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Learn how to shuck oysters from a pro

The Social Shell hosts virtual courses and happy hours led by a world champion oyster shucker.
A virtual oyster-shucking course with Prince Edward Island oysters was taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray.
A virtual oyster-shucking course with Prince Edward Island oysters was taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 8, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — The box of briny bivalves arrived on an exceptionally sweltering Friday afternoon.

I had been eyeing the door for hours, worrying that my shipment of Prince Edward Island oysters would sit outside in the hot Florida sun for hours without me noticing.

Prince Edward Island oysters are at the ready for a virtual oyster-shucking course taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray.
Prince Edward Island oysters are at the ready for a virtual oyster-shucking course taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Sure enough, between walking my dog and juggling Zoom meetings and phone interviews, I somehow managed to miss the delivery. Who knows how long the box, clearly marked PERISHABLE, sat on my front porch, but the top was already very warm to the touch, and that seemed less than ideal.

Thankfully, my worries were all for naught: I found the oysters tucked inside a large white cooler with enough icy gel packs to keep them chilled for days. Still, I scrambled to get them out of the cooler and into the fridge, where they sat for another three days. Even this step gave me some hesitation. Would they still be safe to eat?

If there’s one thing I learned while taking the Social Shell’s PEI Oyster Masterclass, it’s that Prince Edward Island oysters can last an entire month in the fridge.

This is because PEI’s home base, the chilly Canadian waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, provides a prime breeding ground for the filter feeders. Because the oysters live under the ice for a third of their lifespan, they’re well-adjusted to the cold. Once refrigerated, the bivalves go into a hibernation state and can last for four weeks after their harvest date.

Supplies are assembled for a virtual oyster-shucking course with Prince Edward Island oysters taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray.
Supplies are assembled for a virtual oyster-shucking course with Prince Edward Island oysters taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

It should come as no surprise then that PEI oysters are a high-demand export and perfect for shipping. They’ll travel just as well from Bangkok to Sydney as they will to, say, Florida in the middle of June.

I learned all this and so much more during the course, which was led by world champion oyster shucker and Toronto native Patrick McMurray, also known as “Shucker Paddy.” McMurray holds the Guinness World Record for oyster shucking after shucking an impressive 39 — yes, 39 — oysters in one minute.

Spearheaded by Canada’s Food Island, an organization tasked with growing the food industry of Prince Edward Island, the master classes are free to anyone who registers on the Social Shell website at thesocialshell.com. Sourcing PEI oysters for home delivery can be slightly trickier, depending on the time of year. If you can’t find a distributor to ship them, I’d suggest going local and buying a dozen or two Lost Coast Oyster Co. oysters, which are farmed in the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve in lower Tampa Bay.

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Tampa Bay Times food critic Helen Freund participates in a virtual oyster-shucking course taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray.
Tampa Bay Times food critic Helen Freund participates in a virtual oyster-shucking course taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Really, if you’re at all interested in oysters, you’ll love this class. I found it wildly informative and entertaining, and a lovely way to spend a Tuesday evening with a glass of bubbly.

McMurray’s depth of knowledge on the subject was impressive, and participants received a detailed history on oysters and aquaculture operations, oyster classification and tasting notes before the fun even got started.

He also offered several tips on oyster purchasing, involving touch (give them a good tap — if they sound hollow, skip them) and smell (you want “happy” smells of seaweed, freshwater and ocean, not “unhappy” wafts of rotten eggs or fermented foods).

The highlight of the class was McMurray’s tutorial on shucking, which he punctuated with several jovial cheers to the camera as he sipped rose out of a tumbler.

Wielding a curved oyster knife and donning a silver mesh metal shucking glove, McMurray proceeded to teach us how to deftly pop the oyster with a flick of the wrist before carefully prying it open. It looked easy when he did it, but my first attempt was less than perfect. By the third oyster, I was beginning to feel more confident, and by the fifth or sixth, I was ready to call myself a pro.

The only thing left to do was shuck, slurp and savor.

How to shuck an oyster

Prepare a baking sheet or something you can shuck the oysters over. (The oysters will release a lot of liquid, once shucked.) Grab a damp towel or cloth and fold it in half and then fold it one more time. Hold the teardrop-shaped oyster with the point pointing toward you — this is called the hinge — and nestle the oyster in the doubled-up cloth, exposing only the hinge. Place one hand on top of the towel to hold it firmly in place.

Using an oyster knife (a regular butter knife will do in a pinch), turn the knife like “a key in a lock,” McMurray said. Wiggle the knife until the shell pops open and then scrape around the top shell until it detaches. Clean any grit off the oyster using the tip of the knife or a brush, taking care to keep as much of the delicious oyster liquor in the shell as possible.

Take the knife and scrape away at the inductor muscle at the bottom shell half until the oyster is freed and slides around easily. Give the oyster a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or your preferred topping and enjoy.

How to store an oyster

Oysters can be left in the box in the fridge or in a bowl, covered by a tea towel. Don’t put them on ice, though. The ice will eventually melt, and having the oysters submerged in water for too long can damage their flavor and kill them. Right before serving, wash the oysters under cold, running water and submerge in an ice bath for approximately 15 minutes — this will ensure the oysters are chilled to the perfect temperature before shucking.

To register for a virtual oyster-shucking tutorial, visit the Social Shell’s website at thesocialshell.com. Future events include mussel and oyster master classes, virtual tours of Prince Edward Island aquaculture operations, live cooking demos and happy hours.

Tampa Bay Times food critic Helen Freund follows along during a virtual oyster-shucking course with Prince Edward Island oysters taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray.
Tampa Bay Times food critic Helen Freund follows along during a virtual oyster-shucking course with Prince Edward Island oysters taught by world champion shucker Patrick McMurray. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
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