Life Lessons: How to Shuck an Oyster

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Whether you’re bicoastal or landlocked, you should know how to properly (and safely) shuck an oyster.

There really is no hidden skill quite like it. In fact, shucking oysters engages a muscle running from your wrist to your elbow which (fun fact!) is only ever used while breaking open an oyster shell.

So roll up your sleeves, grab your shucking knife and a washcloth, and let’s get shucking.

Our instructor is Cory Egan— one of Colorado’s only professional oyster buyers and shuckers— who works with Blue Island Oyster Bar and Seafood of Cherry Creek. This seafood mecca of Mile High gets fresh Long Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts oysters shipped over and served the same day they’re dived for. In fact, one of the restaurant partners Chris Quartuccio is the preferred supplier of numerous James Beard and Michelin-starred chefs across the United States.

… so you’re learning from the best.

To get started, stand up in front of a table and place a long, horizontal washcloth in front of you. Roll the side of your non-dominant hand backwards until it forms a plush roll.

  • Grab an oyster and hold it belly down. An oyster is a bivalve (Latin for two bones), which is pretty indicative of its shape. There are two sides to the oyster shell. The one with a bigger curve is the belly, so you’ll hold that side on the bottom with your dominant hand.

There is a natural separation point on the side where you’ll insert your shucking knife.

  • Place the oyster on the washcloth so it’s side-to-side with the rolled washcloth – separation point on the opposite side of the roll. Put your non-dominant hand over the shell and with the other place your shucking knife into the separation point. The butt of the handle should go directly into the center of your palm, and fold your fingers around the rest. Never grip sideways.
  • Slowly, but with pressure (about 3-4 pounds), wiggle the knife into the natural separation point to break the ligament. The break is the most difficult part, and Egan says it takes 20-30 oysters to really get a feel for it.
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Protect your hands with a towel or steel mesh gloves

If you’re wondering why you use the washcloth starting out, it’s to protect your hand in the event that the knife misses the oyster and slices you. So don’t get brave when you’re starting out.

  • After the ligament is broken, you’ll clean the abductor muscle from the top shell by weaving the knife across the opening toward you. During this step, you’ll want to run the knife over the top of the oyster.
  • Now the top should be off. Take your shucking knife and in one full scooping motion, cut the bottom of the oyster.
  • Drop the shucker and down that baby!

Keep in mind, the most dangerous part of shucking isn’t cutting yourself with the knife, but cutting through the shell and into your hand getting shell fragments into your blood. If you accidentally eat some shell fragments, it’s no sweat. That’s because our digestive system and blood system are very different. When these fragments get into your bloodstream it can’t control the bacteria, and without attention, you could end up losing some of your fingers to sepsis.

In the event of this happening, clean up the wound ASAP with alcohol (Eagan has used actual alcohol on one occasion).

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Another surprise you may encounter while shucking oysters is opening a shell to find a little crab living inside. This is common, especially on the east coast. What happened here is that, while the oyster was under water opening and closing to filter water, phytoplankton, and microalgae, a crab forced its way in and decided to stay.

But don’t be alarmed. Scoop out the crab with your knife and continue on your way.

So like we said, it should take you roughly 20-30 oysters to really get the muscle memory. And we recommend trying a variety of types. Some will be easier to open than others and nearly all will taste different due to the variance of phytoplankton and microalgae found in different bodies of water.

Once you have it down, it’s extremely sexy. Better than driving stick or playing football.