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.
Vicky Murphy of Inland Seafood in Atlanta 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 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 nearby 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 such as 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 be eaten only during 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.
Murphy adds that in addition to refrigeration, transportation has also made a difference in food safety.
These days refrigerated trucks move oysters regionally and oysters travel across the country by airplane.