When it comes to eating oysters, there are usually two camps: those who slurp them down naturally in all of their briny goodness, and those who dress them up in a fryer, on a cracker or even in broth with a dollop of aioli. It matters not which camp you’re in. If you’ve made a habit of ordering dozens of oysters over ice-cold beers with friends, you know there’s something atavistic about feasting on this variety of seafood.
Before our next visit to the local raw bar, we asked Justin Devillier of La Petite Grocery in New Orleans – a two-time James Beard award finalist for Best Chef: South and contestant on Top Chef – for the ins and outs of ordering types of oysters.
- Apalachicola –This large-shell oyster is the last variety in the U.S. that is still harvested by fishermen standing at the end of boats and plucking them from the water with giant wooden tongs. This is an effort to keep Florida’s Apalachicola Bay free from pollution and other environmental factors that could threaten the oyster population. “This is generally a smaller-fleshed oyster compared to other Gulf Coast oysters and easier to eat, it’s consistently brinier than the Gulf oyster, cleaner and makes for a really nice raw bar oyster,” says Justin.
- Gulf Oysters – Nearly half the oysters in Louisiana come from public fisheries, but most of them are sold as a generic “gulf oyster” variety. “In winter months, especially October to March, Gulf oysters are salty and delicious. They are underrated as a raw bar oyster. Louisiana oysters this time of year are minerally and earthy. You can taste elements of marsh and mud. Oysters from Capano Bay in Texas are really clean and have a high salinity, similar to East Coast oysters.”
- Blue Point – Perhaps the most commonly ordered variety, Blue Point oysters come from the Long Island Sound. “Blue Points are the work horse of East Coast oysters. They are really consistent and you can bank on them being delicious. There are strong flavors of melon and celery.”
- Montauk Pearl – This variety has recently found favor with oyster lovers, and for good reason. Although Montauk Pearls are extremely briny, the oysters themselves are firm and a little sweet.
- Caraquet – This small, dainty variety is harvested in New Brunswick, and it’s a perfect first taste for an oyster newcomer. Caraquets are delicate and the palate isn’t overwhelming, so you don’t have to brave a big, briny oyster on your first time around.
- Kumamoto – “Kumamotos are small and easy to eat, and can be briny, but the plumper ones have creamy flush tones to them and make a great raw bar oyster. They are very approachable, but not only for beginners. They are forgiving on the palette.”
- Shigoku – “Shigokus are similar to Kumamotos – they are mild and easy to eat, and very consistent because they are raised in farms. Very clean, and not as brittle as Kumamotos and have a sweet saltiness.”
- Hama Hama – Typically harvested in the Hood Canal in Washington, these cold-water bivalves are tiny Pacific Northwest natives. Although they are small in stature, Hama Hamas are firm, light and crisp.
- Sister Point – This variety is also on the small side for oysters, but the meats are firm. Sister Point oysters are reminiscent of butter lettuce and cucumbers, and they offer a mildly sweet finish.
- Stingray—At one time, the Chesapeake Bay produced most of the United States’ oysters, and their popularity quickly led to unsustainable farming practices. These oysters have all but dropped from menus around the country as the oyster population plummeted. But after careful regulations, these sweet, creamy bivalves are back on menus. The plump Stingray is a quintessential oyster from this area thanks to its sweet and slightly salty flavor.
- Rappahannock River—This unique oyster is so plump and smooth that it almost tastes buttery. It’s a great variety for oyster newbies or those who want a nice oyster to accompany a fine Chardonnay.
- Chincoteague—This skinny, salty oyster comes from the Chincoteague Bay, which isn’t fed by any significant source of fresh water. Chincoteagues have become more difficult to find in recent years, but they are still available for salt-lovers who are willing to do a little research.
Photo by Judson Jones.