You Can Haz Fresh Oysters!
Chef Mike McCarty Disappears Your Oyster Fears, Part 1
From across the table, raw oysters are suggested. You pretend you’d love them. You want to like them. You’d settle for tolerating them. Alas, they scare the stuffing out of you.
Your fears, loosely grouped:
1. Mortality, as in, “I’ll die.”
2. Revulsion, as in, “I’ll gag.”
3. Emptiness, as in, “I’ll go hungry.”
4. Coming up short, as in, “I’ll go broke.”
5. Eco-guilt, as in, “I’ll hurt the planet.”
6. Pain, as in, “The knife will skid off the shell and shank my hand to the tabletop.”
Enter Chef Mike McCarty, owner of two of the world’s cleanest hands. At 45, McCarty has whole reefs of oysters behind him. He got his first kitchen job at 16, has staged at the Charleston, S.C., seafood temple The Ordinary, among others, and is executive chef and a managing partner at The Lobster Trap in the foodie destination town of Asheville, N.C.
“Oysters are a major focus at this restaurant,” Chef Mike says. On a busy night they’ll shuck as many as 450 “rocks” to order. He’s got your half-dozen worries covered.
Let’s start with Oyster Fear No. 1, “I’ll die.” Chef Mike’s response, in a nutshell: Not from eating the freshest food on earth, you won’t.
“The oysters we buy are from licensed sources,” he explains. “They’re flown in daily to our supplier, who brings them to us the same day from one mile away. We ensure they’re stored between 38 and 40 degrees F and we taste-test them for temperature as well before serving them. We shuck them to order. If you think about it, there’s really nothing fresher that you could be eating.” He thinks about it.
“They’re alive,” he says.
Freshness is, of course, not the only concern. In the words of every menu of every fresh shellfish-serving restaurant in every state in the Union, consuming it raw “may increase your risk of foodborne illness, especially if you have a medical condition.”
Why? you ask. Because bivalves like oysters are filter feeders. They sieve their food from water they pump through their bodies, which makes them extra-vulnerable to environmental changes and contaminants. Indeed from the 1950s on, diseases and overharvesting wiped out much of the native oyster population in America, challenging both the supply to diners and their confidence in eating them. By the 1980s, Americans had all but stopped eating fresh oysters.
Three factors have reversed that trend, though: Better water quality; new aquaculture techniques and facilities that have developed new varieties of oysters, including hybrids whose meat is safe all year round; and regulation, by the FDA and other agencies, of everything from the health of shellfish beds to the temperature at which oysters are shipped and stored.
So you can relax and order up, says Chef Mike.
Let the sheer freshness of oysters sink in and you’re halfway to overcoming Oyster Fear No. 2, “I’ll gag.” (Chef Mike helps you through the other half – and through Oyster Fears 3, 4, and 5 – in upcoming posts from our visits to The Lobster Trap.)
Meantime, if you’re preparing oysters to eat at home, keep these common-sense tips in mind:
– Tap two oysters together. If one’s shell makes a hollow sound, the oyster in it is dead. Throw it out.
– If you’re not serving oysters immediately, you can refrigerate them for a few days at 40 degrees deep side down in an open container covered with damp newspapers or a damp towel. The colder they are, the easier they are to shuck. Do that 2 hours or less before serving them.
– If you can’t get an oyster to open, throw it out.
– If you immerse live oysters in fresh water or melted ice, they’ll die. Throw them out.
As for the moment when everyone’s ready to dine but your oysters are still hiding in their shells, perhaps this is your first shuck. Or maybe you suffer from Oyster Fear No. 6, “The knife will skid off the shell and shank my hand to the tabletop.”
We asked Chef Mike about the safest and fastest way to shuck an oyster, and he generously responded with a specially prepared video tutorial. Look, learn, and let your inner pearl of confidence grow!
Watch the Video Here: