Fresh Oyster Types
Fresh oyster are sold in three ways: Shell stock, shucked, and
* Shell stock (or shelled stock)
Shell stock is suited for half-shell (raw) consumption and for
These oysters sit inside the seafood vendor's case, complete
(shells and all) and are very much alive (hopefully). They are
usually sold on a piece count basis.
In North America, the shell stock oysters sold over the counter
are vastly dominated
by two species: Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica)
and Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas).
Inset image: From left to right we observe the Eastern oyster
(Crassostrea virginica), the Kumamoto oyster (Crassostrea sikamea),
and the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas). The Eastern oyster
pictured on the far left measures a tad over 3 inches (8 cm)
in length. This oyster species is the classic (North) American
oyster and dominates oyster sales on the East Coast and the Gulf.
The State of Louisiana is the largest producer in the world.
The little Kumamoto oyster in the middle is a West Coast product.
The State of Washington is likely the largest producer in the
world, although it originally hails from Japan. It is considered
a desirable specialty oyster. The Pacific oyster on the far right
is the king of the West Coast. The State of Washington is the
largest producer in North America. China is (by far) the largest
producer in the world.
The ball park price (2006/2007) at seafood
markets runs anywhere from 50c (a great bargain if truly fresh) to 2 bucks a piece (high). Occasionally you may also find the European oyster (Ostrea
edulis) and Kumamoto oyster (Crassostrea sikamea)
for sale. Although they are a tad more expensive, give 'em a
try at least once if you've never tasted them. You might be very
pleasantly surprised. If you really get lucky, you might spot
the tiny Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida a.k.a. O. conchaphila)
in the seafood case. Don't let the small size of the Olympia
oyster fool you. It's
a proven winner when it comes to "heaven on the half shell".
Inset image: The small Olympia oyster
(Ostrea lurida a.k.a. O. conchaphila) is a native West Coast
oyster. The State of Washington is the largest producer in the
world. It is remembered as the "Gold Rush oyster" as
some 49ers once paid a silver dollar for just one. It is tiny,
rare, and rather expensive - and worth it.
The three specialty oysters mentioned control
a comparatively small share of the North American oyster market.
They are generally slurped raw off the half shell. They do, however,
also excel in oyster recipes by adding an exciting dimension
the Pacific oyster vastly dominates the shell stock sales. The
pricey European oyster accounts for but a tiny fraction of the
combined European oyster volume.
Inset image: The Pacific oyster is located on the left. The
pictured specimen measures about 4 inches (~ 10 cm) in length.
The European oyster is located on the right.
Pointer: If you are buying oysters in the shell, you'll
need an oyster knife later at home. Even a cheap one is better
than no oyster knife at all. If you don't own one, you might
consider buying one while you're still at the store buying oysters.
Another pointer: If you are buying these oysters for "half
shell oyster fanatics" (like me), consider also buying some
dry (!) white wine or some beer - perhaps even a type of beer
for a change that is a step above the common "cheap suds".
Just because the oysters are very affordably priced does not
mean that they are not a true luxury food of the first order,
fit for kings and queens. In most cases it took at least two
to three years to grow this delicacy - in any case about as long
as it takes to produce a better grade Champagne. Champagne incidentally
also goes well with raw oysters. Choose those with no or low
"dosage" (a small amount of a wine and sugar mix that
is added to enhance Champagne). Classifications like Brut
integral, Ultra brut, Extra brut, Brut,
and Extra dry all work very well with oysters. Sec,
Demi-sec, and Doux do not complement the taste
of oysters well.
Also remember to pick up some lemons and
a bottle of hot sauce. Many oyster lovers like a few drops of
lemon or hot sauce on their oysters. The lemon is cut into thick
slices which can then be halved or quartered (wedges). I like
serving wedges, one or two every two oysters, as only a few drops
of lemon juice suffice. If you feel a little adventurous, then
pick up a lime too. A few drops of fresh lime juice also work
very well with oysters - some say better than lemons. In any
case, mixed lemon and lime wedges look pretty on an oyster platter.
Buying lemon juice in a bottle is only a last resort if no fresh
lemons are available. Although Tabasco sauce is always a good
choice with oysters, there are many other hot sauces that are
also excellent. While I think of it: Pick up a little fresh parsley
to dress up the look of the oyster platter. Shock your friends
by eating a fresh sprig of this "garnish". Parsley
is delicious and healthful.
When you buy shell stock from a seafood vendor, you usually will
not know how fat that oyster is inside that shell. The shell
size is no indicator, as the shell of a skinny oyster can be
just as big a shell of a fat one. Consolation: No matter how
fat or skinny the oyster inside turns out, it will always taste
great as long as it has been permitted to retain its natural
moisture level (not dried out) due to proper handling by the
grower, shipper, and ultimate seafood vendor. Naturally oystermen
are well aware of the fact that shell size is no sure fire indicator
of the actual meat weight of oysters. Without exception, every
oysterman strives to produce the fattest, best tasting oysters
possible in the oyster bed(s) he controls. Unfortunately the
sea and his oyster beds actually control him instead. In some
years, his bed(s) will produce exceptionally fat oysters; in
others the oyster meats will be rather skinny. Many small growers
sell their shell stock to big growers for meat processing. The
big growers will pay these small growers based on actual or prospective
meat weight yield. Many growers work extra hard to insure fat
and tasty oysters by shifting all their oysters at a certain
size from one oyster bed to another. The other bed has traditionally
produced fat and tasty oysters in most years. This is due to
a naturally high level of nutrients that the oysters can then
feast on for a year or more. These beds are called "fattening
beds". Many small growers, however, do not have the luxury
of additional fattening beds that they can rotate their stock
on. The oyster business is a very hard road for many reasons.
Please support your oystermen.
Just one more pointer: Some epicures subscribe to unwritten rules regarding
the shape of a Pacific or Eastern oyster destined for serving
on the half shell. The highest grade describes any oyster that
is no more than 1.5 times as long as it is wide. Up to 2 times
length vs. width describes an acceptable standard size. Any more
than that is deemed "commercial", better suited for
meat processing. Many growers go through much trouble trying
to produce oysters with perfect shell shapes. Some rotate their
stocks to firmer sea bottoms. Others employ tedious cultivation
methods in mesh bags (called rack and bag cultivation).
Hence, a favorable "choice" or "standard"
oyster shape sometimes commands a premium price in the half shell
* Shucked oysters or "oyster
Shucked oysters are also considered fresh (although the oysters
are already dead). They are very convenient as there will be
no mess or fuss with opening oysters. The grower/producer has
already removed the oyster meats from the shells (a process called
shucking). Then the meats were thoroughly washed with
chilled water. After the cleaning process they were filled into jars. Ten and 16 ounce jars are consumer favorites. Containers holding a gallon or more shucked oysters also exist.
The amount of water
that may end up remaining in the jar is limited by law. The milky
"juice" with the meats in the jar is excellent cooking
stock (so called "nectar", as much of it constitutes
the milky looking oyster blood). Shucked oysters are fabulous
for cooking. About half of the great oyster recipes out there
use the pint measure for the quantity of oysters required (instead
of piece count of required shell stock oysters). The small oyster
meats are also ideally suited for creating oyster shooters -
something every restaurant and bar serving shooters has known
since day one. If you've been tipping your bar keep extra well
after being served tasty oyster shooters because you thought
somebody in the kitchen battled with the shell fortresses of
some oysters just for you in the kitchen, think again.
In North America the Pacific oyster and
Eastern oyster vastly dominate the shucked oyster retail business.
The Kumamoto oyster and Olympia oyster are also available in
this form occasionally. I've never seen European oyster meats
for sale - only shell stock. They are almost exclusively slurped
off the half shell. In Europe the shucked oyster market is very
slim at best. Shell stock vastly dominates the market.
As mentioned, shucked oysters are usually sold in pint and gallon
sized plastic jars. They are perishable and marked accordingly
with a date. Read the date and the instructions on the jar label.
The Pacific and Eastern oyster meats are organized by size. Usually
the sizes are small, medium, and large. Please note that a "small
Pacific oyster" is bigger than a "small Eastern oyster"
(see ref. below on the respective sizes). Sometimes you might
run across x-small (a.k.a. "petite" or "bistro")
and x-large. Small oysters are more expensive because it takes
many more oysters to fill a pint - and somebody, somewhere, had
to stand there and carefully open each fresh oyster with an oyster
knife. Kumamoto oysters (a.k.a. "Kumos") and Olympia
oysters (a.k.a. "Olys") are always small, so any size
reference is actually a waste of label space. It takes about
250 Olympia oyster meats to fill a pint, 2,000 to fill a gallon.
Pointer on Pacific and Eastern shucked
oysters: If you plan to create
a big oyster stew or some other tasty oyster dish that simply
requires lots of oysters of no particular size and shape, ask
the vendor if he or she also offers so called cuts. These
are oyster meats (mixed sizes) that were damaged during opening
at the grower's shucking facility. They also come in pint and
gallon sizes and are usually considerably cheaper - and taste
exactly the same.
Measures and Weights
What follows are a few boxes
referencing how shucked oysters measure up per pint (16 oz).
Additionally I listed two small boxes showing how shell stock
is handled in Europe (shucked oysters only have a miniscule market
share in Europe):
North American Pacific oyster
North American Eastern oyster
Abbreviation key: XS = Extra Small; S =
Small; M = Medium; L = Large; XL = Extra Large
Reference: Oysters, A Connoisseur's Guide & Cookbook;
Lonnie Williams, Connie Warner
European shell stock reference: Pacific
Abbreviation key: P = Petit (small); M = Moyen (medium); G =
Grand (large); TG = Très Grand (extra large)
European shell stock reference: European
Abbreviation key: same as above
Unusually large (and rare) European oysters may further be qualified
numerically as follows: "000" = 110g, "0000"
=120g, "00000" = 150g and beyond.
* HPP (High Pressure Processed) oysters
HPP oysters are something fairly new among fresh oysters. Only
relatively few stores offer them at this point (they are also
available online). The Nisbet Oyster Company (a.k.a. Goose Point
Oysters) in the State of Washington boldly pioneered this type
of fresh oysters a few years ago. High hydrostatic pressure (40,000
lbs per square inch) is applied to oysters (in the shell) submerged
in water. The pressure destroys any potential bacteria and simultaneously
separates the adducter muscle
of the oyster from the shell. This leads to great convenience,
increased food safety and shelf life without sacrificing any
of the oyster's natural taste or changing its appearance. When
I first heard of these "HPP oysters" I had my doubts
- until I tried them. They tasted great. The only problem I had
was inside my head. I was so used to gallantly fighting oyster
fortresses with my trusted oyster knives rather than simply cutting
a little plastic band to get at a fresh oyster inside. The idea
of oyster meat already perfectly shucked inside the shell just
struck me as "rather strange". I quickly got over "my
problem" though after consuming a few of these delicious
"HPPs". Try some if you get a chance.
There is nothing wrong with asking the local fish monger about
the possibility of special ordering a particular type of oyster
he may not carry regularly.
* Looking over the
Seafood Display (and Who's behind it)
* LiFo (Last in, First
* How many Oysters
* Buying Oysters
on the Internet
|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
Advisements on any errors discovered
are most welcome: Contact