Grill oysters to perfection, with the help of a butter-garlic sauce
If you love grilled oysters as much as I do, you may have attempted them on your backyard grill and, like me, you may have been disappointed by the results.
At least I used to be disappointed. Mine were always underdone or — the other extreme — dried out, and they just didn't have the same flavorful zing as the oysters bathed in butter and licked with flames from restaurant grills.
I always assumed it didn't work because I didn't have a high-powered, hot-as-heck grill like many restaurants do. But several years ago, when I was working as a food writer for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, I enjoyed one of the perks of my profession: A chef came over and taught me how to grill oysters on my backyard charcoal grill.
Miles Prescott, who at the time was working at Bacchanal Wine, spent an afternoon making toppings in my kitchen and teaching me that getting the grilling part right was a matter of technique, not fancy equipment.
A basic home grill — with gas or charcoal — yields great results, and the process is easy. The hardest part: shucking those oysters.
Here is what I learned from Prescott.
— The tools: For shucking, you'll need a shucking knife and thick gloves or a thick kitchen towel to hold the rough shells. To manage the grilling, long-handled tongs and a long-handled ladle can help you place the oysters on the grill and sauce them over the heat. A heatproof tray is essential to handle hot-from-the-flames oysters. Also, if the grill does not have one, an oven/grill thermometer can help determine if the fire is hot enough.
— The heat: The oysters will cook over direct heat in a white-hot grill. Just as you preheat an oven, you must preheat your grill to 500 to 600 degrees.
If you have a gas grill, set it to that temperature and allow it to preheat.
For a charcoal grill, use a chimney starter. Stuff the bottom cavity loosely with paper and twigs, if you like, and then fill the top with charcoal briquettes. Holding the chimney upright, light the paper in several places. Remove your grill grate and carefully set the chimney in the bottom of the grill until the coals are white hot and covered in ash, about 15 to 20 minutes. Cover the grill, but open the vents wide to allow more oxygen in. This makes the coals burn hotter.
When the coals are white hot, spread them in the bottom of the grill; then add more coals and cover until you have a deep bed of glowing coals coated in white ash.
To test the temperatures, hold your palm about 5 inches above the grate. You should want to pull your hand away from the heat after only 2 to 3 seconds.
It is possible to do five or six batches of oysters on one fire, but as the coals begin to cool, the oysters will take longer to sizzle and caramelize. If you plan to grill a lot of oysters, get a second set of coals going in your chimney starter and add them as the original fire starts to cool.
— The technique: The variety of oysters will affect the saucing and timing. I am from New Orleans, where we get big, salty oysters with thick shells. If your oysters are smaller, with thinner shells, they will cook more quickly and require less sauce.
When shucking the oysters, do not loosen the bivalve from the shell, as you would if serving them raw.
No matter the size, it is best to use long-handled, sturdy tongs to place the oysters on the half-shell on the hot grill clockwise, starting from the outside and working toward the center, putting bigger oysters with thicker shells toward the middle where the fire should be hottest.
For light sauces, such as the butter-based garlic one below, after you put the oysters on the grill immediately use a long-handled ladle to pour on sauce, then sprinkle with bread crumbs and cheese. The oysters will quickly begin to sizzle.
The tongs will come in handy. Sometimes oysters near the edge need to be moved toward the center to get more sizzle, especially as the fire cools. Rather than grasp the oyster on either side with the tongs, which can be unstable and result in spilling the contents, Prescott recommends firmly gripping the thinner edge of the shell for a more secure hold.
Note: If you are using a thicker topping or sauce, such as a Rockefeller sauce with cream and spinach, you may want to sauce your oysters first and then carefully place them on the grill. This allows the sauce more time to cook with the oyster.
— The timing: Determining when grilled oysters are done has perplexed me in the past. Either I would leave them on too long and they would dry out and shrivel, or I'd take them off too soon and end up with more of an oyster poached in liquid than a chargrilled one.
The key is to watch them closely. Oysters will not all be done at the same time. Smaller oysters may cook in just a few minutes. Bigger oysters, with thicker, deeper shells that can hold more liquid, may take longer. Rather than timing the oysters, watch for the telltale signs that they are done.
As the oyster cooks, it will start pulling itself into a ball. The edges of the shell will darken and, eventually, the oyster and sauce will begin to bubble and sizzle. When the interior of the oyster is bubbling, but not dry, use the long-handled tongs to immediately remove it and transfer it to a heatproof tray.
— The sauce: The first step to grilling is to make your sauce. Once that is ready, you can preheat the grill and then begin shucking the oysters.
The sauce can be as simple or complex as you desire. The key is to complement but not overpower the briny oyster flavor. I like to open an oyster or two and taste them raw to see how salty they are.
I've flavored them with a thick, spinach-green Rockefeller sauce and one made with liqueur, cream and herbs. My favorite, however, is the one Prescott called his classic: It's lots of garlic in a butter sauce flavored with Worcestershire sauce and paprika. It's a good starter sauce, too, because it is light enough that newcomers to grilling can see the oyster as it begins to shrivel and bubble in the butter — knowing just when to pull it off.
And is there anything better than crusty, warm bread dipped in the sauce leftover in the shell after you have devoured the oyster? I don't think so.
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Classic Grilled Oysters
Total: 35 minutes (does not include shucking time)
4 servings (1 dozen per person)
The hardest part about grilling oysters is opening the bivalves. Once you've done that, you can place them on a very hot grill, ladle on your favorite sauce, and watch them sizzle and caramelize. If using a charcoal grill, it's possible to do a half-dozen batches of oysters over the same fire, but as the coals begin to cool, the oysters will take longer. If you're planning to grill more than a couple dozen, use a charcoal chimney or chimney starter to get extra coals hot so you can add more briquettes as the fire starts to cool. Long-handled, sturdy tongs and a long-handled ladle are helpful. Sometimes, oysters near the edge need to be moved toward the hotter area of the grill. and the tongs make that easier to maneuver.
Serve these with crispy French bread.
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter
6 garlic cloves, minced or finely grated
2 teaspoons your favorite hot sauce
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (3-1/2 ounces) unseasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup (1-3/4 ounces) Italian-style seasoned bread crumbs
24 large oysters in the shell
1 cup (about 1-1/2 ounces) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)
Prepare a grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high (500 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; once the briquettes are white hot, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 5 inches above the coals for 2 to 3 seconds.
In a medium saucepan over low heat, add the butter, garlic, hot sauce, paprika and Worcestershire sauce and heat until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat and wait 5 minutes, then add the parsley, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
In a small bowl, combine both types of bread crumbs.
Using a shucking knife, open the oysters, leaving them on the half-shell, and carefully place them on a tray without tilting and losing any juices. (If you are new to grilling oysters, do not cut oysters loose from the bottom of the shell. This prevents the oysters from slipping out of the shell if you have difficult maneuvering.)
Using tongs, place each oyster on the grill clockwise, starting from the outside and working toward the center, where the fire is hottest. Bigger oysters with thicker shells should go toward the center for greater heat.
Using a long-handled ladle, spoon about 1 tablespoon of the butter sauce on each shucked oyster. (Oysters come in lots of different shapes and sizes, so add more or less as needed.) Using a long-handled spoon, sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture and then the Parmesan over. (The coals will be hot, so, if you don't have long-handled tools, you may want to sauce the oysters first and then carefully place them on the grill.)
Grill the oysters until the oyster juice has almost evaporated, the edges of the oyster begin to curl, and the cheese and bread crumbs start to brown at the edges as does the shell itself. The oysters will not all be done at the same time: Small, thin-shelled oysters may grill in just a few minutes. Large oysters with deeper and/or thicker shells and more liquid may take 5 or 6 minutes.
As the oysters are done, use the tongs to remove the cooked oysters to a heatproof platter.
Serve with fresh lemon wedges, if using, on the side.
Recipe adapted from chef Miles Prescott.