9 Tips on Enjoying Oysters from Baltimore’s Bivalve Experts

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IMG_9992This Friday, August 5, is National Oyster Day…and we are ready. Here in Baltimore, we’re lucky to have a plethora of great bars and restaurants that make serving high quality oysters a priority. That means we have more than our fair share of locals who are experts in the world of oysters.

Here, a handful of Baltimore’s foremost bivalve experts have shared their advice for how to make the most of the oyster-eating experience. Read it, memorize it, and put it into action on August 5 – and all year long.

Get It Fresh & Know Your Oystermonger

A good oyster experience starts with a good oyster, of course. And to find the very best oysters, you need to get to know the people selling them.

“You have to get the freshest product you can,” says Nick Schauman, owner of The Local Oyster. “You can go to a fish market or grocery store and buy oysters, but you don’t necessarily know where they’re from or when they were harvested. It’s always important to ask to see the shellfish tags. Fresh is best!”

Dylan Salmon, the guy behind Dylan’s Oyster Cellar, which opens later this year in Hampden, agrees. “It’s crucial to make sure you’re getting them from a place that’s reputable and will shuck them properly and serve you fresh, cold oysters,” he says.

Ice, Ice Baby

“Cold” is exactly how the oysters should be when they arrive at your table, experts say.

“They don’t have to be ice, ice cold, but they should be chilled,” says Salmon. “If you get a warm oyster, you wonder how long it’s been warm. That’s not appetizing. I know there are some really elitist oyster circles that say if it’s too cold, you can’t taste them well, sort of like with craft beer. But personally, I like them ice cold.”

Think Outside the R Months

“We have a lot of people who come in and say you can’t have oysters because it’s not an ‘R’ month, but that’s gone by the wayside because so many people are farming oysters now,” says Jimmy Ernest of Mt. Washington Tavern, which is holding a National Oyster Day celebration on August 5, with a portion of proceeds going to the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

Historically, people were warned to avoid oysters during months without an “R” – May through August – for two reasons: lack of refrigeration and the need to let oysters reproduce during the summer.

Modern refrigeration methods took care of the first reason, but until recently, oysters still needed those summer months to reproduce. Today, though, local farmers breed hybrid “triploid” oysters, which do not reproduce in the summer, making summertime a perfectly acceptable time to enjoy farmed oysters.

That said, oyster experts do recommend choosing oysters from northern locales, where the water is colder, during the summer. “This time of year, get northern oysters, maybe from Connecticut or Martha’s Vineyard,” says Ernest.

Drink What You Like – but Keep It Light

As with any meal, what you drink with oysters can make them taste even better. Local experts recommend a variety of oyster-friendly beverages, but overall, they suggest keeping the drinks light, so they don’t overshadow the flavor of the oysters.

The Local Oyster has partnered with Waverly Brewing Company to create an oyster stout that Schauman says nicely complements oysters. Still, when it comes to pairings, he usually keeps it simple.

“I drink Pabst Blue Ribbon,” he says. “My grandfather used to drink it, my dad used to drink it, and now I drink it. It’s a really clean, crisp, refreshing beer. I don’t like anything that’s too heavy that masks the flavor.”

White wine is a traditional match for oysters for a good reason, says Salmon. An ideal pairing would be, “a really good bone dry, mineral white wine, like a Muscadet, grown on an ancestral oyster bed,so the makeup of the soil has oyster shell in it and is reflected in the calcium quality of the wine.”

Salmon also likes good beer with oysters and suggests cold, dry Spanish sherry as an alternative.

Gunther & Co.’s Kaelan Etzler goes for another classic pairing: Oysters and Champagne. “That’s always a good standby,” he promises. But like Schauman, he notes that pairings don’t always have to be fancy. “Honestly, I’d recommend Natty Boh with a plateful of oysters. It’s great and light,” he says.

Skimp on Sauce

Typically, when a big plate of oysters arrives at your table, it’ll be outfitted with a handful of lemons, some cocktail sauce, and maybe some mignonette (a tart combination of red wine vinegar, shallots and black pepper). What you choose to do with these accompaniments is up to you and your palate, though experts strongly recommend waiting to pile on the condiments until after you’ve tasted the oyster on its won.

“One thing I like to do is make sure you get enough to try one with no sauce at all,” says Salmon. “Especially if it’s a new oyster to you – a new variety, new region – it’s important to have that first one just naked. You get the flavor of the surroundings and the ocean itself. Then you can play around with it.”

Nick Schauman agrees. “I’m a cocktail sauce guy, but when you have really fresh oysters 24 hours out of the water, you don’t want to dress them up too much,” he warns. “A hint of lemon will brighten them up, but you really want to taste that fresh, briny flavor.”

And when you do add a sauce, do so with a light hand, says Kaelan Etzler. “Try them naked first, then add a little lemon or cocktail,” he says. “That said, I don’t think anyone should dump cocktail sauce on their oysters. A little dash is nice but don’t go crazy.”

Look for Flavors

Oyster experts point to wine tasting as a good model for oyster tasting and experimentation.

“It’s kind of like wine tasting, you learn to pick out different flavors,” says Ernest, referencing a particular Alabama oyster that’s not overly briny and has notes of cucumber, with a buttery finish. “There are hundreds of different oysters out there, all with their own flavors.”

“A lot of people don’t have an idea of how varied the taste can be,” says Candace Beattie, owner of Thames Street Oyster House. “Just like wine, oysters take on the taste of the water where they’re grown – the algae, temperature, farming methods and so many other things can contribute to the nuances and differences in taste.” 

To make the most of the flavors, give the oyster a little chew when you eat it. “You don’t have to chew it like a steak because it’s tender, but a couple bites will really release the flavor and sweetness. A lot more goes on if you’re just swallowing the thing whole,” says Dylan Salmon.

Kaelan Etzler agrees. “Chew the oyster a little,” he says. “Give it a couple bites. Sort of like a wine, aearate, chew, swallow and exhale so you can get the full experience of the oyster.”

Try Something New

Historically, eating oysters in Baltimore meant ordering a dozen Chesapeake wilds – big, fleshy oysters pulled from the Bay. In recent years, with state law changes allowing oyster farms to blossom on the Bay and restaurateurs who seek out interesting oyster varieties from across the country (and world), oyster lovers have opportunities to try dozens of different types of oysters on any given day.

“Jump on the chance to try something you’ve never had or don’t see available as often, or if you’re being told it’s a rare find,” says Beattie. She especially loves oysters from a Maine woman who hand-harvests a European species of oyster. She notes that sometimes, the Thames Street menu includes oysters from as far away as Alaska or even New Zealand.

“When something cool like that comes along, certainly jump!”

Go in Order

If you’re trying a wide variety of oysters, Gunther & Co.’s Kaelan Etzler recommends starting with the sweetest oyster and move to the saltiest. “The reason behind that is you don’t want to start out with a salty oyster that wrecks your palate, so you can’t taste the nuances,” he says.

Take Your Time

Finally, don’t rush through your oysters; savor the experience. It’ll be better that way.

“One thing my fiancée does is sip the liquor before she eats it, to enjoy that as the first stage,” says Salmon. “That’s a nice little trick because it’s such a fleeting experience. If you don’t take your time, a dozen can be gone in two seconds. Take your time to appreciate the oyster: the beauty of the shell, the taste of the liquor.”

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