John Susman knows a thing or two about fresh oysters. Having caught, cooked, eaten and written about seafood for the past 30 years, the man behind Fishtales - a one-stop-shop for restaurants, wholesalers and catchers - is our go-to when it comes to curly questions about creatures from the deep. And while shucking oysters is up there as one of the more intimidating tasks facing the first-timer in the kitchen, it's also an essential social skill on a par with being able to uncork a bottle of Champagne or make an omelette.
The good news is there are only four steps between you and your next oyster. With a bit of practice and a firm hand, you can shuck your own oysters and enjoy them exactly as they should be: as fresh as possible.
"Don't attempt to open oysters without an oyster knife - a paring knife, screwdriver or hammer simply won't do. When you're buying an oyster knife, price isn't always an indicator. You can get a perfectly serviceable plastic-handled one for $7 or $10 or you can splash out on something lovely and French for $30. In either case the thing is to look for something short and stout with a heavy, pointed blade (ideally with a dullish edge on one side for cutting the adductor) and a heavy handle. The blade must be set deep into the handle and show no signs of movement. Push the blade against a hard surface to check - if the knife shows any flex, avoid it.
When to shuck?
"I believe this is a task best done while pouring the first glass of Champagne as the guests arrive," Susman says. If you'd rather give your guests your full attention, then try to open the oysters no more than 45 minutes before serving.
"Freshly opened oysters throw an amazing liquor which needs to part of the experience," Susman says. "But it will lose its flavour quickly - it's worth getting the rest of the meal sorted and leaving the oysters to the last minute."
To avoid any injuries to yourself (or any damaged oysters), don't rush. Shucking is a skill that takes time to master. Place a damp cloth under your chopping board to stop it moving around. You don't necessarily need an oyster-shucking glove. Wrapping a clean tea towel around the oyster should provide enough of a barrier between flesh (yours, that is) and knife. You can also create a fold with the tea towel and tuck the fingers of your non-shucking hand into this for extra protection. Oysters are easier to open if they've been buried under ice for half an hour before you open them.
Step 1 - The set up
Make sure your oysters are cold before you start. If they're rock oysters you should keep them in a damp, cool place, such as the laundry, at 12 to 14 degrees, and if they're Pacifics, keep them unopened in their packaging at the bottom of the fridge. Regardless of species, bury the oysters under ice for half an hour before you open them.
Take an oyster and, with the cup of the shell facing down, wrap it in a clean cloth with the pointed hinge of the oyster facing out.
Place the cloth on a board, on a stable surface, and hold down firmly.
Insert the blade of the knife a small way into the hinge where the top and bottom shells meet.
Moving the knife in a rhythmical rocking motion from side to side, push the knife into the hinge until you have some leverage.
Step 2 - The hard part
With the oyster knife firmly wedged between the top and bottom shell, hold the oyster in the cloth firmly.
Twist the oyster knife sharply away from you and listen for the pop as the hinge gives way.
The hard part of opening the oyster is now complete.
Step 3 - Lids off
With the hinge now broken, slide the oyster knife gently along the top lid.
At the two o'clock position on the top lid is the adductor muscle, which holds the top and bottom shells together.
Simply slide the knife through this muscle to release the top shell.
Step 4 - The finish
Having removed the top lid, use the blade of the oyster knife to snip the adductor muscle on the bottom shell to release the oyster. If you want, you can turn the oyster over to have its "belly" facing up.
Try to keep as much of the oyster's natural liquor in the shell as possible - it's delicious and is one of the things that makes a freshly shucked oyster so good.
The oysters are now ready to serve - place them on a bed of ice or salt to stop them tipping over and enjoy.