If you grew up along the Gulf Coast, you know the old saying about eating oysters only in months that are spelled using the letter “R.” The adage dates back to the pre-refrigeration era, when oysters could quickly spoil.
Nowadays, it’s generally safe to eat oysters any time of year. Still, fall kicks off the oyster season in the minds of many in south Louisiana, and with cooler temperatures finally making an appearance, few dishes satisfy like hearty, flavorful baked, grilled or sautéed oysters.
Since the 2010 BP oil spill, some chefs and home cooks have shied away from eating and cooking with oysters. That may be due in part to fear, which officials with the state Wildlife and Fisheries Department said is misplaced.
It also may be due to the fact that oysters are harder to come by and slightly more expensive, about 20 percent, than they were before the disaster.
“Stock sizes are down from historical levels,” said Marty Bourgeois, a marine fisheries biologist with Wildlife and Fisheries. “Our oyster population has definitely been affected.”
Contamination from the BP spill isn’t the only reason for the decreased population, according to Bourgeois, at least not directly. Rather, he attributes it mainly to fresh water that encroached on oyster beds when water control structures in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes were opened last year to divert BP oil away from the marshes.
“The idea was to keep oil from entering the estuaries, which it did, but that was not good for oysters because they thrive in brackish water,” he said. “When the system freshens up too much, that leads to mortality (in the oyster population) and we saw that happen.”
It didn’t help that the oyster population was already down as a result of Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
“Then last spring we got a lot of Mississippi River water when they opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway,” Bourgeois said. “So we’ve gone through quite a few environmental catastrophes in a short time.”
That said, oysters are still widely available in south Louisiana. In fact, oyster fans might consider it something of a civic duty to support local fisheries by purchasing fresh oysters and trying out some of the recipes on page 4E.
Some of the dishes are classics, including an adaptation of Emeril’s recipe for Oysters Rockefeller, Charbroiled Oysters from Drago’s in New Orleans, baked Oysters Dunbar and a classic Creole-style Oyster Dressing.
Others are lighter, leaner versions of classics, including Light Baked Italian Oysters, which includes plenty of garlic and breadcrumbs but leaves out the high-fat butter; Oysters Over Angel Hair Pasta, which gets plenty of flavor from fresh herbs and lemon zest, and Oysters Mediterranean, a new favorite by Tracey Koch that is topped with a fresh tomato and olive tapenade.
For tips on cooking the perfect oyster, we called chef Don Bergeron. Here’s what he had to say:
- Don't overcook oysters or it will compromise their delicate consistency. Five to 10 minutes is adequate, or just until the edges begin to curl.
- If you have live oysters to be used in a cooked dish, rather than for eating raw, you can steam (a few seconds will do it) or microwave them (about 30 to 60 seconds on high depending on the oven wattage) just until the shells open. Then cut them from the shells and proceed.
- Oysters are salty by nature, so most recipes using oysters will not need to be salted.
- Choose freshly-shucked oysters for broiling, smoking, or baking on the half-shell.
- As with many foods, size and age make a difference. Smaller and younger oysters will most likely be more tender.
- Herbs that pair well with oysters include thyme, fennel seed, paprika and parsley.
- If the oysters don’t smell fresh or you’re concerned they may not be good, don’t take a chance.
Said Bergeron: “When in doubt throw it out.”