Oyster purists will sneer at grilled oysters. To cook an oyster is to ruin it, they say. Oh, you’ll hear them speak with informed elegance about this bivalve mollusk like wine. Earthy, briny, a cucumber finish, they say as they swirl around their crudely opened rock as if it’s a glass of Cabernet. When you’re at a restaurant and your seafood sommelier starts to throw around the word terroir, know that you’re about to pay more than $30 for a dozen. Oysters have been claimed by the upper class; they are seemingly the birthright of the cranky gastronome.
But the oyster snobs are wrong. Grilled oysters aren’t an abomination. They’re a thrifty and affordable preparation enjoyed by regular folks, and they’re a delicious summer appetizer.
The oyster purists do have one valid point, I will admit. There is much to be enjoyed in the raw, salty Wellfleet or a grassy and crisp Kumamoto. A quality oyster certainly deserves to remain unadulterated. The natural flavor in a freshly shucked oyster is deep and wondrous. It is food in its purest form.
However. A down-in-the-dumps, muddy, oversized, junkyard Gulf oyster needs help. These clustered, crummy sea aliens don’t carry much flavor; that’s why they’re often consumed with saltine crackers and Tabasco sauce. In the winter months, Gulf oysters can run a tad bit sweeter (finding a cock oyster, one where the meat has a purplish hue, is a good sign for the batch), but in the summer they’re large, meaty, and rather tasteless.
That doesn’t mean they are entirely devoid of value, though. There’s a reason New Orleans is known for grilled oysters. The grilling method involves using the bottom of a Gulf oyster as a cooking vessel, and it is ingenious. It imparts flavor to the struggling, summer Gulf oyster. You have to give props to the human race when it comes to our culinary ability to polish a turd.
There are many grilled oyster recipes that involve topping-heavy preparations, but I prefer the classic route. This recipe is for a buttery, garlic-laden, brightly acidic grilled oyster with bite. Since we’re trying to achieve strong flavors here, I recommend using a good Pecorino Romano.
“But wait, cheese and seafood don’t go together,” the worst of your friends will shamelessly regurgitate not realizing they actually heard that on an episode of Chopped. Don’t listen to Scott Conant. A myriad of seafood dishes exist that benefit from the welcome addition of milky decadence. And a grilled oyster is one of them.
Serve your oysters with a slice of grilled bread, and you have yourself a lavish appetizer begging to be consumed with a cold beer or a cheap glass of wine. A little decadence at home does wonders for the self.
This recipe does require you to shuck your own oysters, which is understandably a pain, but if you want to give it a try, any number of YouTube tutorials will outline the basics. Spend five bucks on a cheap oyster knife. Keep it handy. My big tip is to always make sure you twist the knife. Don’t try to pop the oyster with leverage; it’s much easier than that. The chain mail glove, I have found, only decreases your dexterity, but a folded up dish towel can be manipulated to suit each situation.
- 12 oysters (Gulf or Virginia would be best)
- 1 stick of unsalted butter
- 2 cloves garlic
- Juice of 1 lemon
- White pepper
- 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
- Pecorino Romano cheese
Let the butter soften for an hour or two at room temperature. When it’s close to soft, give the cloves of garlic a good smashing with the back of a knife, peel the skins, and mince. Combine the garlic, butter, and lemon juice in a bowl. Add a little salt and white pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly. Set aside.
Shuck each oyster, detaching the muscle from the top and the bottom, and remove any debris with a finger of your clean hand in the process. (Rinse hands in between oysters if necessary.) Serving an oyster with a shell fragment in it is a high offense. Spoon about a half a tablespoon of lemon garlic butter onto each oyster. Then top generously with grated Pecorino Romano.
Set your gas grill on high (if you’re doing several rounds of these, then a batch of charcoal won’t go to waste). Once that baby is hot, like, 400-500 degrees hot, place each oyster on the grill with the oyster and butter side facing up. At this point you can either close the grill completely, or get something like a sheet tray to closely cover your batch of oysters, as seen below.
The trapped heat will cook the oysters in no time, about 2 minutes. Remove each oyster carefully with tongs. Top with chopped parsley, more cheese, and lemon zest. Serve with grilled bread.
If you’re into some bonus entertainment, here’s a video I made where I went back to an old job to shuck some oysters myself.