Your Essential Guide to Oysters

There's nothing like knocking back a dozen (or more) ice-cold oysters, and with so many different East and West Coast oysters available at FultonFishMarket.com, how do you know where to start? Our Head of Quality Control, Robert DiGregorgio, demystifies the magical world of oysters in our handy oyster guide.

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745.

More than most foods, oysters taste like where they come from, and in this world of mass produced, assembly line factory farms that’s a good thing.

I don’t think I could eat a chicken and know where it’s from, or even a steak, a turkey, or vegetables. They all taste good to me, but there’s nothing distinctive about them.

But I can look at and eat an oyster and feel very confident at what species it is, and generally what part of the country it comes from - East Coast, West Coast, Canadian, northern, southern, Gulf Coast. All different. All distinct. All interesting.

They are sea animals to be sure, but they draw much of their uniqueness from the land around them and from the specific waters they call home. To quote Rowan Jacobsen, “they have a ‘somewhereness’ about them, like great wines”. Indeed, similar to terroir in reference to how environment greatly affects the taste and all the subtle differences of wines from the same grape, so it is with oysters. Think of it as meroir, or terroir for oysters.

Let me explain.

There are five main oyster species commercially harvested in the United States. Only five. These are: Crassostrea virginica, Crassostrea sikamea, Crassostrea gigas, Ostrea edulis, Ostrea lurida.

From these five literally hundreds of varieties are grown. Each a little (or a lot) different as influenced by its meroir. Just as wine grapes are influenced by sunlight, rainfall, temperature, soil conditions and a bunch of other things I don’t pretend to know about, oysters are greatly influenced by water temperature, salinity, currents, phytoplankton, the sea bed, mud, minerals from the surrounding land, and how long they’re grown before harvesting.

So closely is an oyster’s flavor tied to where it comes from, they are traditionally named for that place. For example, along the entire east coast and Gulf coast of the U.S. the native oyster is Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern Oyster. But from that one species, influenced by their unique meroir, come Beau Soleils, Pemaquids, Wellfleets, Delaware Bays, Malpeques, Blue Points, Ladies Pass, Point aux Pins, and Isle Dauphines to name just a (very) few. It’s the same on the West Coast. Fanny Bays, Skookums, Hood Canals , Hammersleys, Kusshis , Chef’s Creek, Emerald Cove and many many more, are all Crassostrea gigas, the Pacific Oyster. From Ostrea lurida we get the Olympia Oyster, a west coast specialty. Very small and fragile, they were James Beard’s favorite. Ostrea edulis are Belon oysters. Originally from France, they were brought to Maine in the 1950s, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that significant numbers began to be produced. They are so fragile that rubber bands are wrapped around them to help them keep their shells closed. The Crassostrea sikamea is the popular Kumamoto Oyster. Native to Japan, it is now grown here in America where, according to legend, it was shipped with Pacific Oyster seed, accidentally or not, and is now very much at home in the Pacific Northwest.

What is the difference between wild oysters and farmed oysters?

This is a question we get asked often. Which are better? Safer? Healthier? More sustainable?

There are some differences, but they are more alike than they are different. Wild oysters are in their natural habitat from start to finish, usually clumped together in a “clutch”, replete with barnacles, crabs, snails, seaweed, mud and grit. They grow slower, and their size and shape are inconsistent. They are prone to predators such as starfish and rays. On the plus side, they develop nice hard shells, are usually very full of meat, and have a full flavor.

Farmed oysters, regardless of the method, are grown in the same waters as wild are (or used to be), with the main difference being that they are protected (according to the grow-out method) from predators, barnacles, dirt and grit. They grow faster and cleaner, and their size and shape is much more consistent. Though “farmed”, they are in their natural environment, albeit in cages or bags, with all the sunlight, currents, and natural food that wild oysters have access to. They are not artificially fed or given hormones or antibiotics of any kind. Farmed oysters are basically wild oysters, just a little pampered.

Actually, oyster aquaculture is a great idea for several reasons. First, it takes pressure off the wild stocks, allowing them to repopulate. It’s also of great benefit to the aquatic environment in general. A full grown oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day, purifying it and ridding it of silt and sediment, algae and nitrogen, contributing to the rehabilitation of waterways once uninhabitable for fish, sea plants, birds and all the sundry lifeforms part of a healthy aquatic ecosystem. They form oyster reefs, building layer upon layer of oyster shells from previous generations, creating places where fish aggregate to feed and reproduce.

Here in New York City, since 2014, there has been The Billion Oyster Project, restoring oyster reefs to New York Harbor and providing habitat to hundreds of species of fish while cleaning millions of gallons of water a day. A further benefit is that these reefs provide protection from storm surges and flood waters, while also preventing erosion along the shorelines.

Oysters seem to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity recently. All kinds of oysters are available on menus and to enjoy at home these days, whereas not too long ago there were only Wellfleets and Bluepoints.

I think it’s in part due to the new interest in foods that are authentic, are deeply connected to a place, traceable and sustainable. But it was not uncommon years ago at even the best restaurants, to have a very limited choice of oysters. Lundy Bros. in Sheepshead Bay in the 1950s and ’60s was one of the city’s most famous seafood restaurants. Its menu only had “Oysters on Half Shell”, “Oysters Pan Roast” and “Oyster Stew”. No names, no identification. Furthermore, La Cote Basque, he Grande Dame of French cuisine in New York City had on its menu “Oysters in Season”. That’s it. One last example. Sweet’s Restaurant, opened in 1842 and located next to the old Fulton Fish Market in New York City, had on its menu “Oyster Stew with Cream”, “Oyster Stew”, “Oyster Cocktail”, “Oysters on the Half Shell”. None of these excellent restaurants found it necessary to identify what kind of oysters they served or where they were from. Compare that now to the raw bar sections of modern menus that typically list seven or eight kinds of East Coast oysters, as well as five or six West Coast oysters. The names and locations of all of these are meticulously listed, as well as flourishing descriptions of their “flavor notes”. It seems consumers these days take a much greater interest in where their food is from, how its caught, and the overall state of the fishery itself. It took a while for some of the old-timers in the business to come around to this way of thinking, but informed consumers do make better customers.

So, in that spirit, with so many oysters available at FultonFishMarket.com, let's get to know the different varieties, find out how do oysters taste and how you can know what is the difference between East Coast oysters and West Coast oysters:

West Coast Oysters

Kumamoto: farmed, West Coast, California and Washington State. Small, at most 2” across, deep cup. Deeply fluted shells, the taste is briny at first with a sweet, creamy texture, a kind of melon-y finish. Very plump meats.

Kusshi: farmed, West Coast, British Columbia, Canada. Small, 2 1/4’ across, deep cups, smooth shells. Very clean, delicate flavor.

Fanny Bay: farmed, West Coast. British Columbia. 3” size, briny, plump meats. Full body, a little minerally.

Hammersley: farmed. West Coast, Washington State. 4” across. Deep cup, meaty and full flavor, creamy, light brine, cucumber-minerally finish.

Skookum: farmed, West Coast. Washington State. 3-4” across. Ridged shells. Very light flavor, hardly any brine at all, creamy and herbaceous.

Hood Canal: farmed and wild cultivated, Washington State. 2 3/4” across. Fluted shells. Light brine, creamy, clean and mild. Kind of a melon-y finish. Hood Canal is a fjord that has many appellations.

Royal Miyagi: farmed, West Coast, Hood Canal, Washington State. 3” across, fluted shells, plump meats, medium brine, savory finish.

East Coast Oysters

Beau Soleil: farmed, East Coast, New Brunswick, Canada. Not big, good cocktail size, 2 1/2”, very consistent size and shape. Great starter oyster for newbie oyster fans, light flavor, medium brine, nice, clean finish. Meaty for their size.

Malpeque: farmed and wild, East Coast, Prince Edward Island, Canada. 3-6” across. Medium size oyster, balanced flavor, briny and sweet, deep cups and meaty. Made PEI famous. At a culinary exhibition in Paris in 1900, Malpeques were judged to be the best oyster in the world.

Naked Cowboy: wild, East Coast, Long Island Sound, NY. 3” across. hand harvested. Briny, mineral accents, full plump meat, savory finish.

Blue Point: farmed and wild cultivated, Great South Bay and Long Island Sound, New York. 3 1/2” across. Very popular with experienced oyster eaters. Very briny, plump and meaty, firm texture with an almost buttery, woody finish.

Wellfleets: farmed and wild, Cape Cod, MA. 3 1/2” across. Clean and crisp taste, strong brine, plump meats with a seaweed finish. Most popular and well known of New England oysters.

Pemaquid: farmed, East Coast, Maine. 3-6” across. Meaty and briny firm texture light, sweet finish.

Pink Moon: farmed, Prince Edward Island, Canada. 2 3/4” across. Also a great starter oyster, balanced flavor, mild brininess.

Delaware Bay: farmed, East Coast, Delaware Bay. Up to 5” across. Two flavor profiles. The Cape Shore oysters are briny, a little astringent and slightly nutty. The Inner Bay oysters are milder.

French Kiss: farmed, East Coast, New Brunswick, Canada. 3 1/2” across. Full, plump oysters. Deep cup, very clean taste. Briny, with a sweet finish.

Duxbury: farmed, Duxbury Bay, MA. 3-6” across. Unusual, oddly shaped shells, long and curvy. Plump meat, lots of liquor, briny with a sweet finish.

But, as popular as oysters are today, in New York City at least, they were once even more popular. Up until the 1920s the typical New Yorker ate an average of 600 oysters a year! These were all local product, harvested from local bays and estuaries. In fact, the average New Yorker back then ate 36 lbs of fish and shellfish a year, more than twice the national average now. These days, to entice more customers to try their oysters, producers have come up with some catchy names. French Kiss, Naked Cowboys and Beavertails, for example. Not very descriptive, but interesting. Good marketing, really. Makes you want to order them, if just to hear yourself say it!

Are oysters healthy for you?

Oysters are good for you too. An excellent source of zinc, calcium and selenium, as well a vitamins A and B12. Low in calories and high in protein.

Are oysters an aphroadisiac?

Which brings me to another question we get asked all the time. Will oysters help your love life? Well, you’re on your own with this one. I say take your chances!

Oyster Recipes

Our best oyster recipes