How to Eat Oysters Like a Pro (A Complete Guide)
Not sure how to eat oysters? Here's our step-by-step guide so you can order your next freshly shucked dozen with confidence.
According to most etiquette rules, slurping your food (and eating with your hands) at the table is a big no-no. But when learning how to eat oysters, those established table manners can be thrown out the window. Whether you’re at a coastal seafood shack or a five-star restaurant, oysters demand to be eaten with your hands. And unlike other shellfish and crustaceans, including lobster and crawfish, oysters can (and should!) be eaten raw. Here’s how to eat those freshly shucked oysters the right way.
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What are oysters?
Oysters are shellfish (bivalve mollusks, to be exact) that can be found in saltwater seas, estuaries and oceans around the world. Oyster shells are shucked (the method used to open the oyster to access the fresh meat inside), and they are popularly served raw on the half shell, but can also be battered and deep-fried, steamed, grilled or used in various seafood dishes, such as seafood pastas or chowder.
The insides of oyster shells are lined with a shiny, iridescent layer called “nacre,” better known to most jewelry aficionados as mother of pearl (it’s what some oysters use to make pearls). However, it’s important to note that not all oysters do this, which is why naturally harvested pearls are exceedingly rare.
How to eat oysters
If you’ve never tried eating freshly shucked oysters before, you’re in for a real treat. They’re salty, briny and taste a bit like the ocean. Here’s how to eat oysters.
1. Select your oysters
Unless you live in a seaside town where you can buy fresh oysters straight from the source, your first raw oyster experience should be at a reputable restaurant or seafood bar. This will allow you to taste a variety of oysters so you can determine your preferences. Most restaurant waiters will tell you the region where your oysters were caught.
Oysters from the West Coast are known for their subtle sweetness and strong briny flavor that can be reminiscent of cucumbers or melons. The waters of the Atlantic aren’t as salty as the waters of the Pacific, so East Coast oysters have a milder taste with a softer, more tender texture.
2. Loosen the oyster from the shell
First, use an oyster fork or another small utensil to gently lift the oyster from the shell, being careful not to spill any of the flavorful liquid, which is known as “oyster liquor.” This ensures the oyster meat has been fully detached from its shell. If your oyster has been professionally shucked, it should lift right up.
3. Dress your oysters (optional)
Oysters don’t need any help being delicious, which is why many people love slurping them directly out of their shells the moment they’re shucked. If it’s your first time eating oysters, try them plain so you can fully appreciate what they taste like naked. Once you understand their flavor, you can feel free to dress an oyster on its shell with sauces, seasonings and toppings.
Restaurants often present oysters on a bed of ice and with common accouterments, such as lemon wedges, hot sauce, cocktail sauce, mignonette sauce (a mix of vinegar, shallots and pepper) and horseradish.
4. Tilt and slurp
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Tilt the shell straight into your mouth, letting the oyster meat and liquor slide into your mouth, just like you were taking a shot of alcohol. Take a few moments to savor the flavor, chewing lightly if you care to—oysters are tender enough that they don’t require chewing and can be gulped down as is.
5. Flip the shell
Once you’ve finished enjoying your oyster, you can place the shell face-down on the ice or platter it was served from. You may also place it face-down on a plate you’ve dedicated for shells.
FAQs about eating oysters
Eating oysters is easy, but it’s normal to have questions if you’ve never tasted them before. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about learning how to eat oysters.
What do oysters taste like?
“The way an oyster tastes varies depending on species,” says Jasmine Norton, chef and owner of The Urban Oyster in Baltimore. “Some are more salty than others, depending on the region where they are sourced.” While every oyster has its own unique flavor profile reflective of the waters it’s grown in, they can all be described as briny with a light sweetness.
Do you chew oysters?
“Pending the preparation and size of the oyster, you can chew or swallow whole,” says Norton. “For example, I would chew a grilled oyster, but swallow a raw one. If I am chewing, my rule of thumb is no more than two chews.”
Are oysters alive when you eat them?
If you’re eating freshly shucked oysters on the half shell, the answer is yes. “Oysters should be eaten the day they are shucked, which means they are still alive. Alive means fresh,” says Norton.
How do you prepare fresh oysters to eat?
If you’re enjoying your oysters at home, you’ll need to shuck them yourself right before eating them. Shucking oysters requires special equipment and a good amount of skill—and it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’re insistent on doing it yourself, buy an oyster shucking set that includes an oyster knife and protective gloves, and be sure to watch an instructional video to learn precisely how to do it.
Should you drain oysters before eating?
“No, definitely not!” exclaims Norton. “This is where all the good salty flavor comes from.” If you’re cooking with oysters, reserve the oyster liquor and add it to your dish. If eating them raw, slurp the liquor along with the oyster meat.
How do you know if an oyster is fresh?
It’s easy to tell whether an oyster is fresh. “Oysters are very telling when they’re not fresh,” Norton says. “The smell radiates! When you know, you know.”
About the expert
- Jasmine Norton is the chef and owner of The Urban Oyster. It is one of the first Black- and women-owned oyster bars in the United States. Norton was named one of the 25 “Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun, has competed on Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games and Chopped and has been featured on the Cooking Channel.