Consider the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Sometimes called Chesapeake white gold, the Chesapeake oyster has a flavor and texture that begs connoisseurs to come back and shuck just a few more. Kendra Bailey Morris explores the debate over how best to enjoy them and shares a few options.

Consider the Chesapeake Bay Oyster

Listen to Kendra Bailey Morris on the 'Kitchen Window' Podcast

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Whether fried and dipped in tartar sauce or straight out of the shell, oysters deliver a much-beloved burst of flavor, ranging from sweet to briny. Kendra Bailey Morris for NPR hide caption

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Kendra Bailey Morris for NPR

Whether fried and dipped in tartar sauce or straight out of the shell, oysters deliver a much-beloved burst of flavor, ranging from sweet to briny.

Kendra Bailey Morris for NPR

During the Depression, oysters were so plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay area that people ate them three to four times a week. Kendra Bailey Morris for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Kendra Bailey Morris for NPR

During the Depression, oysters were so plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay area that people ate them three to four times a week.

Kendra Bailey Morris for NPR

Buying and Storing Oysters

Oysters should smell fresh like the sea and have tightly closed, unbroken shells.

Discard any oysters that have open, gaping shells, or do not close tightly when lightly tapped.

Shucked oysters, packed in their own oyster liquor, should be clear or pearlescent and not cloudy.

Store live oysters in the coldest part of the refrigerator on a sheet pan or in a bowl covered with a damp cloth up to one day.

Never store live oysters in an air-tight container, because that will kill them and make them spoil.

Eating raw or undercooked oysters — as with any raw seafood or meat — carries risks. Make sure to ask where the oysters are from and how fresh they are.

Shucking Oysters

Shucking raw oysters is not as tough as you might think. You'll need a stiff-bristled brush for scrubbing, a clean bar towel (or heavy duty rubber glove) and an oyster knife.

After scrubbing the oyster well with plain water, hold the oyster in a bar towel or heavy glove over a bowl with the flatter side of the oyster facing up.

Using the oyster knife, insert the tip of the blade into the seam near the hinge of the oyster and twist, prying the two halves apart until you hear a "pop" as the oyster releases.

Carefully detach the oyster from the top shell and discard the top part of the shell.

Serve raw oysters in their bottom shells on a bed of ice, with quartered lemons, hot sauce and cocktail sauce.

About the Author

Food writer and culinary instructor Kendra Bailey Morris is the author of White Trash Gatherings: From-Scratch Cooking for Down-Home Entertaining (Ten Speed Press 2006).

The afternoon sun barely peeks out from behind rows of hand-built piers that line the shore of Cockrell's Creek in Reedville, Va., on the Chesapeake Bay. There, brackish creek waters gently slap against barnacle-encrusted fishing boats gently rising and falling with the tide.

It's oyster season, and Wendell Haynie, an 11th-generation Virginia waterman, recalls a time when Chesapeake Bay oysters were so plentiful that folks would eat them three to four times a week.

"This was during the Depression," he says as he leans back to orate, "and times were tight, but oysters were still a big thing. We used to catch a hundred bushels before lunchtime."

Haynie's mother, Fanny, would crush soda crackers with a rolling pin, then bread the oysters in a combination of crackers and egg wash and finally fry them in hot fat. Other than fried, he says, the only way to eat them was raw, "straight outta the shell."

Whether you choose to enjoy these briny creatures roasted with butter, floating atop a creamy bisque or straight up with a dash of Texas Pete, there's no doubt that in today's culinary world, oysters are still quite a "big thing."

Oysters can live up to 20 years and, except during their free-swimming larval stage, spend the majority of their time attached to rocks, shells or piers.

Like many invertebrates, oysters are hermaphroditic, and will change gender at least once during their lifetime, often starting as male and ending as female.

The Chesapeake oyster — sometimes called Chesapeake white gold — has a flavor and texture that begs connoisseurs to come back and shuck just a few more.

Salty and succulent, these oysters embody the word "delicacy." Gently unhinging one of these live creatures with an oyster knife reveals a larger-than-usual, juicy, gray body resting in a pool of precious liquor.

From here, it takes only a flick of the knife to loosen it from its shell. Then, down the throat it goes with such indescribable bliss that food writer M.F.K. Fisher, in Consider the Oyster, grappled with its ambiguity.

"An oyster," she wrote, "will taste like what the taster expects, which of course depends entirely on the taster."

The debate on how to best enjoy the oyster goes on. Southern purists prefer breading their oysters in cornmeal and then dipping them in lemon-spiked tartar sauce, while the more creative opt for Japanese panko crumbs and piquant aioli.

Champagne mignonette sauce and granita regularly grace oysters on the half shell, while seafood classics still live on in herbed oyster stuffings and creamy, bread-crumb topped oyster casseroles.

Whatever your oyster preference, one truth remains: Those of us who revere the oyster will do almost anything to get our hands on one, and when we do, we know just how we want it.

Back at Cockrell's Creek, I find myself standing among a pack of multigenerational watermen, who cherish their locally raised oysters in much the same way a sommelier treasures a rare Bordeaux. So I ask, "What's the best way to cook an oyster?"

Within seconds, shouts and playful arguments erupt: "Steamed with butter." "Roasted." "No, you always eat 'em fried in cracker meal." "What do you mean, butter? Who needs butter? You eat 'em straight up."

I have started a dispute that will, most likely, last long after the sun sets.

That's the beauty of these oysters. Much in the same way North Carolinians debate vinegar versus tomato when it comes to barbecue, local oyster purists aren't afraid to offer you their uncensored take on the best way to cook these briny bivalve delights.

So, the next time you're pondering what to make for dinner, take a moment to consider the Chesapeake Bay oyster.