Oysters on the Half Shell
  • Oysters (3 or 4 to a dozen per person, depending on your appetite and budget)
  • Lemon wedges
  • Mignonette Sauce, Tomatillo Salsa Cruda or Tomato Granita (recipes follow)
How to shuck an oyster
  1. Hold an oyster with the deeper side of the oyster down in your well-protected palm; or if you prefer, lay the oyster on the table with a hand on top. Find the hinge point of the shell.
  2. With whatever combination of swiveling and wiggling gets the job done, gently work the tip of the knife between the shell halves until you feel you have some leverage (1⁄4 inch or so is plenty of penetration; any deeper and you risk cutting up the meat inside).
  3. Twist — do not push — the knife and pry upward to pop the shell open.
  4. When you have popped the hinge, slide the knife in along the top shell to cut it free from the central adductor muscle. Discard the top shell.
  5. Now slide the knife under the oyster to cut the other end of the muscle free from the bottom valve.
  6. Finally, remove any bits of grit, mud or broken shell, rearrange the edges of the oyster if they have been disturbed, and the oyster is ready to serve, with a squeeze of lemon or your choice of sauces (recipes below).

Time Estimates

Prep time: 15 min  

Total time: 15 min  

Mignonette Sauce

  • 1 tablespoon minced shallot
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or other wine vinegar
  • Freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine the shallot and vinegar, and season to taste with pepper.
2. If the mixture seems too tart, cut it with a tiny bit of water.
3. A quarter to a half teaspoon of the mixture is about right for spooning on top of each oyster.

Tomatillo Salsa Cruda

  • 6 small fresh tomatillos
  • 1 small green onion, minced 
  • 1⁄2 serrano chile, seeds and ribs removed, minced
  • Kosher salt
1. Peel and halve the tomatillos and grate the cut sides on a box grater.
2. Add the green onion and serrano chile to the tomatillo.
3. Salt to taste and chill thoroughly before serving.

Tomato Granita

  • 1 small ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon minced shallot
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • Pinch of kosher salt
1. Combine the tomato, shallot, vinegar and salt.
2. Place in a small bowl or plastic container and freeze, removing it from the freezer every 20 minutes or so to stir and break up the ice crystals.
3. Use a small melon scoop or spoon to scrape out about 1⁄2 teaspoon granita per oyster.


Makes 3-4 oysters per person

Good to know

To those who love them, there is little that can compare with a cold, plump, raw oyster, sipped from its shell with its tiny bit of retained seawater. Served with a squeeze of lemon or a bit of tangy sauce, it's the perfect thing to go with a surprising range of beers. I include them in this chapter because oysters go marvelously with a dry Irish-style stout.

To my taste, a perfectly balanced oyster needs no sauce or other adornment, but most people like to season oysters with something acid such as a squeeze of lemon or a bit of Mignonette Sauce. Either one adds a refreshing touch of acidity that goes well with the richness of almost any oyster, and can be just the thing to bring a bland or fatty oyster into balance. I've also included a salsa-type topping based on tomatillos and a tres chic frozen tomato sauce.

Which beer should I drink with this?

I would go to either extreme here — a dry stout or a delicate hefeweizen. With stout, I love the way the oyster and beer flavors circle around each other long after you have swallowed the oyster. Hefeweizen acts more like the traditional dry white wine, cleansing and refreshing the palate and setting it up for another oyster and another sip.

Oyster basics

If you already know how to buy and shuck oysters, you can skip most of the following.

1. Choose smallish oysters intended for serving on the half shell, not the enormous ones sold in Chinese markets. West Coast oyster growers provide us with dozens of site-named Pacificor Miyagi oysters, as well as their smaller cousins the Kumamoto oyster, the native Olympia, and the European flat or Belon type. The East Coast oyster most widely available in the West is the Malpeque from eastern Canada, but you may find others from up and down the Atlantic Coast. Each has a slightly different flavor, and they change from month to month, making this a fascinating ongoing study. Your best bet is to find a fish market you trust (preferably with a changing selection) and go with what they recommend.

2. Oysters need to be kept alive until shucking, which means keeping them cold and moist. They should be displayed on ice in the market, with the deeper shell halves downward. When you get home, unpack them, scrub off any grit from the shells with a brush, and lay them right side up in a bowl. Cover them with a damp towel, and refrigerate until ready to shuck. Don’t store oysters in water or they will die. Reject at the market any open oysters that do not close when handled, and discard any that die after that.

3. If you shuck oysters regularly, invest in a proper oyster knife, with a thick, blunt-edged blade that is strong enough to pry the shells apart without breaking. Otherwise, you can get by with the combination of a “church key” can opener or a small, clean screwdriver for the prying part of the job and a paring knife for the cutting part. To protect your other hand, either wear a heavy protective glove or cradle the oyster in several thicknesses of folded kitchen towel.

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From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.

Photo: MarxFoods.com/Flickr