Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Shellfish We Cook, Oysters


Oysters, like the clams, mussels and scallops are bivalves, which means they have 2 shells that close together with a hinge. Many people think of getting pearls from oysters. Actually most mollusks that have shells are capable of creating pearls but they are not all valuable. The pearl oysters are the most valuable of all the mollusks but these oysters are not related to the edible variety. Edible oyster can be found on the Atlantic coast in shallow water beds or reefs from Canada to Argentina. The Pacific version can be found from Washington to Australia. The Eastern oyster is the most popular with the largest production being in the Chesapeake Bay area. Some of the top varieties of the Atlantic are the Blue point, Chincoteague, Malpeque, Cotuit, Apalachicola and the Wellfast. All of the Atlantic oysters are of the same species and are named after the area where they are found. On the Pacific coast Wilapa bay in Washington is the largest producing estuary. Some of the types found on the west coast include, Golden Mantle, Penn Cove, Yaquina Bay and the Olympia. Most harvested oyster average 2-4 inches where the Olympia is much smaller, about one and one half inches. Oysters are also widely farmed on the Pacific coast and in the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific area farming by far the largest quantity.

It has been said that oysters should not be eaten in months that don't have the letter "r" in the spelling. This myth was started before good refrigeration was available and was based on the fact that oysters would spoil faster during the warmer months, from May to August. Oysters generally spawn during these months which will lessen their quality. They become thin, soft and watery but not inedible. There are now oyster farms that produce oysters that do not spawn which will eliminate this problem.

Oysters have a long shelf life. If stored properly they can be kept alive for 3 to 4 weeks. Store them in a bowl covered with a damp rag. Do not put them in a plastic bag. They need air to breath. Do not eat oysters that are dead. If the shell is open squeeze it shut. If it stays shut the oyster is alive. The oyster must be capable of closing its shell and keeping it closed. You can also try rapping two oysters together. They should have a dull thud, not a hollow sound and should feel fairly heavy.

Oysters can be served cooked or eaten raw. To open the oyster, if you will be eating it raw, slide an oyster knife between the shells near the hinge. Do not use a regular kitchen knife. A slip could cause a serious injury. Twist the knife back and forth until it opens, you might hear a mild pop when the natural seal is broken. Insert the knife into the oyster and cut the muscle that holds it together. This can be dangerous if you are inexperienced. Use heavy gloves or a heavy rag to hold the oyster. Not only is there the danger of slipping with the knife, but the shell can also be very sharp. If you will be cooking the oyster, simply put it in a steamer or a microwave until it opens. Pull them out as soon as they open so you don't cook them. After you shuck the oysters, refrigerate them and use them within 2 days. If you buy the shucked ones they should have an expiration date on them. Do not freeze cooked or in the shell oysters. Shucked, raw oysters can be frozen for up to 2 months. Oysters can be baked, broiled, pan-fried, sautéed, steamed, grilled or eaten raw.

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