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How To Shuck Oysters Like a Champ

Louisiana Gulf oyster on the left, meet Caraquet  oyster on the right.
Louisiana Gulf oyster on the left, meet Caraquet oyster on the right.

Oysters may be nature's most perfect food. They're rich and sensual and best served with little intervention: freshly opened and raw, with a few drops of liquid sunshine from a lemon.

But April is here, and while oysters can safely be harvested in northern waters year round, Texas oyster season ends at the end of the month. That means you've got less than 30 days to get your oyster shuck on.

If you've never shucked oysters at home, you ought to. Like perfectly roasting a chicken or opening a wine bottle with a shoe, it's a skill everyone should posses. All you need is a sturdy oyster knife (this one is perfect; wood handles suck), a dish towel you're not in love with and some patience. Beer helps, too, but not too much beer or you might end up with an oyster knife through your palm.

Pictured above are two oysters. On the left is a Louisiana Gulf oyster. You can see a piece of the cultch, the artificial substrate used to build up oyster beds that Lance Robinson, from Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, told us about when we were reporting on red tide. On the right is a Caraquet oyster from New Brunswick, Canada. I bought both of them at T.J.'s Seafood over the weekend and went home for a feast.

Here's how to get inside.

It's really easy to see the top and bottom of this Caraquet oyster.
It's really easy to see the top and bottom of this Caraquet oyster.
Sometimes it's harder to see, like with this Gulf oyster, but if you look carefully you'll see more mass to one side of the hinge than the other.
Sometimes it's harder to see, like with this Gulf oyster, but if you look carefully you'll see more mass to one side of the hinge than the other.

While oysters come in all shapes and sizes, they all adhere to a single basic format: a cupped side, and a flat side. Find the side with the deeper dish and consider that the bottom of the oyster. The cupped shape will better retain the delicious oyster liqueur you're about to liberate.

The hinge on this oyster runs along the piece of substrate attached to the back of the shell.
The hinge on this oyster runs along the piece of substrate attached to the back of the shell.

Next, locate the hinge at the back of the oyster. It always forms a point. While I've seen some people attack an oyster from the side, I've always found this hinge the easiest point of entry.

Use a dish towel to protect your hand from the sharp edge of the oyster shell.
Use a dish towel to protect your hand from the sharp edge of the oyster shell.

Hold the oyster in your left hand (reverse if you're a southpaw) while wrapped in a towel so the hinge is still exposed. On every oyster there's a crevice you can wedge the tip of an oyster knife into. Find that crevice, insert just the tip of the knife, and then, with a firm downward pressure, twist the blade. You're not trying to thrust the knife into the oyster. You're trying to twist the shell open with some leverage. When you succeed the oyster will pop open a touch: This is the sound of victory.

If you're having trouble, grab another oyster and try again. They're all different, and some give up the ghost easily while others fight to the death. Once you figure out one, you'll be able to figure out the rest. If you're getting frustrated, take a break and go have a beer. Oyster shucking for beginners is very zen. If you give up completely, you can always toss them on a sheet pan into a 500 degree oven and let the heat make them pop. Serve them immediately with warm melted butter if you cook them this way.

You're in! Don't muck up things now.
You're in! Don't muck up things now.

After the pop, remove the knife and wipe the blade clean so you don't get any muck inside the shell. Hold the oyster in your bare palm and insert the knife all the way through taking care to keep the blade as close to the top of the shell as possible. Using a gentle sawing motion, bring the knife from the back of the hinge to the front of the shell, always keeping the blade firmly against the top shell. When you get through the abductor muscle at the front, the top shell should easily lift off.

I mangled the abductor muscle in this one.
I mangled the abductor muscle in this one.
But in this one you can still see it intact.
But in this one you can still see it intact.

With the top off, all you have to do is gently cut the abductor muscle from the bottom the the shell to free it. The muscle is an opaque, white circular mass on the opposite side from the hinge. Gently slide the knife under the naked oyster and cut the muscle from the shell. When you're done the oyster should wiggle freely, suspended in its own liquor.

At this point it's go time. You could plate the oyster on ice for a few minutes, but I rarely have the patience and end up slurping the thing down right from my palm. Grab a few dozen oysters, a couple of knives (they're cheap) and some crisp beer or acidic white wine (or even champagne), and have your friends over for a shuck off. Also, make sure to carry an oyster knife with you wherever you go. Now that you're in the club, you never know when your skills will be put to the test.

When you're completely done, things should look like this.
When you're completely done, things should look like this.

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