10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Oysters

Oysters: People either love them or hate them, but rarely do oysters garner a simple "meh." Yet, surprisingly, there is a lot we don't know about this tasty, slimy, and expensive bivalve, save for the idea that you eat them raw, accompanied by Champagne, and that pregnant people aren't allowed to join in. To help shed some light, here are some facts about these mollusks.

NYC used to be the place to eat oysters

When the Dutch first arrived in Manhattan during the 17th century, the island was covered in oyster beds, and oysters were a treat they were thoroughly enjoyed. As more settlers came in and New York grew as a city, so did the consumption of this popular mollusk. By the 19th century, the oyster beds found in New York Harbor were the largest source of these creatures worldwide.

In the city itself, you could get raw oysters from street vendors or go to what was called an oyster saloon and find oysters cooked in all sorts of ways including scalloped, fried, dipped in butter, pan-roasted and made into a stew. Unfortunately, this obsession with the mollusk caused mass destruction to the oyster beds, and they were all but wiped out. Today, there has been a strong push to revitalize the native oysters, though the days of having the streets of Manhattan glistening with shells are long gone.

Oysters have many health benefits

Before you take this statement too far — no, you will not get turned on by eating an oyster. However, this sexy bivalve packs a wallop of zinc, which is great for making you feel good and keeping up your energy. Not only does the zinc boost your sex drive, but it also ups your immune system, helps get rid of acne, eases rashes, and makes your bones stronger.

There are five species of oysters

Sure you have over a hundred varieties of oysters, but did you know that all of these hail from only five species? And of those you have the Pacific Oysters (or Japanese Oysters), Kumamoto Oysters, European Flat Oysters, Atlantic Oysters, and Olympia Oysters. Aside from the water they grow in, what makes these bivalves different from each other are the shells. The European Flat has a large, straight shell with fine ridges, whereas the Pacific Oysters are smaller with wavy casings.

Kumamotos are also smaller, and the shell is rounder and pale, which is similar to the Olympias, though this one has a smoother shell with a bit of iridescent coloring. Finally, the Atlantic species looks like a comma or teardrop and tends to be on the larger side.

Oysters clean the water

Each oyster filters about 30 to 50 gallons of water a day. A day! Think of how much water a whole bed of those awesome bivalves are cleaning, which makes these not only tasty creatures but good-for-the-environment ones, as well.

Oysters and absinthe are a match made in heaven

Forget Champagne. At the Brooklyn restaurant Maison Premiere, oysters and absinthe are all the rage. "The combination of briny, mineral-rich oysters and the soft fennel and mint of the absinthe struck a chord with the American palate and brings each element to light in a new way," says Ben Crispin, the restaurant's maître d'. "While a mug of stout or a glass of Champagne is great, it is absinthe and oysters that really make a perfect match." Here, they serve over two dozen types of absinthe and just as many varieties of oysters, so it stands to reason the folks behind the restaurant know what they are talking about.

Americans pioneered booze and oyster pairing

"Let the French have their wine and the Irish have their beer, it was spirits and oysters the Americans were focused on," says Crispin. "The New York oyster tavern of the 19th century is where most Americans tried drinking spirits with their oysters for the first time, and when these taverns began spreading south and reached New Orleans, the absinthe capital of America, these two items met for the first time." Now, aside from absinthe, you find this luscious bivalve paired with a dirty martini, gin gimlet, and even a Hemingway daiquiri, if you are feeling adventurous.

Not all types of oysters make pearls

Despite any hopes you have of popping open an oyster and finding a gleaming pearl, the oysters we eat don't actually make these precious gemstones. While the edible oysters belong to the family Ostreidae, pearl oysters, or Pinctada, are part of the Pteriidae family. Of the seven main types that create the coveted orbs, each adds its own spin to the mix, giving them different colors, sizes, and shapes. Also, unlike the common oysters we know, Pinctada are found deep in the ocean, not near the surface.

Oysters taste better in the winter

Ever wonder why there's the adage about not eating oysters in months that don't have an r letter (think May, June, July, and August)? The main reason is that it's harder to keep them cold and fresh in the heat, especially before refrigeration. But the other reason is that in the summer months, the bivalves are spawning, which gives them a weak and watery flavor. During the winter months, when the water is nice and cold, these mollusks really thrive. "They just taste a lot better when the water is colder," says Stephanie Villani, who sells seafood in the NYC farmers' market through her Long Island-based company Blue Moon Fish. "We don't even bother to bring oysters in in the summer."

Oysters help plants grow

Don't just chuck those used empty oyster shells in the garbage. The shells are great for helping your garden flourish. The reason for this is calcium, and the oyster shell is chock-full of it. This chemical can improve the soil's pH balance, adds nutrients to the plants and strengthens their cell walls, all of which lead to healthy produce and brighter flowers. So next time, think twice about throwing the shells away and use them as fertilizer instead.

The bad oyster exists

When your buddy calls in sick because of a "bad oyster," do you ever think he is just trying to get out of that Sunday brunch you planned weeks ago? Turns out the bad oyster is a real thing, and there is nothing you can do to avoid it. Sure, you shouldn't eat raw shellfish that has been sitting out for a while in a warm room or in the sun, but even if you are cautious of this situation, you can still get sick off of oysters. The reason for this is food poisoning from vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that grows in estuaries and along the coast, the places you find oysters too. Not that this should dissuade you, as it's not that common, and the majority of people that end up with that fated bite recover just fine.

This post is brought to you by our friends at Whole Foods Market.