Oysters have something in common with the real estate market: Location is everything. As a chef with training from an accredited online culinary arts program, you’ll explore how regional distinctions can point to major differences in certain types of food. This is very much the case when it comes to devouring raw mollusks. When you learn about how oyster characteristics differ, you may want to try preparing several different varieties.
Why region matters
Similar to wine grapes, the flavor characteristics of oysters can be deeply affected by their environment. Their taste is altered based on the salt content of the water and mineral makeup of the sand or mud where they are harvested. Jeremy Sewall, the chef and owner at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, explained the significance of such differences to The Wall Street Journal.
“The flavors of oysters are deeply affected by their environments.”
“The flavor profile of oysters is truly amazing,” he said. “It’s so geographic. Where they’re from really changes how they look and feel and taste.”
When choosing an oyster, freshness is the most important consideration. You may find that smaller oysters have more of a metallic tinge, but Serious Eats warned against picking mollusks mainly on the basis of either size or high price. What matters most is flavor, and the more recently an oyster was harvested the more likely it is to be delicious. Which specific flavor profile is best is a matter of personal preference and a good reason to try as many varieties as possible.
On the whole, oysters from the Atlantic tend to be saltier, with larger, smoother shells. Among the most common examples are the medium-sized Blue Points, which come from the Long Island Sound. Mild in flavor and full of meat, they are a constant presence on the menu at classic locations like the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City. They’re the first oysters many people try, but they are only the beginning of the intriguing flavors available on this side of the country.
According to food writer Rowan Jacobsen’s Oyster Guide, Oysterponds are a more impressive expression of what the waters around Long Island have to offer. This is a particularly briny type with pleasantly metallic and bitter flavors. Because they are grown in cages, the shells are on the fragile side, so you have to be careful when shucking them.
Maine has a proud tradition of locally cultivated oysters, which is well represented at Eventide in Portland, declared one of America’s best oyster bars by Bon Appetit. For instance, there are Winter Points, firm oysters of about four inches that deliver plenty of salty and savory taste. Other options include the Norumbega, a mild variety with a less briny but tangier flavor.
Oysters raised in Pacific waters are generally sweeter than their East Coast counterparts, and they have deeper shells with rougher edges. You can find an excellent sampling of what the Pacific has to offer by visiting The Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle. The shifting menu includes local varieties from the Puget Sound like the lightly salty, fatty Wolf Beach and the brinier Samish Bay. On the other hand, you can enjoy tasty choices from Alaska and Canada.
If you prefer to go directly to the source, visit Hog Island Oysters, which has three locations in California: San Francisco, Napa and in Marshall at the oyster farm itself. Each location offers several types. The plump Sweetwaters, cultivated in mesh bags in Tomales Bay, are the signature variety. They bring sweetness and a light smokiness to the table. During the summer, you can try the East Coast-style Atlantics or the butter-like, diminutive Kunamoto from Japan.
British Columbia has its own oyster styles to offer, the best known being the Fanny Bay. Cultured in trays, away from the mud at the bottom of the Baynes sound, these oysters have an exceptionally clean flavor. The shell is hardier than most varieties cultivated in this manner, and there’s plenty of firm meat characterized by mild saltiness and a hint of cucumber.
Attending culinary academy will teach you a great deal about how region-specific factors in your ingredients can affect your final product. In the case of an item like oysters, understanding where your dish is coming from can make all the difference in how you prepare and serve it.