It may seem counterintuitive, but the height of oyster season is smack dab in the middle of winter. Cold temperatures may not exactly make you crave a big pile of raw bivalves, but the timing is right. If you're not used to downing oysters by the dozen, this world of shellfish can look intimidating.
But fortunately for all the oyster newbies, sea geek and owner of TJ's Seafood Market Jon Alexis is an experienced mother shucker. This guy knows more about oysters than just about anyone else you'll meet. Eater recently caught up with Alexis to get the lowdown on slurping oysters of all kinds in Dallas. (You'll also find a map of the eight best places to put your newfound bivalve knowledge to good use.)
West Coast vs. East Coast vs. Gulf
As Alexis explains, oysters generally come from three regions in the United States — the West Coast, the East Coast, and the Gulf of Mexico. Each have different flavor profiles, which can be attributed to the temperature of the surrounding waters. Colder waters on the East Coast can hold more salt, resulting in a brinier oyster than the West Coast or Gulf counterparts. West Coast oysters tend to have a creamier, almost dashi-like flavor. While Alexis thinks Gulf oysters can be great, many oyster aficionados simply prefer the more complex flavor of colder water oysters from the coasts.
What makes a good oyster?
Even moreso than other foods, the most influential component of an oyster's flavor is its environment. "When you eat an oyster from Duxbury Bay in Massachussetts, you're literally eating some of Duxbury Bay. It's not just a philosophical thing," says Alexis. The amount of salt in the surrounding waters also influences their flavor, and colder water tends to be saltier. Unlike other seafood, though, a farm-grown oyster isn't necessarily lower quality than its wild counterpart. Oysters on the East Coast and in the Gulf are the same species, with wildly different flavor profiles influenced exclusively by their environment.
Where you should (and shouldn't) eat oysters
Cheap oysters at a neighborhood dive may look attractive, but it's best to use caution when getting a deal on raw shellfish. "Someone in the last 20 years has died from eating cheap oysters at a restaurant in Dallas," says Alexis. "But the price of an oyster doesn't mean that it's not fresh. If you're comfortable with the quality of the oysters and how they're being stored, you shouldn't be scared of cheap." Fortunately for eaters with less information about their restaurant's handling practices, Alexis also notes that it's easy to tell with your nose when an oyster has gone bad.
How the hell am I supposed to eat an oyster?
Eating oysters can be as simple or as complicated as you like. For Alexis, the natural brininess of an oyster is all that's needed, but many prefer our bivalves with a little contrasting flavor. The spice of horseradish is a spicy counterpoint that pairs well with many oysters, and cocktail sauce is a classic pairing for those of us who grew up slurping them by the dozen. Mignonette is a classic French condiment often served with oysters, made with wine vinegar and shallots, that provides a little sweetness and acidity.
What's with that "months with the letter R" thing?
The old adage says that you should only eat oysters in months that include the letter "R," but Alexis says that it's easier to just remember that oysters generally shouldn't be eaten during the summer. When the air's temperature rises, so does the water's, which can breed bacteria. Transportation is also an issue when it's scorching outside, so it's best to leave your slurping to months when it's a little bit cooler in Dallas.