Oysters are great to eat (for some at least) but getting them out of the shell can be a pain in the butt. If you don’t know how to open the shell, you end up tearing up your hands, or even slicing your hand open, and messing up the succulent oyster inside, as well.
So, how do you shuck an oyster safely and effectively? Here is how to do it if you don’t want to end up with a trip to the emergency room for some stitches.
Shucking oysters is not rocket science. Sometimes you will see oyster aficionados acting like there is some subtle and magical technique that they know. Seldom do they explain this mysterious trick in a way that sounds any different from any other oyster shucking instruction!
The truth is that there is a method, but it’s not magical nor does it require high skill. What it requires is a modicum of safety and some practice. Some oysters open easier than others, but as with most any cooking skill, you get better at it with repetition, even though you may be hard-pressed to explain how you got better at it!
Professional oyster shuckers, like people who work at raw bars, or cooks who serve up a lot of oysters in restaurants, can shuck an oyster in three seconds or less. They are always going on about ‘tips and tricks,’ but then show you the same basic techniques that everyone else uses. They do it fast because they do it a lot!
Unless you are serving dozens and dozens of oysters all the time, you don’t need to do it in three seconds or less. When you get in a hurry, you end up cutting into the belly of the oyster or cutting into the meat of your hand. So let the pros boast of speed. Slow down and do it safely. If you do a lot, you’ll get fast. By that time, you will have developed your own tacit knowledge of how to do it the way that works best for you. Still, there are some basic methods to shucking an oyster, of course.
The best way to learn how to shuck an oyster is to be shown. So a video is the answer and there are mounds of them on YouTube. Let’s watch one and then go over the basic steps and some other notes on oyster shucking. I’ve watched about ten oyster shucking videos on YouTube, and the one I chose is from About.com. The video demonstration is done by Rich Vellante from Legal Seafoods in Boston.
There are several reasons I picked this video. One, Chef Vellante is more concerned with showing us, step by step, how to shuck the oyster and explaining just what is going on. Two, he is more concerned with showing us how to be safe, them demonstrating how skilled and fast he is. Three, he is not concerned with showing us, as some videos are, how he knows the “best” way to shuck oysters. We don’t need what somebody thinks is the best way, we just need and effective and safe way. This is the most clearly explained video I found and can be followed very easily. Watch the video below and then read on for the basic steps and some observations and notes.
Juli Roberts uses a towel to shuck the oyster the in this demonstration above (more below). She places the oyster down on the table, holding it between the folds of the towel. This is a good way to learn, and you can graduate to holding the oyster in one hand later, which will probably enable you to do it a bit quicker. The basic steps are the same regardless. First, of course, make sure you scrub your oysters clean under cold running water. A fresh live oyster will be tightly closed. If it is open, tapping on it a few times should cause it to close. If you give an oyster a good tap, and it stays open, it’s probably dead. So throw it away.
As mentioned in the video, the oyster is sitting in its own naturally briny (salty) fluid. Part of the skill of shucking an oyster is not only opening it up without mangling the oyster, or yourself, but to do it without losing too much of the oyster juice, which is an important part of eating it! So, if you went off all half-cocked trying to be an oyster shucking champion, you’d probably be losing your brine.
Basic Steps to Shucking An Oyster
1. Hold the oyster securely, either on a surface as demonstrated in the video, or in one hand, as touched on briefly in the video. The flatter part of the shell should be on top.
2. Locate the side of the shell which is fatter. The other side, which is thin, is almost seamless seeming and there is no place to insert the knife. On the fatter side, you should find a small opening.
3. Insert the tip of the knife into the opening on the hinge side of the shell, and wiggle it a bit while gently pushing, to get the knife inserted in between the top an bottom shells. You only need about a quarter inch of the tip to go in.
4. Once you get the knife firmly inserted in between the shells, twist the knife just a little bit to open up the shells a short distance. Don’t try to open the shell all the way open.
5. Carefully run the knife along the inner surface of the top shell, to sever the adductor muscle there. Try to keep the knife as flush as possible with the top underside of the shell, and avoid cutting into the belly of the oyster. Once you’ve cut along the top, you can open up the top shell, and remove it.
6. There is a muscle connecting the oyster to the bottom shell as well. Run your knife carefully underneath the oyster to disconnect it from the shell.
Don’t forget that you need to be holding the oyster flat so that the juice is not running out as you open it! Either hold it as flat as possible on a counter or cup it in your hand carefully.
Types of Oyster Knives
Anything with a sharp point can be used to shuck and oyster. A small, strong, and pointy knife is fine. There are special knives use for shucking oysters called, predictably, oyster knives. They have very short blades with sharp tips, with a compact handle. If the blade of your knife is longer than you need, you are more likely to lose control of it and cut yourself, and a longer blade is more unwieldy to use, in general. So the best bet is an oyster shucking knife or something as similar as you can find. Some people use a flat head screwdriver, but they do not work as well as a knife, because the width of the knife blade makes a better wedge for twisting open the oyster. Also, you have to slice through the adductor muscles, and if you try to do that with a screwdriver, you will likely mangle the oyster. There are several different styles of oyster knives, but they follow the same basic design. The four basic types are the Boston, New Haven, Galveston, and Providence. The differences are hard to spot at first glance, but they all have robust, rounded blades.
The Boston type has a slightly less wide blade and tapers to a pointier tip. The Galveston is similar to the Boston but with a bit wider blade and it tapers to a more rounded tip. The New Haven has a tip that is comparable to the Galveston, but the blade surface rounds more severely. The Providence is a bit like the New Haven but with a pointier tip.
Best Oyster Shucking Knife
I would recommend the New Haven. The blade thickens out to a more peaked convex shape, which helps twist open the shell easier, while the tip is pointy enough to insert in most oysters without being so pointy it’ll go through your hand any time you slip. All oyster knifes have safer tips for shucking than regular knives, so keep that in mind! Victorinox Oyster Knives come in all four styles, with both a 3 and 4 inch Boston style to choose from. I guess I don’t need to explain to you that the names for the styles come from their region of origin!
Best Oyster Shucking Gloves
You can use a folded towel to hold the oyster in you hand, or you can hold the oyster in a folded towel on a surface, which is the safest way for a beginner. There are gloves called oyster gloves that are very cheap, but be careful of these. Some gloves being called oyster gloves are less knife-proof than a folded towel. Instead, check out protective gloves like these NoCry Cut Resistant Gloves, which are made of polyethylene, glass fiber, and spandex. These types of gloves also come in stainless steel mesh, or Kevlar, or some other reinforced fabric design that is resistant to cutting or puncturing. They also can have the added advantage of being non-slip, which may help with oyster shucking. Of course, if you’re careful, you do not absolutely need a glove, and you can use just a towel.
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