How to Shuck an Oyster
There are two facts I like to keep in mind whenever I begin shucking.
First, at the 2006 World Oyster Opening Championship in Galway, Irishman Michael Moran beat contestants from 17 other countries by opening 30 oysters in 2 minutes 35 seconds. It was Ireland’s first win in 10 years. But Michael could not get close to the spectacular record set by his father in the 1970s: 1 minute and 31 seconds!
Second, France produces roughly 130,000 tons of oysters annually, largely Pacific. The French consume more than 90 percent of those oysters themselves — raw, on the half-shell. Most oysters are consumed between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Common injuries requiring medical attention reported during that season are a champagne cork to the eye and a knife to the hand.
Fair Warning: If you are going to shuck, you will get cut — eventually. It may not be from the knife, it may come from the sharp shells, just know that this may occur. Protect yourself; pay attention as you are pointing a knife tip directly at your hands. “Keep your eyes on the oyster” is always my motto.
Oyster Shucking Techniques
Even if you’ll be shucking only a few times a year, it’s worth investing in a sturdy oyster knife. I’ve heard too many stories of people injuring themselves while trying to open oysters with a screwdriver. (And don’t even think of using a kitchen knife.) An oyster knife also makes a great screwdriver and a fine opener for letters, paint cans, beer bottles, and boxes. It will even un-lock doors and windows, so I’ve been told. Every kitchen should have one.
You’ll need a sturdy board with a damp cloth beneath to keep it from slipping — an old chef ‘s trick. The board can be as simple as a piece of 2 x 4 inches (5 x 10 cm) wood. Starfish shucker Lawrence David cast his “board” in cement, using a pie plate as a mold, with half a tennis ball in the center to create a shallow depression. Even a hockey puck makes a great non-slip shucking surface. My latest design from Swissmar is just that — a wooden Shuckin’ Puck raised on a stainless-steel tray. Just what’s needed for shuckin’ around.
To protect your hand, you can invest in a glove. Or you can use a tea towel (but choose one that you do not mind getting oystery). The technique is simple, but it works beautifully.
First dampen the cloth, then fold it in half, four times, to create a small square. Place the folded cloth on a board, with the folded side toward you and the last crease to your left hand. Once you’re ready to start shucking, place your left hand (or right, depending on which hand you are more comfortable holding a knife), on top of the cloth. With your thumb, open up the cloth all of the way and place an oyster inside, hinge pointing out toward you. Now cover the oyster and hold it in place for shucking. You should hold the oyster firmly enough so that it does not move. In this position, the cloth acts like a protective glove, but eight layers thick! No knife will be able to penetrate the cloth; even so, be careful and go slowly.
Now we’re ready to begin. (Have you washed your hands? Remember, cleanliness is next to oysterliness.) To set up your station, position the board in front of you, preferably in a tray to keep the area clean. Pile un-shucked oysters to your right (if you are right-handed), place a second tray above the board to collect the top shells, and place a third tray, filled with crushed ice, to your left for the fresh-shucked oysters.
The oyster generally has a teardrop shape, which points to where you should be opening — a slight gap in the shells where it is hinged with collagen to keep the oyster open when in water. The hinge is the strongest part of the shell, so if you enter the oyster here, less shell will break or chip into the meat. The hinge is where you will make the cleanest of shucked oysters.
All shells are not created equal — round, flat, deep oval, soft shell, new shell layers are all factors that will determine which way you shuck. The hinge is the area that all species, and shapes, can be shucked open.
Most people will slurp their oyster from the lip or bill. There is a micro-thin opening, and if you enter the oyster from this angle, the shell generally chips off, so you have to sweep that out of the meat after. Some shuckers using this method will serve the oyster on the top shell, revealing a plumper-looking oyster, with less oyster liquor. The French believe that the true liquor comes from within the oyster, and the rest is just seawater and should be tipped out before eating.
The side opening is closest to the adductor muscle, so with the right technique, and oyster shell, shucking this way can be quick and clean.
This is a classic French technique and the matching French oyster knives (for example, Leguille) will work best. The blade must have a thin kerf, but not too thin or the blade itself will break.
Step 1: Holding the oyster tightly (with the cup side on the board, and the hinge pointing to your wrist), insert the tip of the knife into the hinge, the pointed end, and work it deep into the hinge with a slight twisting motion, as if you were twisting a key in a lock. Don’t force the knife into the oyster; you’re merely introducing metal to shell. Once the knife is set into the shell, give it a quick twist and you should hear a pop or snap as the hinge breaks.
Step 2: Using your free forefinger, pry up the top shell to the point where you can peek inside and see where the adductor muscle is attached. Using your knife, scrape this area, and the top shell will come off. Pay attention, though, as most shuckers will remove the top mantle from the oyster as it sticks to the top shell. Place this shell in the tray in front of you. (Some of these shells will come in handy for presentation.)
Step 3: To free the oyster from its bottom shell, turn the shell 180 degrees so the adductor muscle — the dark “button” in the flesh — is closer to your knife. If you’re left-handed, you won’t need to turn the shell. Scrape just under this muscle and free the meat. (If the meat is still stuck at the hinge for no apparent reason, you’ve just discovered the remains of a second adductor muscle that oysters possessed at one time million of years ago.) Touch the flesh gently and you’ll feel it release. Once you’ve loosened the meat from the bottom shell, sweep it gently with your finger to remove any grit or shell bits.
Step 4: With your free hand, place the oyster onto the presentation tray. Then with your other hand, reach for your next oyster.
One in the Hand
This technique is most effective in small spaces, on a boat, in a canoe, or just plain walkin’ around. It’s also quick and easy. At the same time, it’s riskier for amateurs and requires your full attention. You’ll need a knife and a cloth or glove. A stainless-steel mesh glove is the only glove to protect yout hand from a stabbing. On my last trip to the Worlds, I knifed my finger in exactly the same place I’d injured it four years earlier, almost to the day. As I pulled out the knife, it “strummed” across the tendons. Luckily, I still have a full range of motion, but my finger was a little numb for a while. I now use a mesh glove with the fingers cut off.
North American shuckers generally “stab” through the hinge, away from the hand, then clean off the top and bottom.
French shuckers, meanwhile, use a side-entrance technique, inserting their knife into the side closest to the adductor muscle, severing the top of the muscle and removing the top shell. They don’t sever the muscle completely (except in competition), for historical reasons. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, oysters in France were served on special ceramic plates with deep indents for the shucked oysters. This allowed people to eat their oysters with a fork, without touching the dirty shells. Unfortunately, some chefs started replacing the fresh oysters with tinned ones. The only way to guarantee a fresh oyster, it was decided, was to serve it attached to its shell — a guarantee of freshness still practiced in France today.
I’ve had a few customers from Europe who have voiced their “disappointment” that the oysters were not left attached to the bottom shell. For them, part of the pleasure of enjoying oysters is the final freeing of the meat from the shell — that “proof of freshness” I mentioned earlier. I explain that this style of shucking is purely a North American thing, and suggest that the next time they go in search of oysters, they ask the shucker to leave the meat attached to the shell. I’m certainly happy to oblige them.
Keep Your Eye On the Oyster
Even if you’re an expert shucker, it’s inevitable that you’ll cut yourself at one time or another. How badly depends on how much attention you pay to the oyster. I make it a rule to keep my eye on the oyster at all times. If you look away while shucking, you may find a knife tip in your hand. You may also get cut by the shell, which can be razor-sharp.
When you do get cut, use common sense. Wash the cut with soap and water; apply a little antibacterial cream and cover the cut with a bandage. If it’s a deep cut, you may want to see a doctor. If you must keep working, as I’ve had to do on rare occasions, super glue will work in a pinch, with surgical gloves over top. But I normally recommend calling it quits for the day.
More from The Oyster Companion:
The Oyster Companion excerpted with permission from Firefly Books. Published by Firefly Books Ltd. 2018 / Text © 2018 Patrick McMurray.