This story was originally written for my How-to column in Niagara Life magazine.
Jonathan Swift said it was a bold man who first ate an oyster. It could be argued it was a bolder one who took on that prehistoric-looking shell, seemingly impenetrable when closed.
To the faint of heart, oysters can be tough to crack, and Mike Langley, owner of the Tide and Vine Oyster Co. has painful tales confirming it. The 2013 Canadian Oyster Shucking champ has suffered a few nicks on his way to becoming the fastest, cleanest shucker in the land. He’s also seen others suffer more serious gashes — even a broken ankle — in their quest for shucking glory.
Langley’s need for speed while prepping shellfish compelled him and partner Katrina Steeves to host Oyster Fest Niagara every June in Niagara Falls. But done at a slower pace, shucking an oyster doesn’t have to be a blood sport. It’s one of those life skills that’s handy when you want to treat yourself to the delicacy of a fresh, briny mollusk, dazzle friends, or if you find yourself hungry on a desert island.
We caught up with Langley to walk us through how to shuck an oyster like a champ.
Know thy oyster
Not all oysters are created equally, so it’s best to start with a high-quality mollusk whose shell is fully intact.
There are five types of oysters to choose from and the differences between them are much the same as those subtle nuances found in wine, Langley explained.
The five types are:
1. Virginica or East Coast oysters, which have a “light, not too salty” flavour but whose notes vary depending on where it was harvested, the flow of the water, even the algae growing nearby.
2. Gigas or Pacific oysters, which have a frillier shell than their East Coast counterparts. They also boast a creamier texture and flavour. “You can taste the ocean in it a lot more,” Langley said.
3. Olympia oysters are indigenous to the West Coast, and are that region’s only native species. They’re small, about the size of your thumbnail, and have a slightly metallic taste.
4. Kumamoto oysters are a Japanese species that are mildly briny and sweet. Their mellow flavour makes them a gateway shellfish for raw bar newbies.
5. European Flat or Belon oysters are what Langley shucked at the world championships. They’re a little harder open than the others, but heir seawater flavour pairs well with beaujolais, he notes.
The tools of the trade
Shucking is simple when it comes to the gadgetry required: two hands and one shucking knife usually do the trick. But the secret is in the knife you use.
Langley prefers a shorter blade, about two inches long, with a bulbous wooden handle that allows for a good grip. The short blade gives him better control but just like oysters themselves, the knives used to shuck them come in all sizes and shapes. As with any knife, it’s important to find one that feels comfortable in your hand.
Langley sells stainless steel shucking knives at Tide and Vine with a slip-free handle and guard to protect fingers from bumping and scraping against rough shells.
First-time shuckers may prefer using a tea towel or gloves to grip the oyster and provide some additional protection, but Langley warns they hinder shuckers’ abilities to pick up on important cues when opening oysters.
Mastering the shuck
A lesson in oyster anatomy is required. The top of an oyster is flat. The bottom tends to protrude more and is called the cup. It’s the part of the shell in which the oyster is served.
The hinge is the pointiest and hardest part of an oyster’s armour. This is where you go in with your shucking knife because there’s less chance of the shell breaking.
1. Insert the tip of your knife, gently wiggling it until you feel the hinge pop. Keep the blade pointing down, at a about a 45° angle so it doesn’t slip and cause injury.
2. Hold the loosened top shell of the oyster with the hand steadying the mollusk. Run the knife along the inside of the top shell to sever the adductor muscle, which opens and closes the shell.
3. Remove the top shell, then slip your knife blade under the oyster to cut the lower adductor muscle. “It should be able to slide right off the shell into your mouth,” Langley explained. Whatever you do, don’t cut the meat of the oyster. You want the oyster to look like it’s been undisturbed in the process.
4. As you separate the meat from the bottom shell, avoid spilling any of the natural liquid called liquor. The liquor is sea water but it’s also flavour.
5. Serve with lemon slices and horseradish, hot sauce or mignonette, that lip-smacking concoction of shallots, vinegar and pepper, and slurp away.
6. When all else fails, head to Tide and Vine and let Langley and crew work their magic for you.