties and trying every type of oyster knife in my arsenal while doing so, I did find one American oyster knife style that also works very well via the hinge with the Euros, Olys, and Kumamoto oysters. It's called a New Haven and features a unique blade body and tip design.
Inset picture: A New Haven style oyster knife. Besides being an excellent knife for opening extra small and small Eastern and Pacific oysters via the hinge, I have also found it to do a very good job with European, Olympia, and Kumamoto oysters. The knife pictured was made in USA by Dexter-Russell.

Enough talk. Let's open a Euro:
The gloved hand holds the oyster firmly in the left hand (on a right handed person). The hand with the oyster rests firmly on the cutting board. Unlike the Eastern and Pacific oyster, the European oyster might be angled upward a tad (perhaps about 45°). I rest my left hand rather than the edge of the shell on the cutting board, as I do not wish any portion of this margin to break off accidentally while I'm working. Conversely, I like to hold the cupped portion of the tiny Olympia oyster down on the cutting board with my fingers. Just experiment a little. Whatever works best for you in the end is the right way.

The hinge on both oyster types is weak and easily penetrated with the sharp point of the oyster knife. Unlike the direct hinge approach on the Eastern and Pacific oyster, I've found it better to choose a point of attack to the right of the hinge.

Once the hinge is broken and the shell halves are spread apart a bit, the adductor muscle can then be cut with ease. Inset picture: Note its rather central location in this case (little pointer in the picture). Extra care must be taken not to damage the tender meat by keeping the knife tip up while cutting. The oyster's liver is located just ahead of the hinge (located right at the oposite end of the little pointer). It is particularly vulnerable and will end up looking like a big greenish-brown spot if its mantle layer is damaged by the knife. Always remember to cut the base of the adductor muscle as well before serving (described above).

Olympia Oyster
I call this oyster the Emerald Princess because of the unique shell layer upon which its tender flesh rests. This pearly looking layer (the so called hypostracum) is unusually rich with nacre (pearl coating) and frequently shows an emerald colored hue. The Olympia oyster is a "sipping oyster" rather than a "slurping oyster". It possesses a unique flavor which should be savored in a dignified manner - not unlike sipping a venerable old Scotch or rare Cognac. Consider yourself honored and privileged when commissioned to open the noble Olympia oyster for half shell presentation. Obviously someone believes you are worthy. No "hack 'n slash oyster openers" on this one please. If you have developed the finesse to open a dozen Olympia oysters in a row for half shell presentation without damaging the cupped portion of her majesty's splendid little shell palace and any of her tender flesh, you are a master at opening oysters for half shell consumption! Since most oyster lovers of the world have never heard of or seen an Olympia oyster, let alone tasted one, the person ordering the venerable Emerald Princess on the half shell will very likely be an oyster connoisseur of the first order.

Let's get started on that Oly
The pictures sequence below shows one of several methods of easily opening Olympia oysters.

Image left: Freshly opened Olympia oysters on the half shell. No flesh damage (particularly no liver damage), no obvious shell damage, and the adductor muscle in the lower shell has been cut close to the shell (click image to enlarge). Consolation: If it does not end up looking perfectly, it will nonetheless still taste perfectly. "Flipping" the meat (described below) is optional.


Kumamoto Oyster
The Kumamoto oyster (often affectionately referred to as the Kumo) might be considered the connoisseur's precious link between the Pacific and Eastern oyster and the European and Olympia oyster. It's a small and very tasty "butterball" of sorts with a pronounced belly and a flat lid (the Kumo is closely related to the Pacific and Eastern oyster).

Inset image: A typical Kumo. The extra barnacles on the top shell were free of charge.

There's nothing to add in terms of opening Kumos that has not already been stated above. If you have not tried Kumos, make sure you seize upon the next opportunity to do so.

Image left: Freshly opened Kumamoto oysters on the half shell.




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General Pointers

* The Flip Trick
If you wish to give any oyster's meat a more "plump and creamy" look or are worried that someone may perceive the oyster as looking just a tad too "biological", you can simply flip it. It is also a great way to hide little opening screw-ups like that greenish-brown spot you see in the meat just ahead of the hinge. I handled my oyster knife poorly on this one and damaged the oyster's tender mantle, thus also exposing a little bit of the rather unsightly liver.

After cutting the adductor muscle under the meat, the oyster is simply flipped over inside its shell with the tip of the knife. Best of all: My screw-up on the liver is now also hidden. Note: The darker margin on the upper edge of the shell in the picture is a slight natural shell flaw. At some point the oyster suffered a small crack which it repaired. It is perfectly acceptable. Any mud residue, however, is not acceptable.

* On the Flat
There's a relatively small constituency of oyster lovers among us that actually prefers its oysters on the half shell to be served on the inside portion of the top shell instead of the more cupped shell (most of them are European slurpers). The serving method is formally called "on the flat". That constituency has been around for hundreds of years. I respect it because I firmly believe that any oyster lover should consume his or her oysters just the way he or she likes to. What I can do without though, is when some of them start preaching: "You do know that that's the proper way for oysters to be served. Don't you?" I just grin and bear it - and hand them an extra napkin for the wet mollusk blobs that may end up in their lap.

* Liver Damage
The liver of any oyster can easily be damaged, particularly if the classic method of opening via the hinge is employed. It does not take much to strip off the delicate mantle flesh covering the liver. Speading the shell halves apart a bit with the knife blade by twisting the handle after breaking the hinge and keeping the blade tip riding high on the underside of the upper shell goes a long way to avoid "liver damage". Although such damage has no effect at all on the taste of the oyster meat, it just looks bad. The greenish-brown spot sticks out like a sore thumb. I've heard novices ask "Eeeew. Is that oyster poop?" when they see that spot.
If you are serving lots of oysters with damaged livers to connoisseurs, they may not comment on it, but will certainly notice. Inset image: The tip of my knife points at the location of the (undamaged) liver on this Olympia oyster. The liver is located in just about the same spot on any oyster.




* European Hinge Method Variant
Merely for the sake of completeness on the hinge method topic: The author Robert Neild, in his marvelous book The English, The French and The Oyster (Quiller; 1995), introduced me to another hinge method I had not known of. Some experienced European openers apparently will use the sharp edge of an oyster knife to cut through the hinge of a European oyster. No doubt, this method should certainly be left to the pros. I've attempted to replicate this method with an empty "pretend" European oyster, because my verbal description would likely to be a bit too confusing.
First they wedge the European oyster firmly in the palm and thumb of their left hand (if right handed) with the beak facing out towards the outstretched four fingers. Then, with the right hand, they align the sharp knife edge with the line of the oyster hinge.




They'll then bring up the four fingers of the hand holding the oyster to exert force on the dull back edge of that knife, thus forcing the sharp edge into the hinge and snapping it. Meanwhile, the thumb of the right hand holding the knife is applied to the upper shell of the oyster for stability. Once the knife enters, it is led forward to cut the adductor muscle. Once the blade has cut the adductor muscle, the thumb of the right hand and the knife blade inside pincers the top shell.


With the adductor muscle now severed, the top shell folds back easily. This method is reminiscent of a clam opening method which, however, penetrates the front shell divide instead of the hinge. Needless to say, this is one of those "please don't try this at home" methods, as it can certainly lead to injuries very easily in inexperienced hands - and has very likely also cut many an experienced oysterman. Frequent unsightly damage to the oyster's liver would also seem likely with this method.


* Best Suited Knife Type for Hinge Method
Any oyster knife will open a small or medium sized oyster from the hinge. However, a knife design with a raised tip usually works best. Firstly, this tip design allows excellent leverage at the hinge. Secondly, the tip tends to travel high inside the oyster, above and away from the tender meat. The opener can more easily direct the knife to hug the underside of the top shell. This helps reduce the chance of unsightly organ and mantle damage.

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Health advisory: There is a risk associated with consuming raw oysters or any raw animal protein. If you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood or have immune disorders, you are at greatest risk of illness from raw oysters and should eat oysters fully cooked. If you are unsure of your risk, you should consult your physician.

Advisements on any errors discovered are most welcome: Contact