In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
Crack, shuck, slurp: Whether salty or sweet, eaten raw or roasted, North Carolina’s oysters rise above the rest.
“It sounds cheesy, but they really are one of the perfect foods,” says Tres Hundertmark, cofounder and operations manager of NC Oysters 365, which brokers oysters across the state. “An oyster processes about 50 gallons of water a day — they do wonders for curing the habitat that they’re in. And on top of that, they’re quite delicious.”
We chatted with Hundertmark and two other experts — Ryan Bethea, founder and owner of Oysters Carolina on Harkers Island, and Erin Fleckenstein, a coastal scientist and regional manager for the North Carolina Coastal Federation in Newport — about the benefit of bivalves to our coast, their favorite way to eat one, and why North Carolina’s oysters are the best in the country.
Co-founder and Operations Manager of NC Oysters 365
Founder and owner of Oysters Carolina
Coastal Scientist and Regional Manager for the North Carolina Coastal Federation in Newport
What is the No. 1 thing to know about oysters?
Tres Hundertmark: That you can eat them year-round. More than anything else, people ask, “Can you eat them now?” Particularly in the summertime.
Ryan Bethea: That they’re delicious. When we have somebody that’s trying their first oyster, very rarely are they not like, “That was delicious! Let me try some more.” The No. 1 thing I want people to know about oysters is that they taste really, really good.
What type of oysters are found in North Carolina?
Erin Fleckenstein: In North Carolina, we only have one type of oyster, called the eastern oyster. But for people who enjoy eating oysters, there are a variety of different flavors of oysters here. The flavor depends on where they are grown and what the water quality is where they are. Oysters can take on and reflect the flavor of the water they’re grown in, and many oyster farmers will market that unique flavor from their water.
What’s the best way to prepare an oyster?
Tres Hundertmark: That’s sort of a trick question. The best way to taste an oyster is raw. If you want to be able to taste the differences, line up six North Carolina oysters. Just like if you line up six Chardonnays, they’d all be a little bit different. Just like a wine’s flavor is indicative of how it’s made and where the grapes are grown, oysters’ flavors are indicative of where they come from, how they’re cultivated, and what they eat. I absolutely love raw oysters and I very rarely order them cooked. But when I’m at home, I like to put them on the grill with just a compound of garlic, butter, and parsley, and just top them with a little Parmesan cheese. They’re quite delicious that way as well.
Ryan Bethea: My favorite way to eat a raw oyster is on a cracker with lemon, hot sauce, and cocktail sauce. I’m from North Carolina — and a proud North Carolinian — so I put some Texas Pete on there. But I also put some Tabasco on there. I really love a char-grilled oyster. You put it on the grill shucked. Then we make a proprietary butter: It’s a lot of garlic, butter, and Italian seasoning. You top it off with cheese.
What is the best way to harvest an oyster?
Tres Hundertmark: We have a wild harvest which starts on the 15th of October, so that’s when people are allowed to go out and farm for wild oysters. And there are different methods: Some guys use tongs. Some guys use a dredge. Depending on the tide, you can walk out at low tide and knock them off. Every resident of North Carolina is allowed a bushel a day of wild oysters a day. No license, no nothing. They can just go get them, as long as they’re not trespassing on someone’s property.
Do you have any tricks for shucking oysters? They’re intimidating!
Ryan Bethea: When you’re shucking an oyster — in North Carolina most of our oysters are going to be shucked from the hinge — you need to be able to put the knife in the hinge of the oyster in such a way that it will stand up on its own. Once you do that, you’re pretty much there. Then, you’re going to push and turn at the same time.
How would you describe an oyster to someone who has never eaten one — and why should they give them a try?
Tres Hundertmark: It depends on the time of year and what you’ve done to it. If it’s just a raw oyster, particularly getting into the fall when the weather is cooler, the meats are going to be plump and a little bit firm to your teeth. I always recommend that people chew the oyster three times before they swallow it. That way, they can break up the tissue and actually taste the oyster. Generally, you’ll get a decent amount of sweetness when you do that.
Typically, when someone is eating an oyster for the first time, I tell them to not dump out the liquid. A lot of people will taste the liquid first so they can taste the brininess. First and foremost, you’re going to get brine. In the middle, you’re either going to get a grassy or mossy type of flavor or a hard metal and minerals flavor, depending on the kind of area it grew in. The finish will be sweet if you’ve chewed it up.
Ryan Bethea: The main thing for people to know is that the oyster is going to taste like the body of water it came out of. If you eat an oyster from the Chesapeake Bay, it’s going to taste like the Chesapeake Bay. If you eat an oyster from the North River, which is two miles from us, it’s going to taste different than if it’s from us — even though we’re pretty close. In terms of our oysters, they’re going to be really, really salty. If you like the beach, you’re going to like an oyster. It’s very sensory-inducing. It’s also very healthy; not only is it good for your immune system, but it’s also got a lot of protein.
Why are oysters so important to our coast and to our state?
Erin Fleckenstein: Oysters are important to our coast and state for three main reasons: One is that they filter our waters and help to keep the water clean and clear. Two, they are habitats for fish — they provide actual structure and reef and homes to many other fish, like sheepshead, drum, blue crabs, shrimp, and many other fish that we find valuable and important. Third, of course, they provide food to not only humans but also to other animals in the sound. We call this the “three Fs”: the fish, filter, and food that oysters provide. Oysters also are very helpful in our strategies and helping to make a resilient coast, especially where they are located near our shorelines. They can help break down wave energy and limit erosion along our shoreline.
Anything else we should know?
Ryan Bethea: North Carolina has the best oysters in the country. North Carolina has the most pristine waters that oysters are grown in, so if you were to quantify it, we have the best water for growing oysters.
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