Oyster Tasting 101

EVERYDAY we have $1 oysters from 4pm-6pm.  It’s amazing how many people take advantage of the great deal, but also how many people are still ‘afraid’ of the oyster.

Over the next few weeks we will be discussing the different types of Prince Edward Island Oysters that we carry including their history and their tasting profiles, but before we dive into it there are a couple a basic things that everyone should know.

OYSTER TASTING 101 -What the average person must know

There are many ways to enjoy raw oysters on the half shell, depending on the situation and place. Whether it’s an intimate tasting at an upscale oyster bar or a relaxed “shuck & suck” right at the source, the key is to pay attention and have fun. Experienced slurpers may choose to adopt particular rituals, while beginners will find these simple “do’s and don’ts” helpful. Knowing the basics can help you better appreciate the entire tasting experience, but these suggestions are discretionary (with exception to The Only Rule, see below.)

THE ONLY RULE OF OYSTER TASTING

Do NOT pour out the oyster’s liquor. It is a precious part of the oyster and considered to be essential to the oyster-tasting process. When a fresh oyster is masterfully shucked, a small pool of clear liquid will remain with the oyster in the bottom half shell. It is actually filtered sea water in which the oyster lives, and it holds a robust amount of flavor. By sipping this liquid immediately before or after eating the oyster will naturally compliment its meat. You can even sip a little to start, have the oyster, and then finish the remaining liquor.

What if I don’t see any liquid? It may be a sign that you aren’t getting super fresh oysters, as the liquid will start to dry out once the oyster has been harvested. Alternatively, the oyster shucker is not skillfully trained at retaining the liquor. Some restaurants may even make the gastronomic faux pas of pouring out the liquid, which is entirely sacrilegious!

SIMPLE DO’S AND DON’TS

  1. DO use the cocktail fork or your finger to nudge the oyster loose from its shell before slurping
  2. DON’T puncture or otherwise ravage the oyster body with that fork
  3. DO chew the meat to release its sweetness, don’t just swallow the darn thing
  4. DON’T use heavy condiments such as cocktail sauce or heaps of horseradish to cover the taste
  5. DO drizzle just a little lemon, lime or mignonette if you must
  6. DO try at least one of each kind of oyster naked (no condiments) to really, truly appreciate its unique flavor
  7. DON’T eat an oyster if it looks, smells, or feels dead/fishy/bone dry
  8. DO ask your server to explain which oyster is what (and where they’re from)
  9. DO pay attention to the flavor and texture from beginning to end
  10. DO try to order at least two pieces of a kind to better judge how they generally taste

A MORE DETAILED GUIDE TO TASTING

  1. Ordering: Depending on the restaurant, you may be presented with a couple to a few dozen different options of raw oysters. Like choosing a bottle from a long list of foreign wines, selecting your oysters may feel like a daunting task. At an oyster bar, it is a good idea to ask your waiter for recommendations. The menu should describe which region the oyster came from. If it doesn’t, ask. Beginners should explore at least one kind from each coast. Experienced tasters will often select six varieties or more. Generally, 12 to 16 oysters makes a solid tasting. Make sure to order two of each variety to start. Why two? Simply to confirm or solidify your impression of the oyster. One may be not enough and three is overkill (in case you don’t particularly like the oyster).
  2. Orientation & Equipment: Once your order arrives, make sure to note which oyster is which. The server might present you with a receipt that lists the varieties. It also may help to position the platter so that the first one on the list is at 6 o’clock (closest to you). Quickly study the selection and make sure all oysters are wholly intact and not broken or scrambled. As for equipment, all you’ll need is a shellfish (or cocktail) fork or a clean index finger.
  3. Seasoning: You might encounter a slew of condiments such as horseradish, Tabasco sauce, cocktail sauce, mignonette sauce, or lemon. For a true (purist) tasting experience, leave all of these extras behind! It is much better to eat them al naturale, which allows you to concentrate on its natural flavors. However, adding a spritz of lemon or a dash of mignonette sauce can bring the flavors to a new level, so feel free to experiment. Heavy use of condiments such as Tabasco and cocktail sauces might overpower the oyster altogether (ideal for oyster shooters, not so much for a tasting), so season moderately.
  4. Consuming: Grasp the oyster on two sides, near hinge end (thickest/deepest part of the shell) using your thumb and two fingers. The oyster should be snug within the “C” shape that your thumb and index finger creates. Then by using either a small fork or your other index finger (make sure that it’s clean), move the oyster around to make sure that the adductor muscle has been completely detached from the shell. If you face some resistance, wiggle it around a bit until it is separated. Be careful not to spill the oyster’s liquor and do NOT cut the oyster into pieces; they are to be eaten whole. If this sounds daunting, select smaller oysters to start. Identify an edge of the oyster shell where you can almost pour the liquid into your mouth. Then lift the oyster shell to your lips, tip it slightly and take a sip of the liquor. Then further tip the shell and slurp the oyster into your mouth. If it doesn’t slide smoothly, you can assist with the fork or your finger. Once the entire oyster is in your mouth, pause for a second to appreciate the initial flavors. Do NOT swallow it without chewing; that would defeat the entire purpose of a tasting.
  5. Savoring: First notice the initial impression that the oyster makes. Is it like a wave of fresh seawater? Or more brackish? Then upon chewing down on the meat slowly, notice how the flavor of the oyster changes. Sharp saltiness may give way to a subtle sweetness, mild brininess may transition into a clean metallic taste. Also pay attention to the texture that your tongue will encounter: soft, creamy, firm, or crunchy. Once you are able to extract all of the flavors from the meat, swallow it and see if you can pick up any lingering finishing notes. You can also chase the oyster down with any remaining liquor from the shell. Return the empty shell back to its original spot on the platter and begin the process again with the second one of its kind. Since your taste buds will be accustomed to the first oyster, you may pick up on different flavors the second time around.
  6. Finish: When you place the shell back down onto the platter, you can choose to turn it upside down. It’s an elegant way to end the tasting, plus you also get a chance to study the shells. Once all of the oyster shells have been overturned, it will be easy to compare and contrast the details of the shells. If you are outside and near the oyster’s source, feel free to toss the shell behind your shoulder (for good luck) and allow it to return back home (serving as a foundation for future generations). Just make sure that nobody is behind you when you toss!

HOW TO EVALUATE THE TASTE

Here are some criteria or characteristics that I typically like to follow when tasting new oysters:

  • Appearance: what is the size (inches in shell length), depth (shallow or deeply cupped), color, and shape?
  • Salinity/Brininess: how salty, what kind of saltiness, when it hits (beginning, middle, end)
  • Sweetness: how sweet, what kind of sweetness, when it hits
  • Texture: soft, crunchy, firm, pillowy, creamy, airy, chewy, etc.
  • Flavors: there are myriads of notes such as woody, earthy, mollusk/clammy, miso, soy, melon, lettuce, grassy, etc.
  • Cadence: how clean or lingering the flavors are from nose to body to finish
  • Umami: overall “yumminess” or savoriness, which I often associate with fat or glycogen content and complexity
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