Shucking oysters isn’t the easiest task in the kitchen, but it most certainly is one where practice makes perfect. Start by scrubbing the oyster shells thoroughly with a stiff brush under cold running water. While they are draining in a colander, set up your shucking station and pour enough very coarse salt over the bottom of a platter to form a thick layer. This is where your shelled oysters will end up.
Take a look at an oyster: there is one cupped shell and one more or less flat shell. The difference is very obvious in some varietes (belon) and less so in others (‘Flowers’ from Long Island). Always shuck oysters with the flat side up, so you discard the flat shell and leave the cupped shell to hold the oyster and its juices. If you are right-handed, pad your left palm with several layers of kitchen towel and use it to hold the oyster firmly in place. Look at the hinged (i.e., narrower) end of the oyster. You can usually spot an opening that will serve as your point of entry. Wiggle the tip of an oyster knife, churchkey style bottle opener, or a small screwdriver into this opening and twist it, separating the top and bottom shells. Whatever your tool, work slowly and steadily and make sure the business end of the tool is pointing toward the padding in your hand. You’ll know when the shells separate: you will feel the tight bond between shells loosen dramatically. If you are straining too hard to pry the shells apart, take a better look for the opening or set that oyster aside and try another. With a few shucked oysters under your belt you’ll tackle this problem a little more confidently.
Once you’ve separated the shells, run a thin-bladed, not-too-sharp knife all along the top shell, pressing the knife blade as close as possible to the shell to avoid cutting into the oyster. (You’re separating the oyster from the top shell.) Discard the top shell. Run the knife blade underneath the bottom shell, again pressing it tightly to the shell to keep the oyster whole. Set the oyster shell, with as much of the juice as possible, on the salt-lined platter. Repeat with the remaining oysters.
What to serve? Lemon wedges alone for some. A dash of basic hot sauce like Tabasco or Frank’s is nice with the lemon. And if I’m doing this at home I make cocktail sauce because almost everyone likes it. It’s easy to make too: start with a good quality bottled chili sauce, spike it to taste with hot red pepper sauce, grated horseradish (fresh, if possible) fresh lime juice and Worcestershire sauce.
Then there are the pros. Sitting at the bar at Hog Island Oyster Co. at the Ferry Building in San Francisco is an education in itself. Or find out what the Hog-Islanders like to do with their oysters besides shucking and slurping them up by checking out the book.