Thursday, December 5, 2013
By C. W. Cameron / McClatchy Newspapers
ATLANTA — Raw oysters are slippery and seductive, tasting of ocean and salt and fresh sea breezes. Cooking firms the oyster meat and gives it a smooth, custardy texture. But cook it too long and it turns to rubber.
Oysters Alexander, foreground, and oyster pie. Only five species of oysters are harvested for eating. “The oyster from the Chesapeake Bay is the same species of oyster as the one from the Delaware Bay and on up to Maine and New Brunswick, Canada,” explains seafood wholesaler Robert Pidgeon. “The flavor variation comes from the season, the salinity of the water they’re growing in and even the way the tides fluctuate. There are any number of variables that determine that oyster’s flavor.”
McClatchy Newspapers photos
Fried oyster salad.
Inland Seafood's Vicky Murphy says to cook an oyster properly, you want to gently warm it. You'll know it's done when the edge just begins to curl.
Inland Seafood provides seafood for more than 4,000 restaurants and 1,500 retail outlets in the Southeast, and Murphy has spent many years teaching the best way to cook that seafood.
While raw oyster connoisseurs debate the merits of the Beausoleil vs. the Malpeque, does variety make a difference when you're cooking the oyster? Robert Pidgeon, Inland Seafood's general manager, says "no." "In cooked oysters, the flavor nuances so important in raw oysters don't really matter," said Pidgeon.
Only five species of oysters are harvested for eating. "The oyster from the Chesapeake Bay is the same species of oyster as the one from the Delaware Bay and on up to Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. The flavor variation comes from the season, the salinity of the water they're growing in and even the way the tides fluctuate. There are any number of variables that determine that oyster's flavor," said Pidgeon.
Murphy knows that doesn't stop oyster lovers from debating which oyster variety they prefer, raw or cooked. She's from Tallahassee, Fla. and partial to the oysters harvested in Apalachicola. She's also partial to smaller oysters, preferring those that can be eaten in just a bite or two.
If Pidgeon is enjoying cooked oysters, chances are he's enjoying one of the time-tested dishes like Oysters Rockefeller or Oysters Bienville. "Or I make a dish I call Robert's Oysters, topping the shucked oysters with shallot butter and crisp bacon before baking," said Pidgeon.
Pidgeon says the biggest misconception about eating oysters is that they should only be eaten in months spelled with an "R." "That old wives' tale dates from the days before refrigeration. If you're getting your oysters from a reputable retailer with a good turnover and food safety procedures in place, there's no reason not to eat oysters all year around," said Pidgeon.
A professional oyster harvester will gather the oysters and get them on ice immediately so they get down to 40 degrees as quickly as possible, said Pidgeon. Keeping the oysters cold and damp from harvest to delivery to your store is part of what keeps the oysters safe to eat.
"If you're dealing with someone who doesn't keep the oysters cold, then the oysters open and close and you get the chance of contamination," said Pidgeon.
Shucked oysters are easy to come by, stocked in plastic containers in the seafood department of most grocery stores.
Shucked oysters come in select and standard grades. The standard oysters in a container may be of varying sizes, and there may be some damage to the oyster meat.
All the selects in a container will be a similar size with no nicks to the oyster itself. Shucked oysters should be good for 14 days after they were shucked, so Pidgeon recommends checking the "sell by" date carefully and eating the oysters before that day arrives.
Oysters in the shell for dishes like Oysters Rockefeller and Oysters Alexander are sold in some groceries. Specialty stores like Whole Foods may carry several types of oysters ranging from those harvested in the Gulf to those that come from the Atlantic and even Pacific oceans.
The oysters coming from Western waters are generally more expensive because they grow more slowly in those colder water temperatures and, of course, they're more expensive to ship east.
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