Frequently Asked Questions

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  1. Wait a minute, are the oysters being eaten alive?
  2. Should you eat oysters in months without an “R”?
  3. Are oysters high in fat or cholesterol?
  4. How do you tell a boy oyster from a girl oyster?
  5. Is oyster farming sustainable?
  6. What’s up with all these different oyster names? Are they like wine regions?
  7. I refuse to eat totally raw seafood. How else can you eat oysters?
  8. But they look so slimy…what do they taste like?

Wait a minute, are the oysters being eaten alive?

They most certainly are, and a good thing too, because eating dead oysters might leave you feeling less than chipper. Fresh oysters will be clamped tightly shut if they’re alive, and gaping open with a pungent, not-so-fresh odor if they’re not. But don’t underestimate these little guys—some varieties can survive out of the water for up to two weeks if kept properly in chilled, moist conditions.

Should you eat oysters in months without an “R”?

Shellfish are said to be problematic in the summer months (May-August) for several reasons. The first is red tide, toxic algal blooms, and vibrio bacterial infections, which are most prevalent in warmer weather. However, commercially harvested shellfish are subject to regulations that shut down harvesting to eliminate such hazards.

Another problem is spawning. Oysters spawn in warm water (above 68 F for an Eastern oyster), and they lose much of their body mass to gamete production. This means the oyster doesn’t taste good, but eating one won’t hurt you. Many vendors avoid this problem by procuring shellfish from colder climates. Triploid oysters are another alternative, since they have been bred to be sterile and not spawn. Some farmers employ a state-of-the-art wet-storage system that continuously pumps sea water into tanks. When temperatures rise, the system chills the tank water to below 50 degrees, tricking the oysters into thinking it’s still winter. The tanks are also used for keeping a fresh supply of live oysters when winter storms and agricultural runoff require harvest closures.

Finally, storage and transportation in summer months used to result in faster spoilage, but with modern refrigeration techniques, you can be reassured that your shellfish have been kept at the proper temperatures.

The FDA does warn that some peo­ple are at greater risk for food­borne ill­ness, including pregnant or nursing women, young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. If you fall into one of these groups, you should avoid eating raw or partially cooked shellfish.

Bottom line: Barring immune deficiencies or health issues, commercially harvested shellfish from restaurants and retailers is safe to eat year-round.

Are oysters high in fat or cholesterol?

Oysters are one of the best foods you can eat, a great source of protein with little fat, most of which is unsaturated. They are also low in cholesterol while being very high in vitamins and minerals, particularly zinc and copper. If you are comparing East and West Coast oysters, it’s worth noting that the Eastern oyster contains 5-10x as much zinc and copper as the Pacific oyster, which explains why many people perceive Eastern oysters to be more metallic and Pacific oysters to be sweeter.

How do you tell a boy oyster from a girl oyster?

Actually, oysters are hermaphrodites, and contain the machinery to release both eggs and sperm. They can change sex from year to year, but cannot be both sexes at the same time. A female can produce a million eggs while a male can produce over a billion sperm. Either way, oyster reproduction is a precarious business, and in the wild, only one larva in a million will reach adulthood.

Is oyster farming sustainable?

Historically, towering shoals of oyster beds thrived on the coasts, but the ravages of overfishing eliminated most of those beds by the turn of the century. Today, 95% of oysters are cultured. Seafood aficionados may instinctively feel that wild oysters are better than farmed ones, but the truth is that farmed oysters are raised under optimal conditions for growth, and bred for aesthetically pleasing shells and balanced flavors. Moreover, these aquaculture operations are one of the best boosts we can give to the planet. Unlike most fish or shrimp farms, oysters do not need to be fed anything; they simply soak up the nutrients around them. Meanwhile, they purify the water that they live in. In fact, one adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water in a day! Since oyster quality is so dependent on water quality, oyster farmers tend to be good environmental stewards, fanatically protecting their watersheds.

What’s up with all these different oyster names? Are they like wine regions?

Sort of. There are five species of oysters that are commercially cultivated in North America. You can think of these as wine grapes, like a merlot or chardonnay, and though the oysters will taste different depending on growing practices and region, there are some common threads between oysters of the same species. The major oyster species are Eastern (Crassostrea virginica), Pacific (Crassostrea gigas), Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), European Flat (Ostrea edulis), and Olympia (Ostrea conchaphila). Within these species, oysters are usually named after the bay or town that they hail from, like Totten Inlet Virginicas or New Brunswick Flats.

Each oyster is affected by its microclimate and surroundings. Much in the same way that wine grapes express their hyper-regionality through the concept of terroir, oysters are said to possess a certain merroir (from mer, the French word for sea), reflecting their unique patch of the ocean. Though oysters can be located within the same bay, the flavor profiles can vary dramatically depending on the tides, surrounding plankton, the depth of the oyster bed, and any number of other factors. Farming techniques also have a large impact on the oyster’s development. For instance, farmers may move adult oysters to areas with greater salinity to boost their flavor before going to market.

I refuse to eat totally raw seafood. How else can you eat oysters?

Grilled oysters, stewed oysters, fried oysters—the possibilities are endless. You might be familiar with oysters Rockefeller, baked with a bit of bacon, spinach and cheese, or oyster stuffing folded into your Thanksgiving turkey. Globetrotters will see that oysters are staples around the world, from French oyster soup to Chinese style steamed jumbo oysters with black bean sauce. For those who need some liquid courage, you can even choose to drink your oysters via oyster shooters with vodka and Tabasco. To get more ideas on how to cook oysters, see our Recipes section.

But they look so slimy…what do they taste like?

Well, in the shell, they taste like the ocean. After all, the “blood” circulating through an oyster is seawater. So your oyster should be salty too. Beyond that though, oysters can take on any number of flavor dimensions, from floral to melon to metallic to smoky. The texture of the meat can be soft and pliant or crisp and full-bodied. As you swallow the oyster, the finish can leave you with a lingering sensation of fresh cucumber, or herbal bitterness, or musky fruit. If you don’t love the first oyster you taste, do try again. Like discovering your preferences in wine, the more you explore, the more you will learn to love and identify flavors in oysters.