How to Buy, Shuck and Safely Eat Oysters, According to an Oyster Farmer and an Epidemiologist

Pass the Tabasco

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how to shuck oysters: hands shucking oysters in a kitchen
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Though 2023 may have been the summer of tomato girl-approved BLTs, we’d argue oysters are just as ubiquitous as the mayo-laced sandwiches all over your Instagram feed. The calendar strikes June and suddenly everyone is at a rooftop happy hour or a beachside clam shack slurping on shellfish, doused in Tabasco and mignonette. But for every oyster diehard, there seem to be at least a few skeptics, whose hesitance to dig in is fueled by misconceptions about oysters’ cleanliness—and fears of their potential lethality. How much worrying is really warranted?

We spoke to Ryan Bethea, owner of Oysters Carolina, an oyster farm and seafood delivery service based on Harkers Island on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, for expert tips on shopping and shucking oysters like a pro, plus Mike Hughes, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for food safety advice to keep in mind when eating and shucking oysters.

9 Types of Shellfish That Are Easier to Cook at Home Than You Think

Meet the Experts

  • Mike Hughes is an epidemiologist who is part of the CDC’s Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch. It’s the organization’s lead epidemiology and surveillance group for tracking pathogens and identifying sources for bacterial enteric (intestinal) infections transmitted by food and other routes.
  • Ryan Bethea is an oyster farmer and the owner of Oysters Carolina in North Carolina. He has managed the business since 2015, as well as engaged with local researchers and advisory committees, advocating for the environmental vitality of and transparency in the seafood industry.
how to shuck oysters: The Shell Mound People, or Kitchen-Middeners, a group of hunter gatherers who would create middens with discarded shellfish shells
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How Risky Is Eating Raw Shellfish?

Humans have been eating raw oysters for hundreds of thousands of years—164,000 to be exact, according to anthropologists who discovered a South African cave with evidence of shellfish and whale consumption. (The image above is a depiction of The Shell Mound People, or Kitchen-Middeners, a group of hunter gatherers who would create middens with discarded shellfish shells.) It’s no different stateside, says Bethea. He tells us, “Indigenous people were not only eating oysters, but they were doing it in a sustainable way. They would build middens, which are basically piles of discarded oyster shells, by returning shellfish remains to the water. More oysters grew on those oyster shells as they put them back, which is a form of aquaculture that’s called remote setting.” (In case you’re wondering, there are thousands upon thousands of middens still standing in coastal environments around the globe.)

That said, Hughes reminds us that raw or undercooked shellfish can make us sick. “Vibrio [vulnificus] causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses each year in the United States, and most of these are from people eating raw or undercooked oysters and other shellfish,” he shares. “It’s a pathogenic bacterium that’s present in marine environments like ponds, coastlines and estuaries.

“Vibriobacteria naturally live in coastal waters and can build up inside shellfish and other seafood,” Hughes explains. “Most people get infected with vibrioby eating raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters. Some people get infected when an open wound comes in contact with salt water, brackish water or drippings from raw or undercooked seafood.” (Bethea also notes that a lot of people have a mild shellfish allergy without knowing it.)

Anyone can get sick from vibrio, but Hughes says people who have liver disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV or thalassemia; receive immune-suppressing therapy for the treatment of disease; take medicine to decrease stomach acid levels or have had recent stomach surgery are more likely to endure severe complications.

When vibrio is swallowed, symptoms—which can range from diarrhea to vomiting to fever—usually start within a day and last for three. Severe illness from this type of vibrio infection is rare and typically happens in people with compromised immune systems. Cases of contracting vibrio through an open wound—not raw consumption—can more often lead to death. Symptoms can include skin blistering and bloodstream infections. Victims may need intensive care or limb amputation depending on the severity, and about one in five people with this type of infection die, says Hughes.

“The vibrio case could be from handling an oyster,” explains Bethea. “It could be from peeling shrimp, handling a crab trap. A lot of guys get it from getting poked by a crab.”

how to shuck oysters: oysters about to be harvested
Jeyhoun Allebaugh

Can You Tell If an Oyster Is Safe to Eat?

The truth is you can’t really know that an oyster is safe to consume before you eat it. This unpredictability is the reason for raw shellfish warnings on restaurant menus. “Oyster farmers, environmentalists, seafood distributors, they can do everything right…If someone who’s immunocompromised eats an oyster with a lot of vibrio in it, then there’s really nothing anybody can do. So, they put the onus on the consumer,” notes Bethea.

Oysters get their somewhat erroneous rep for being dirty due to their filtering capabilities. But Bethea stresses that oysters are meticulously picky eaters. While it depends on the actual pollutant (petroleum is tougher for them to withstand, for instance), oysters mostly filter natural substances that are already in the water, like algae or animal waste. Not only do they avoid filtering anything that’s toxic to them, but they also filter and eject things that can be toxic to us, creating a sort of “fertilizer” that sinks to the bottom of their habitat.

Bethea explains, “If it’s a toxic, toxic thing, the oyster will just shut and not filter any of it. But let’s say it’s not going to kill the animal, but maybe if we ingested it, it’d be toxic. [The oyster] lumps all that stuff up…into a relatively big ball. That ball is going to be heavier than the water column. It takes it out of the water column and expels it, and [the ball] sinks to the bottom.”

In their greatest superpower lies the greatest misconception: If oysters filter the ick out of our waters, aren’t they dirty? And do we consume whatever they filter when we eat them? The TLDR? Not necessarily.

Oysters actually help clean their habitats. Over time, essentially self-sufficient oyster ecosystems have dramatically depleted due to overfishing, overhunting and pollution. (In the Chesapeake Bay, specifically, the indigenous oyster population has been estimated to be as low as 1 percent of what it once was.) Being that oysters are master filterers, capable of filtering more than 50 gallons of water a day, this drop directly correlates to dirtier water. So perhaps it was a bit safer to eat raw oysters centuries ago when they were more plentiful—but that doesn’t mean you can’t safely consume them now.

how to shuck oysters: ryan bethea
Jeyhoun Allebaugh: Ryan Bethea

An oyster’s freshness is key for both flavor and safety. For instance, Oysters Carolina harvests and delivers oysters to their customers in a matter of hours. “We’re the only ones in the country that do delivery from the water to the person in the same day. We take a picture and video timestamp, text it to them and deliver that same day,” Bethea explains.”

This is one way that Bethea fulfills his business’s mission of accessibility. “[Oysters] have kind of turned from a street food back in the day to, you know, Drake rapped about them. We just want everybody—whether you’re broke, affluent, elderly, young—we just want you to have access to fresh seafood. Because it’s healthier, it’s safer and it’s tastier.”

As long as the oyster is fresh and kept at the proper temperature up until it’s consumed, it’s very unlikely you’ll get sick from eating it. And if someone does get sick, the CDC painstakingly tracks down the source of the vibrio. Bethea explains, “They send out a team…they check the restaurant, the distributor, the oyster farmer. They check for all your paperwork being in order. They check your cooler, [if] you harvested in a closed time or not…the CDC actually tracks it and maps it.”

how to shuck oysters: open oyster
Jeyhoun Allebaugh

The only telltale sign of a bad oyster is an awful smell when it’s opened, or the oyster’s two shells not being completely closed. (The oyster being shut means it’s still using its abductor muscle, which signals that it’s still alive). If you’re really worried about vibrio, you can cook your oysters instead of eating them raw, which eliminates the risk of infection. You can grill, poach, bake or even microwave them. Bethea tells us, “We have clients [with arthritis] that do that…They’ll pop [the oysters] in the microwave for like, 15 seconds and it’ll kind of loosen [the shell] up enough to be able to shuck it easier.”

Hughes says that the best way to reduce your chances of getting a vibrio infection is to only consume fully cooked oysters. But if you decide to roll the dice, remember to wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw seafood, cover open wounds completely with a waterproof bandage if you’re in salt or brackish water or dealing with drippings from raw seafood and wash your wounds thoroughly with soap and water if they do make contact. You should also always keep cooked seafood away from raw seafood and its drippings to prevent cross-contamination.

If you decide to eat, order or prepare raw oysters, read on for helpful tips to use at home or at a restaurant.

how to shuck oysters: someone spritzing lemon wedge atop a raw oyster
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How to Order Oysters at a Restaurant

Whether you’re a vet or a newbie, it helps to know where an oyster came from before ordering it, as this gives you some idea of taste, specifically salinity (aka its concentrated saltiness). (Their texture is generally the same across the board, except larger oysters are firmer and more intimidating to chew.) Most oysters from Canada all the way down the East Coast and even to Cuba are Eastern oysters, but you can also find European flat oysters and rarer belon oysters. West Coast oysters include Pacific, Kumamoto and very rare Olympia oysters. These tend to be less salty than East Coast varieties and can be described as more cucumber-y and metallic in flavor.

Even so, oysters are like snowflakes: No two are exactly alike, even of the same type or region. “Let’s say you have an oyster in one area of New York, then two miles down the road. Both are going to taste different even though they’re the same species,” explains Bethea.

As for price, a cheap oyster (looking at you, happy hour hotties) isn’t necessarily low quality. It probably just means the restaurant got them for a low price. “It could be cheap because it’s from two miles away. It could be cheap because it’s from the Chesapeake Bay, which has the cheapest oysters. They’re, like, 30 cents,” Bethea says.

how to shuck oysters: oysters
Jeyhoun Allebaugh

How to Buy Oysters at the Market

First consider how you’re going to serve the oysters. If you plan on eating them raw, small oysters with medium to high salinity are the way to go. If you’re going to grill or steam them, go for larger oysters, since they’ll shrink as they cook. Note that cooked oysters will not necessarily change in flavor, but they will turn firmer in texture. If you’re a newbie who’s worried about texture, try eating the oyster on a saltine cracker first instead of by itself, perhaps with some freshly squeezed lemon juice, hot sauce or mignonette (a condiment made with shallots, vinegar and pepper that’s traditionally served with raw oysters).

If you’ve never tried a raw oyster, Bethea recommends starting with a high-salinity type, like Eastern. But most importantly, he suggests sourcing the freshest you can find. “You can ask your fishmonger or the restaurant. They’re required to keep a harvest tag, it’s called a trip ticket, for 90 days after the last oyster out of that bag is sold.”

Bethea says day-of or day-after oysters can’t be beat, but any oyster that was harvested within two weeks is fine to buy. “Food isn’t just about taste or smell. It’s about trust, like, ‘I trust this is going to be delicious. I trust this is going to be safe.’ I think you have a better experience the fresher you eat it.”

(P.S.: Many oyster purveyors also ship or deliver to customers, in case you want to shuck at home but not necessarily shop for them, or alternatively, buy in bulk.)

how to shuck oysters: hand shucking an oyster
Jeyhoun Allebaugh

How to Shuck Oysters at Home

Before you start cracking them open, you should know how to store them. “I’d put [the oysters] in a dish or keep them in the original bag and cover it with a wet towel,” says Bethea. “You want to keep them moist and cool. If you do that, the oyster is going to live for a very long time.” The fridge is a great place to store them if you’re not going to shuck and serve them immediately.

As for tools, you’ll need an oyster knife (Bethea is partial to the Dexter four-inch Boston blade), a dish or bar towel and a glove for your non-shucking hand (he uses latex-dipped gloves, but you can use a garden glove, leather glove, metal glove or any cut-resistant variety). You may think the glove is to keep you from nicking yourself with the knife but it’s really more protect you from the oyster shells, which are incredibly sharp. (If you’re worried about getting vibrio, this is even more crucial for keeping the bacteria out of your bloodstream.) It also helps to have a serving tray or bucket of ice to place your shucked oysters on, so they stay cool before they’re eaten.

Once you’re set up, it’s time to shuck:

  1. Put your glove on your non-dominant hand, then fold or bunch up the towel in the gloved hand. Place the ridged end of the oyster in your covered palm and hold it tight.
  2. Take the knife and wedge it into the bottom hinge of the oyster (where the two bivalves come together) until it stands up on its own without falling out. “If you can get that knife to stand up by itself, then you’re in the exact right spot,” says Bethea.
  3. Twist the knife, pushing slightly, until the shells split. Remove the meatless shell.
  4. Sweep the knife under the oyster meat in the shell to cut the abductor muscle from the top shell. Keep it on ice or eat it immediately.

Pack a few dozen oysters and all your tools in a cooler for your next cookout or beach trip—you’ll look like a total pro.

taryn pire

Food Editor

Taryn Pire is PureWow’s food editor and has been writing about all things delicious since 2016. She’s developed recipes, reviewed restaurants and investigated food trends at...