Exploitation of oyster resources has occurred for thousands of years, dating from at least 2,000 B.C. Evidence of oyster use can also be found in the numerous shell middens formed by Native Americans along coastlines of the United States. In Louisiana, early French settlers were reported to have harvested oysters and as oysters rose in popularity, their collection, sale, and distribution also expanded. In the mid 1840s, Slavonian immigrants moved to Louisiana and began fishing for oysters in the rich estuarine waters adjacent to the Mississippi River below New Orleans. Through careful observation and year of experience, the fishermen realized that an abundance of oysters grew on the eastern side of the river. They also began moving oysters from overcrowded reefs on the east side to areas on the west side where salinity was more favorable, current more steady, and food was plentiful. These oysters grew to a more round-oval shape, matured quicker, and developed tastier meat. The oystermen gather the seed oysters, plant them in a favorable spot, allow the seed to grow into mature, market-size oysters, and harvest the crop. While the Slovonians were developing the oyster industry in estuaries near the Mississippi River, others, such as the Cajuns, were beginning to do the same in coastal areas farther to the west.
This cultivation of oysters has developed over the years into a partnership between the state and private oystermen through the use of both public seed grounds and privately leased state water bottoms. Oystermen lease waterbottoms from the state for $2.00 per acre per year and use that area as a place to grow oysters for market. In most cases, oystermen travel to the public grounds, dredge the seed onto their boat (called a lugger), and transport the seed to their lease where it is washed overboard by large water hoses. After allowing the seed to grow (1-2 years), they return to the lease and dredge the mature oysters onto the deck, cull away dead shell and fouling (attached) organisms, and place the oysters in sacks. Each sack is then tagged with information such as harvester name, date, and location of harvest, before being taken to market.
The method of oyster harvest has also evolved over the years. It began with the oystermen hand-picking the oysters from reefs, with harvests limited by depth of the water, weather, and physical strains hand-picking placed on the body. The early immigrants collected seed oysters, placed them on skiffs, and rowed or sailed to favorable areas. Once in a favorable area, they painstakingly “planted” the oysters one by one with enough space in-between to allow the oysters room to grow. They soon realized that a fish, which was abundant in coastal waters, was a voracious predator of their young oysters and they took great effort in protecting their crop. They enclosed the oysters with wooden fences in order to keep the black drum (Pogonias cromis) away and also to keep others from poaching their crop. Soon, oystermen developed oyster tongs (likely from two garden rakes) and oyster dredges to collect oysters while on the boat. (Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries)
Live sack oysters contain 1½ bushels in a burlap sack. They are not graded to a uniform size or shape. Live graded half-shell oysters are graded to size and may be packed in waxed cardboard boxes or smaller burlap sacks. They may be sold by the count (100-200 per container), or by volume or weight.
When an oyster does not hold its shell closed it is called gapped. A buyer may find a small percentage (up to 15%) of live shell-stock oysters to be gapped. If the oyster closes its shell when tapped with the shucking knife, it is fine for consumption. If it does not close its shell, it should be discarded. Gapping occurs more frequently in the summer when heat stresses live oysters and is often due to improper storage after purchase and before use.
Louisiana oysters vary considerably in salt content. In years of high river discharges or rainfall, oysters may be quite fresh in taste, especially in spring. The rest of the year they are salty, as they are year-round in years with low river discharges or rainfall.
While oysters are good to eat year-round, they are at their peak of plumpness between late November and May due to the fact that they are storing fat (glycogen) for spawning.
Occasionally, shucked oyster juice will be green or pink in color. This is not usually due to spoilage, but to the plants that are in the oysters’ diets.
Post-harvest-treated half-shell oysters are thermally shock-treated or pressure treated in the shell by a process similar to pasteurization. They are marketed in the shell but are not alive. These are produced to minimize exposure to Vibro vuluificus, a bacterium of concern for at-risk people. Other post-harvest treatments are currently being explored for development.
In addition to the standards listed under size range available, most oyster shucking businesses will grade by size upon request of the buyer.
Shucked oysters are sold in gallon, half-gallon, quart, pint, 12 oz., 10 oz. and 8 oz. containers. They may also be sold by count in plastic containers.
Frozen shucked oysters are sold by weight, packed according to buyer specifications.
How to Shuck an Oyster
Start with the right equipment:use an oyster knife that’s short and sturdy with a rounded point tip whose blade will no bend easily. Also. use protective gloves: a pair of heavy-duty gardening gloves will work if you can find shucking gloves. At the very least you should cover your hand in a dishtowel. Oyster shells have sharp ridges so even if the knife doesn’t slip, you can cut yourself if you try to shuck with your bard hands:
Choose oysters with tightly shut shells that feel heavy in your hand. The deeper the cup of the lower shell, the meatier the oyster. Hold the oyster firmly in one hand with the deeper cup of the shell against your palm.
Slip the knife blade between the top and bottom shell near the hinge on the back. You may have to wiggle the knife a little to get it firmly into the shell. The blade should be far enough in the it almost reaches the opposite side of the shell.
Keeping the knife blade positioned so that it is flat and parallel to the edge of the shells, run the knife all the way around the oyster until you get to the other side. Be sure to keep the blade pressed up against the inner top surface of the upper oyster shell to avoid cutting into the oyster meat, but still severing the muscle that connects the oyster to its top shell.
Move the blade back and forth until the top shell gives a little. Then, using a twisting motion, pry the top and bottom shells apart. Be gentle yet firm. You don’t want to jerk the oyster or force it because that might spill the oyster liquor.
Once the top shell is completely off, move the blade underneath the oyster meat to cut it free from the bottom shell. Then, tip the oyster from the shell and let it slide down the back of your throat!
Live shell-stock should be stored at 40-45°F. Storage at too cold temperatures will also stress the animal, as will sudden temperature fluctuations. If you are not going to cook the oysters immediately, clean the shells with a kitchen brush, place in a bowl, cover the bowl with a damp towel and refrigerate. Properly refrigerated oysters will keep for 10 to 14 days; however, they are best when used as soon as possible. Shucked oysters that have not been cooked can be stored in their liquor, covered and refrigerated for up 10 to 14 days.
Oysters can be frozen in-shell, on the half-shell or the shucked meat only. Freeze freshly shucked oysters in an air tight container with the oyster liquor. Thaw the frozen oysters in the refrigerator overnight.
Cooked oysters can be sealed and refrigerated for later consumption.
The Louisiana oyster. There’s nothing quite like it. For many people, they’re best by the dozen, cold and salty, with cocktail sauce and crackers, or just a little hot sauce and a cold beer. But for every traditional oyster preparation, there’s one less expected and just as tasty. Try them panneed, charbroiled or baked. Try oyster stew, oyster pie or Oysters Marie Laveaux. More than a third of the nation’s oysters come from our waters, so it’s no surprise that Louisiana oysters are showing up in great recipes and celebrated kitchens from coast to coast. Just when you thought you knew what to expect from the Louisiana oyster, it’s time to expect the unexpected.
The traditional Louisiana raw oyster is shucked (see How to Eat) and place in its half-shell on a bed of ice with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce.
Extra selects yield 160 - 210 / gallon
Selects yield 210 - 300 / gallon
Standards yield 300 - 500 / gallon
Louisiana oysters are largest during the cooler months - the oyster builds up glycogen as an insulating blanket which yields a larger oyster. Oysters are available year round in Louisiana so you will never have to go without. Visit our Seafood Finder to find suppliers, many have shipping options as well.