The late, great Jon Rowley, shows the way to a perfect half shell
Shortly before passing on, Jon Rowley, founder of the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Festival and discoverer of some of the best food in the United States shared his thoughts on how to properly shuck an oyster.
The enjoyment of oysters on the half shell depends in no small part on how well they are shucked. Oyster shucking is as much art as skill. There has never been a machine invented that can out-perform a skilled human hand at opening an oyster. Each species has different shell characteristics and each oyster is uniquely formed. The many styles of oyster knives reflect regional and personal shucking techniques. While some commercial shuckers go through the front or the bill, others, like World Champion, Xavier Caille, prefer to enter from the side. Most restaurant shuckers open from the hinge, avoiding shell fragments.
In the time it takes to pick up and position an oyster cup side down, an expert oyster opener has already devised the plan of attack. With skill and speed, the shucker finds the invisible sweet spot in the hinge, pops the shell with a twist of the knife, then darts the blade deftly forward over the top of the meat to sever the adductor muscle that holds the two shells or “valves” together. Flicking away the top shell, the shucker slides the knife under the meat to sever the bottom of the adductor muscle so the oyster can be properly slurped. The French leave the bottom adductor attached to show freshness.
A well-shucked oyster presents itself glistening in its own juices, unaware of what has just taken place so artfully at its expense. The meat and mantle are free from grit and unscathed by the shucker’s knife work. Most half shells are eaten in restaurants; the task of opening oysters is too daunting for most. Actually it is easier than it seems if you have the right tool and a little guidance in technique and a little practice, of course.
1. Wash the oysters, especially at the notch at the hinge, with cold running water to remove sand and grit. You may need a stiff brush.
2. Before opening, place in ice 30 minutes so they are chilled when served.
3. Use a glove or folded kitchen towel to cushion the oyster and protect your hand. Holding the oyster cupside down, hinge toward you, use the other hand to insert the blade of the oyster knife into the hinge at a slight downward angle corresponding to curvature of the shell. Applying gentle pressure, twist and rock the knife and oyster together. As soon as you feel the point of the blade penetrate the hinge, twist the blade to pop the shell and then run the point of the blade forward over the meat along the inside of the top shell to sever the adductor muscle.
4. Discard the top shell. Cut the bottom adductor under the oyster meat to release it from the bottom shell, being careful to retain the liquor.
5. Serve the opened oysters in their bottom shells on a bed of crushed ice. The desired result is a perfect oyster meat untouched by the knife. If you nick the oyster meat, flip it over. Nobody will know but you. In fact, some oyster bar shuckers routinely flip oyster meats, believing bottoms up is a better look.
Jon Rowley, a.k.a. @oysterwine ,was known for many things including putting Copper River salmon on the map, questing for the very best peaches, and savoring and promoting oysters all over the United States. He is sorely missed.