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  • Oyster Shucking 101: Oyster Anatomy, Shucking Styles, and Knives

    Oysters on a half shell on crushed ice.

    Photo by Farrukh, Flickr Creative Commons

    “The most important thing about shucking is knowing the anatomy of the oyster. As a competition shucker, you have to be the quickest and the cleanest. You only get to that level by knowing the anatomy of the oyster.”

    Gardner Douglas—nationally ranked competitive oyster shucker, host of The Oyster Ninja podcast, and owner of the mobile raw bar business S.S. Shucking Service—graciously sat down with me recently to talk oyster anatomy, knives, and shucking.

    As an oyster novice, I needed to start with the basics. I asked Gardner to begin by describing the anatomy of an oyster before going into the shucking process. He launched into the features of an oyster he thinks about when shucking: its overall shape, the shell’s hinge (where the two halves are connected), the new growth (at the front/mouth/bill of the oyster), the shell’s cup (where the belly resides), the location of the oyster’s adductor muscles (which attach the oyster belly to the shell), and the “soft spots” (ideal places for the knife to open the shell). Although anatomy stays consistent, oyster shells can differ dramatically depending on the species and where and how they were raised.

    A Black man in black chef's coat holds an oyster in one hand and shucking knife in another.
    Gardner Douglas, aka The Oystery Ninja
    Photo courtesy of Gardner Douglas

    He presented a large West Coast oyster shell with two noticeably domed halves and a rippled mouth—think fluted edges. East Coast oysters, on the other hand, typically have a flatter shell and smoother mouth, he explained. When it comes to how they are raised, wild oysters usually have harder shells than farm-raised.

    These factors are important when it comes time to shuck. There are two ways to open an oyster: hinge shucking and “stabbing.” For hinge shucking, the shucking knife is inserted into the back of the oyster, where it is opened at the hinge. This technique is often used for oysters with harder shells and those with amenable hinges. Although, according to Gardner, what constitutes a “good” hinge is different for every shucker.

    To stab, the knife is inserted into the front (mouth) of the oyster to open it. This is often done with smaller oysters, farmed oysters that have more brittle shells, or those with especially tight hinges. After the shell is opened, the abductor muscles are cut from each side of the shell to release the belly.

    While hinge shucking requires a knife with a strong blade and a sturdy handle, stabbing calls for a more flexible blade. Gardner notes that some knives can do both, especially if the shucker is able to have the knife made to meet their exact specifications. 

    Shucking knife with a bulbous wooden handle.
    “Chesapeake Stabber” shucking knife with wooden ball handle and flexible blade
    Photo by Gardner Douglas
    Shucking knife made of metal, with a loop handle.
    Emergo Designs’ Hugo shucking knife with a titanium blade
    Photo by Gardner Douglas
    Shucking knife made of dark metal, with a twisted handle design.
    A boutique shucking knife made from a railroad spike
    Photo by Gardner Douglas

    Shucking knives are as diverse as oysters themselves. They differ in blade material, blade flex, and blade length, as well as handle material, handle shape, and handle size. While this variability is critical for a competition shucker like Gardner, he says it doesn’t really matter for a home shucker. For beginner shuckers, Gardner recommends the Toadfish, Dexter, or Emergo. Like anything, time and experience are the most helpful in determining shucking style and knife choice.

    Gardner has over fifty shucking knives in his collection. He is currently using the Chesapeake Stabber (made by Dale German), assorted Dexter Russell knives, and Emergo Designs’ Hugo.

    Gardner noted that a good shucker must know not only what type of oyster they have, but also how much bend a particular knife has and what their knife is going to do when it touches different parts of the oyster shell.

    Join The Oyster Ninja on Sunday, June 26, at 3 p.m., in the Festival Foodways demonstration kitchen to learn about oysters, shucking, knives, and more. In the Earth Optimism × Folklife program, you can learn about the role of oysters in healthy ecosystems.

    Katie Reuther is the 2022 Festival foodways intern and a food studies graduate student interested in the intersection of food, culture, and identity.

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