The Trick Ina Garten Uses When Grilling Oysters

After a long summer day, a briny chilled oyster can whet the appetite and kick off a sunset meal. Some diners think of the aquatic creatures as a happy hour treat, since many restaurants will offer by-the-shell deals. However, hostess and expert chef Ina Garten prefers to offer the bivalve as a barbecue appetizer hot off the grill. She takes a more sophisticated modern approach, opening the fresh seafood and adding heaps of garlic, butter, citrus, and herbs. She also takes care to utilize the oceanic tang and moisture provided by the shellfish's liquor, the liquid surrounding the oyster meat.

To ensure all her seasonings meld and survive the stint on the grill, she employs a clever trick to keep the oysters upright and spill-free. The Barefoot Contessa spreads a sheet of aluminum foil across the hot grate, crinkling the edges to provide a handhold and make an enclosure. Then, she places the shelled oysters on top of this surface, nestling them into place for their quick cook.

The benefits of adding oysters to the cookout

Diners leary of oysters on the half shell may be more willing to taste (and enjoy) the cooked mollusks. The heat may bring out some of the natural salt as their liquid reduces, and the texture will become firmer, which may appeal to squeamish eaters. Grilling them will also lessen the threat of unwanted bacteria. Although the adage about eating oysters during "R" months is no longer relevant, there is still a threat of food poisoning when eating raw seafood. Cooking the proteins will make the meal safer.

This approach also gives the host more discretion when it comes to seasoning and preparing them. If shucking is intimidating or too time-consuming, allow the bivalves to pop open on the grill. You may still find the aluminum foil layer helpful when adding seasoned butter into the shells before removing the oysters from the heat.

The choice of how long to cook them also depends on the cook. Chef Ina Garten covers the grill and leaves them for exactly three minutes, which prevents them from turning rubbery and allows the butter to melt. If guests prefer the char of the grill, you can also allow them to sit and smoke for longer. The whole process takes mere minutes regardless, making the dish a great option for entertaining. Early bird guests can also help finish up any extra raw ones as they watch you load up the grill.

Seasoning grilled oysters to perfection

Unlike with raw oysters, where the bright acid of a mignonette or the sharp heat of horseradish play second string to the natural terroir (or merroir), cooked oysters shine with a robust seasoning. The goal is to bring the salty sea flavors and tender proteins out of their shells, imbuing warming and dynamic new layers of sweetness, heat, and zest. To get the best possible results, start by ensuring you buy the right oysters at the fishmonger. Purchase mollusks with a deep shell, which will retain more of that delicious liquor — and be sure to store your oysters properly.

As for the best seasoning, you can rest assured that the bivalves can stand up to more robust additives. Chipotle peppers, ginger, and harissa can add slight heat to cut through the brine. Soy sauce and grated parmesan bring umami and salinity. And booze, like bourbon and sake, can add their own unique aromas of smoke or sweetness. For rich, sunny brightness roasted red pepper can also enhance the meal, while aromatic fennel can add intrigue.

Most cooks prefer to pair the ingredients with dairy. A compound butter can impart moisture and a luxurious richness that allows the whole combination to blend with the oyster liquor. The half shells are so versatile, you can match their seasoning with the rest of the meal, or simply serve them as the main event, since they're likely to fly off the plate.