Opening an oyster takes determination. My daughter Lili loves to shuck oysters: she is just one of those people born to find her way into the belly of the beast. Still, we made her wait until she turned seven before we let her start wielding her own oyster knife. Because the job requires a certain focus and manual dexterity, too.
Here, Lili holds a classic, comma-shaped Wellfleet oyster. I notice she’s avoiding the heavier, rough-layered shells in the pile. “I like to leave those for you,” she says. A clever strategy. But once you get a feel for the basic steps involved in shucking, you’ll find they work no matter how wicked the oyster.
Before you dig in: Do you have a decent oyster knife? The blade should be sturdy but not as wide as those sold for opening clams. We like how the rounded backs of Boston-style knives allow you to apply leverage as you twist against the shells. The tip should be curved, so you can go easy on the delicate oyster once you get to it. (We sell knives in our markets and on our website––find our go-to favorites here.)
Which reminds me, I’ve got to get Lili some better-fitting gloves. Gloves give you a safer grip, and I recommend them, especially for beginners. If you’ve ever watched the shucking competition at the Wellfleet OysterFest (our hometown’s most amazing party), you know that winning is not just about speed. It’s also about presentation: judges don’t expect to see bits of broken shell in a well-shucked oyster. No blood, either. And I don’t need to tell you that it’s not the oysters that bleed.
Scrub the mud and grit off your oysters. We sell them all cleaned up, of course, but if you pick them yourself they can be pretty mucky. It’s fine to hose them down with fresh water, but don’t ever leave them soaking in it: you don’t want to waterlog them. I like to keep a bowl of seawater or saltwater nearby when I shuck, for rinsing my knife or any bits of shell that cling to the oyster after it’s open. And it’s nice to set up a platter with cracked ice for your finished work––if you get fast enough to stay ahead of hungry onlookers.
Now you’re ready to shuck. Hold the oyster in the palm of your weaker hand; you’ll want your stronger hand for the knife work. See how Lili is holding the oyster in the picture up above, with its flat shell facing up? That’s good. The other side, nestled in her glove, is more cupped. The oyster will settle safely in its juices there while you begin shucking. Lili’s also pointing out the hinge end. You’ll want that end pointing towards you.
I’m going to step in here and shuck bare-handed so you’ll have a better view.
Step One: Stick the tip of the knife into the hinge (aim for where the top and bottom shell meet on the pointy end of the oyster). You’re not doing anything dramatic here yet: if you start twisting the knife at this stage, you’re just going to chip the shell. Wiggle the knife in until you feel it’s resting against firm shell, beyond the flaky outer layers of the oyster. Here is where you need to twist the knife and pop the two shells apart––you will feel the shells separate from one another.
Step Two: Hold the oyster level so its juices (local oyster eaters here in New England call this the liquor) won’t spill out as you open it. Slide the knife farther in, keeping the blade pressed up against the inside of that flat top shell so you don’t mangle the oyster inside. Now make a smooth slicing motion from one side to the other to separate the oyster from the top shell.
Step Four: At this point, the oyster is still attached to the deeper cupped shell. It’s easier to work on the muscle attaching it if you turn the oyster around (as in the picture above, with the narrow hinge end pointing away from you and the rounder end closer to you). Slice under the oyster, from one side to the other.
“Sure.” Right now, the oyster is her world.