Selecting the Best Oysters to Serve and Eat
Oysters have been a much-loved Gulf Coast delicacy for centuries, but a growing demand and shrinking wild population was making them harder and harder to come by until oyster farming stepped onto the scene about 10 years ago. Now the more than 20 oyster farms along Alabama’s Gulf Coast are helping meet that demand for the best oysters while at the same time helping to preserve and sustain the wild population.
While wild oysters are delicious, many discerning oyster connoisseurs prefer the farm-raised versions, which have a more consistent quality thanks to somewhat regulated conditions, quality control and the fact that they are harvested when at their peak flavor and size.
Of course, not all farm-raised oysters are alike. In fact, the size and flavor profile can range widely depending on where the oyster originates. Even oysters along the same coastline can taste differently depending on their specific location, with flavors ranging from briny to buttery to sweet or even coppery.
Anthony Ricciardone, co-owner of Admiral Shellfish Company in Gulf Shores, Alabama, says that, like wine, oysters are a product of their environment.
“There are three or four factors that play a role in the taste and quality of an oyster – even if the season is held static. Different sites produce different salinity, food, temperature and water chemistry based on their location (mouth of river, marsh, etc.). Conditions can change drastically from location to location along the same coastline. Seasonality also plays a huge role,” he explained..
” You’ll notice in the winter the water is clearer due to the absence of phytoplankton and algae. The oysters stay cleaner and more savory during this time of the year. In the summer they taste a bit stronger. But a single oyster’s flavor can change in a matter of days, depending on the brininess of the water at any given time.”
Chris Head, co-owner of Admiral Shellfish Oyster Farm, who is also an environmental scientist, says the farm’s location was chosen for its ideal conditions. Located on a remote stretch of beach near Fort Morgan, the farm benefits from clean, salty tides that flush in directly from the Gulf to the shallow and sandy banks.
The conditions create an ideal site for healthy year-round growth and consistent salinity that nurture an impressive crop of oysters, which are easy to shuck, have a deep cup, beautiful shell, plump meat and a clean salty liquor with a savory seafood finish.
Those qualities are exactly why award-winning Executive Chef Brody Olive of Perdido Beach Resort serves Admiral Shellfish oysters to his patrons.
“I like Admiral’s proximity to the Gulf,” Olive said. “They get that wonderful influx of fresh clean Gulf water. The salinity is remarkable. Their oysters have that nice deep cup. They look small, but they’re meaty. Our guests have been thrilled with their oysters.”
Olive says restaurant guests enjoy the fresh oysters in a variety of ways.
“It all depends on the evening. Some nights, we sell more raw oysters. Other nights, everyone wants one of the broiled options, like Rockefeller or our Gorgeously Garlic Oyster,” Olive noted.
Olive says he believes everyone should try raw oysters at some point.
“If you want the training wheels, then try your first oyster with lemon, a cracker and cocktail sauce, but you don’t really need those things. A fresh, clean Gulf oyster is delicious all on its own,” he said.
Admiral Shellfish oysters are not only enjoyed around Mobile Bay, but high-end restaurants in Houston, New Orleans, Mississippi, Atlanta and Birmingham also feature the oysters in some of their most delectable dishes.
“As the farm-to-table fad has taken hold in the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of oyster bars and restaurants are beginning to offer oysters from a variety of geographic regions,” Ricciardone said. “Some establishments will have 10 different oysters from various geographical locations on the menu.”
Ricciardone pointed out that for some people, preference is simply determined by where they grew up eating oysters. He has found most chefs and consumers prefer a briny oyster.
“Many people simply like the familiar,” he noted.. “For example, someone from Louisiana may enjoy oysters that have a milder, less-salty, creamier taste. Someone from the Northeast may prefer an oyster that is firmer and has a higher brine taste.”
“When they have a low brine, they’re bland, which doesn’t pair well with the texture,” he added.
Executive Chef Irv Miller of the famed Jackson’s Steakhouse in Pensacola, Florida, and author of the cookbook Gulf Coast Oysters: Classic & Modern Recipes of a Southern Renaissance, said, “If I was serving a regular crowd, I would offer both 2 ¼-inch and 3-inch oysters, with a salinity level of 14 parts per thousand (PPT) on the low end and up to 30 PPT on the high end to satisfy everyone.”
Ricciardone explains that ocean seawater is typically 35 PPT. Mobile Bay is 12 PPT. The Admiral Shellfish Oyster Farm sits in an area that is 15 to 25 PPT, which is really salty for that section of the Gulf, which produces that briny flavor everyone loves. The farm’s oysters are also that ideal 2 ½- to 3-inch size that chefs and consumers prefer.
Ricciardone says that they create that ideal shape through handling and tumbling.
“We do it by hand. Our farm is set up facing 30 miles of open water, so they also get some natural tumbling. When an oyster is growing, it tries to grow a lip on its shell. We pull the bags containing the oysters and shake them back and forth. You’ll see chips falling out. It’s that lip breaking off,” he said.
Head explains that the oysters are shaken after desiccation (drying out).
“Every week we take the time to air them out for 24 hours, which kills the algae and the fouling. We essentially create low-tide conditions, which occur naturally on the oyster reef. These low-tide conditions get rid of barnacles and other aquatic species that can’t survive 24 hours without water. This process helps to shape and clean the shell.
“When we shake the oysters and they chip, that regrowth energy is put into forming a deep cup. Then, when the oyster is plated, you’ve got all that juice in that deep cup to keep the meat moist so it can absorb those flavors. The cup gives the meat a place to sit and is aesthetically pleasing,” Head added.
That is just the type of oyster that Executive Chef Milton Joachim of Charred Steak & Oyster Bar in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, likes to serve his customers.
Joachim, who typically serves wild oysters, says he plans to start offering farm-raised oysters and that’s why he recently tried the oysters from Admiral Shellfish, which he found clean and flavorful.
“They are plump and full and have a sweet taste to them,” Joachim said. “I prefer a medium-sized oyster because I can cook them consistently all the same. Plus, I don’t like a huge or super-small oyster when served raw. I want it to fit inside the palm of my hand.”
Of course, quality and safety are at the forefront of all chef’s requirements.
Ensuring Safe Quality
You’ve no-doubt heard the age-old warning to only eat oysters in months with the letter “r” – from September to April – to avoid an unpleasant oyster or a nasty bout of food poisoning. This was wise when oysters were only harvested from the wild rather than farmed.
While refrigeration was a factor in this advice, it really had more to do with the fact that oysters in some popular growing areas would spawn around them. A spawning oyster devotes everything to reproduction, and leaves the meat and flavor almost deflated, watered down, and unappealing.
Modern-day oyster farming and strict environmental rules and enforcement mean it’s now safe to eat oysters year-round.
“Alabama’s Department of Health has as strict regulations as any state in the country,” Ricciardone said.
“We follow a written operation plan of what we can do and when we can do it based on the water and air temperature,” he said. “These rules and regulations create a situation with way less risk than there once was. There’s been a lot of academic work and research to create a timetable and restrictions for oyster farming.”
Ricciardone says the farm’s staff is trained under the state regulations and strictly follow the written procedures. They take steps to make sure that they are accountable with checks and balances and risk mitigations in place.
The Admiral Shellfish farm is set up and organized in a way that as crops mature, some will produce sooner and some later.
It takes approximately seven to 12 months for the oyster to grow from seed to harvest. Then the bags are pulled and the oysters are run through a grading system. The vast majority that do not meet that 2 ½- to 3-inch size range will go back to the bay to feed and grow. The ones that meet size requirements will be immediately put on ice and then into mechanical refrigeration.
“We have a certain amount of time to get them to the processor who supplies the restaurants according to state guidelines. Of course, that differs per season. During hot summer months, we have less time than we do during the colder winter months,” Ricciardone said.
As with any type of farming, there are risks. With oyster farming, those risks include red tide, hurricanes, predators, debris, potential for once-in-a-generation environmental disaster, and thievery.
“During a hurricane, our standard 7,000-pound mainline can hold the gear down. So, if a storm surge comes in, we can hopefully ride it out…depending on the severity,” Ricciardone said. “Our biggest fear is a north wind bringing debris down from the northern part of the bay. Pier, docks, etc. can take out a line. We can sink gear during a hurricane, but debris can move in and take everything.”
Head says some oyster farms have to worry about changing water quality, but thanks to its prime location, Admiral Shellfish is not affected as much.
“Due to the Coriolis effect, water on the incoming tide swings hard to the right (east) and brings us a dump of fresh Gulf water every day from the high tide, which increases the salinity and water quality. Farms that don’t have that same tidal influx may experience lower salinity,” he said.
Believe it or not, thievery is also a threat.
“A farm in Pensacola recently had 40,000 oysters stolen,” Head said.
Fortunately, the thieves got caught. Head explained that a farm-raised oyster often has a black line going down the middle of the shell. The thieves took the stolen oysters to a processor and tried to pass them off as wild oysters that they’d harvested. The processor said no way, and the authorities ended up catching the individuals.”
Predators can also threaten a farm-raised crop.
“Fortunately, we have not seen a predator problem where we are, but in the west bay they deal with oyster drill snails and blue crabs,” Head said. “The crabs and drills can get into the mesh bags and eat the oysters.”
In addition to the physical threats, Head says one of the biggest challenges is simply educating the public about the delicious taste and quality of farm-raised Gulf Coast oysters.
“From a culinary point of view, people sometimes don’t value the Gulf Coast oyster like they do the East Coast and Pacific oysters. They think those oysters are more petite and cleaner than Gulf Coast oysters, which they believe are fatter, creamier, bigger and less salty, but nothing could be further from the truth. Gulf Coast oysters can be just as shapely, briny and crisp as oysters from these other regions. People just need to give them a try so they can see for themselves,” Head concluded.
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