Because I’m a food writer and recipe developer, my friends and family ask me for lots of cooking and recipe advice. More than
half the time, those questions are about seafood, particularly oysters, clams and mussels. What should I buy? How do I know
it’s sustainable? How do I know if it’s fresh? What do I do with it once I get home? Oh, and do you have a good recipe for
I can’t say I blame them. If you haven’t cooked shellfish at home, it can be intimidating the first time. But once you get
over that hump, you’ll be doing it all the time. Here’s some expert advice from chef John Ash and the EatingWell food editors
to get you more comfortable with shopping for and cooking these briny bits of joy.
Shellfish Shopping Tips
Ask at the fish counter what’s freshest. And use your nose: shellfish should smell like the sea and nothing else. The shells
of fresh oysters, clams and mussels should be either tightly closed or just slightly opened. If they’re open and you tap
them, they should close. If they don’t close, they’re not alive. Don’t buy them. Make sure your fishmonger displays the
National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP) tags. This program oversees commercial shellfish and certifies that it is
harvested from waters that are safe. Wild shellfish gathered by amateurs is not regulated by the NSSP.
How to Store Shellfish Right
Remember that fresh shellfish are alive, so you don’t want to smother them in a sealed plastic bag. Place clams, mussels and
oysters in a bowl covered with a wet clean towel. Put a few ice cubes on the towel so that it stays damp and keep the bowl in
the coldest part of the refrigerator, which is usually on the bottom, in the back. Drain off any water that accumulates in
the bowl. Use within a day or two.
How to Prep Shellfish for Cooking
Clams & Mussels—Scrub with a stiff brush under cold running water. Mussels may have barnacles
attached; just scrape any off, using the shell of another mussel. Pull off the fuzzy “beard” from each one (some mussels may
not have a beard). Discard any that are open and refuse to close when you tap them.
—Most recipes for oysters call for them to be “shucked.”
Watch It: Let Food Editor Jessie Price
Show You How to Shuck an Oyster
One of my most fond memories of cooking in a restaurant was shucking oysters on New Year’s Eve. The customers ordered so many
that that’s all I did for the whole night. Once I “got” it, I had a ball doing it. And it only took the first pop of the
oyster hinge to get it. So here’s what you do:
How to Shuck an Oyster
- Rinse your oysters under cold running water.
- Get out an oyster knife and a clean kitchen towel. (Do not use a regular knife for this!)
- Place an oyster flat-side up on a work surface. Grip the oyster with a kitchen towel to help protect your hand (or wear a
glove), leaving the narrow hinged end exposed.
- Place the tip of the knife between the top and bottom shells just adjacent to the hinge. Press inward, twisting and
wiggling your knife tip, to release the top shell. At first, it may seem like you aren’t making progress, but continue with
- Continue wiggling the knife while pressing inward until the shell pops open. Try to keep the oyster level so the
flavorful “liquor” (briny, salty seawater) stays inside the deep bottom shell.
- Wipe your knife to remove any debris, then pry open the shell by inserting the knife tip in one or two other spots,
twisting it to release the shell completely. Continuing to hold the oyster level, run your knife along the inside of the
upper shell to cut the muscle that attaches the oyster to the top shell.
- Run your knife along the inside of the lower shell and gently cut the oyster free. Leave the oyster nestled in the shell.
(If you open an oyster that has a strong, sulfurous smell, discard it. It’s dead.)
- Use the oyster as directed. Or to serve raw, transfer the oyster in its bottom shell to a bed of crushed ice, rock salt
or crumpled foil that will keep the oyster level. Serve immediately, with cocktail sauce, lemon wedges or mignonette.
Now Get Cooking!
If you’re intimidated by shucking oysters, this recipe for Spicy Barbecued Oysters (recipe below) is for you. When you grill
them, steam builds up inside the shells until they pop open. Then you slather a little garlicky red barbecue sauce on each
oyster, put them back on the grill to get hot and bubbly, and you’re done. At a party, bring your oysters to the grill and
show your guests how it’s done so they can barbecue their own.
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