Opening Oysters

Introduction

Classic Method
Clever Method
Commercial Method
Clumsy Method
Oyster Knives
Handles
Blades
Competition


The Clever Method
John McCabe

I've chosen to call this method "clever" because the opener calculates the likely position of the adductor muscle inside the oyster shell. He or she avoids the tough hinge ligament path, and instead proceeds to take an easier route to the adductor location by entering inbetween the shell halves. Once the adductor muscle is cut, the mighty oyster fortress has fallen. All that is left to do at that point is to bend back the top shell and easily break it off at the oyster's hinge.

With the cupped portion of the oyster facing down and its "beak" facing towards the opener, the entry can be made on the right, front, or left side of the oyster between the shell halves. This can be performed in three ways. The first method calls for chipping away some shell at the edge on the right side, producing a small opening, then entering with the oyster knife and cutting the adductor muscle. A demonstration of this method (see below) with one oyster type is sufficient, as every type of culinary oyster can be opened the same way. The second method is called "stabbing", a professional variant of the above method. With the tip of the oyster knife, an experienced opener gains direct front or side entry between the shell halves. The blade is then slid in to cut the muscle. The third method is a European variant of direct side entry on a European oyster with the sharp blade of an oyster knife (briefly described towards the end of this page).

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.

Chipping Side Entry Method

Advantages:
* Very simple. Every culinary oyster type can easily be opened with this method.
* Ideally suited for large and odd shaped oysters (bananas).

Disadvantages:
* Invariably leads to jagged and unsightly shell damage. Not recommended for half shell presentation purposes.
* Prone to leave shell splinters in the oyster.

Method

The opening process begins with placing the oyster on the cutting board and picking the spot on the edge of the shell considered closest to the suspected location of the adductor muscle inside. When the "beak" of the oyster is pointing towards the opener and the cupped part of the oyster is sitting on the cutting board, the entry point will always be on the right side of the oyster in the upper quadrant of the shell.

The opener then holds the oyster down firmly with his gloved hand and starts chipping away at the shell edge by operating his knife vertically in a gentle stabbing manner. He (or she) will continue to do so until an opening between the shell halves leading into the oyster has been achieved. The ultimate hole should be no larger than the width of the blade.

 



The adductor muscle is located in close proximity to the hole on the shell edge. It is severed with the gentle back and forth action of the blade.

 




 

Once the adductor muscle has been severed, the game is over. All that is left is to bend the top shell back towards the point of the oyster and snap its last defense, the hinge.
In this picture my knife points to what is left of the adductor muscle attachment on the top shell. The adductor muscle is still attached on the cupped shell half. It is thus necessary to gently slip the tip of the blade under the oyster meat and sever the base of the adductor muscle from the cupped shell as well. The meat can now be removed easily.

Note: The oyster I used in this demonstration looks like it's been through hell. The mantle edges of the meat are starting to stick to the edge of the shell and the flesh appears sunken instead of plump. Although the oyster is still (barely) alive, it has lost much of its moisture due to either having been stored too long at the seafood market, or having been stored improperly in transit to or at the seafood market (i.e. cupped shell portion was stored side-ways or up instead of down).

Stabbing Side or Front Entry Method

Advantages:
* Very effective in trained hands for proper half shell presentation of Eastern and European oysters. More demanding with other species.

Disadvantages:
* Not a method for novices. Should be left to experienced openers.
* Prone to leave some shell splinters in the oyster.

Experienced oyster openers will usually clutch the oyster in their left hand and seek direct horizontal side entry between the shell halves with the tip of their oyster knife (without chipping a hole first). This action can be performed on the left, front, or right shell margin. I strongly recommend that this variant be left to the pros and most certainly should be avoided by any novice! The tip of the oyster knife can easily end up gliding over, under, or pass through in-between the hard shell housing and may cause severe injury!

* Side-Knife Method
The oyster's beak faces away from the opener.This side entry method then uses the right side of the oyster. Unlike the chipping side entry described above, where the opener seeks the closest path to the adductor, this method deviously enters the shell side margin furthest away from the adductor muscle. It capitalizes on the oyster's adductor muscle location being more effective in one hemisphere than the other. Hence, being further removed from the muscle, the opener benefits from a small top shell leverage advantage. This method is usually reserved for the Eastern oyster.

Method

The oyster is held firmly in the gloved left hand with the cupped side down. The right thumb (if right handed) is positioned about a 1/4" away from the point (circled in blue) on one of the flat sides of the (rather dull) knife blade of a classic stabber style knife (in this demonstration I used a Chesapeake stabber; see oyster knives).

 

 

The gloved right hand brings the blade point to the desired entry point between the shells on the right side of the oyster, usually somewhere at the midway point between the beak and "the front" or bill now facing the opener. The opener has optimal control of the knife point while wriggling it between the shell halves.

 

 

 

Once the opener feels that he has gained some entry, his right thumb shifts on top of the oyster shell and he proceeds to slide the blade in and across along the underside of the top shell. With the beak of the oyster facing away, the adductor muscle inside is located over on the left side. Once the blade is within reach of the adductor muscle, the adductor is severed with a gentle back and forth motion of the blade. The right thumb still stays on the top shell at that point.

 

The right thumb on the top shell now joins the flat side of the blade inside the oyster like a pincer. In one motion, the top shell can now be flipped up and back and be pried off easily at the hinge.

The professional opener will then inspect the oyster and remove any shell chips that may have snuck in during opening. From the left he will then gently slide the tip of his knife under the oyster's flesh and cut the lower part of the adductor muscle close to the (remaining cupped) shell. The oyster is now ready to be served on the half shell.

Cutting Side Entry Method
Some European professionals use the sharp blade of their oyster knives to gain side entry between the shell halves of European oysters. Although some European experts can also perform this method on the Pacific oyster, it is particularly difficult due to the frequently serrated, uneven, and crumbly nature of its shell edges. The oyster is held in the left hand while the sharp blade side of the oyster knife is situated on the edge of the right half of the oyster, about two thirds distance away from the hinge, precisely where the two shell halves meet. The blade is wriggled a tad to seat the edge in the shell divide. The knife, however, is not twisted. The pros will keep their thumb positioned firmly on the dull blade edge within about a 1/4" of its tip. This serves to maximize blade control and provides the ability to apply some moderate pressure. As risky as it sounds (and is!) in terms of injury, the thumb is also intended as a blade stop on the shell in case the knife slips. The sharp blade edge is then slid in to cut the adductor muscle and the flat blade body simultaneously aids in snapping off the top shell at the hinge (similar to the finish on the side-knife method described above). Obviously this method can easily lead to all kinds of injuries and should most certainly be avoided by any novice!
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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