7 Surprising Facts About Oysters

Whether you eat 'em raw or Rockefeller, these salty sea creatures are cool on the culinary scene and have a positive impact on the environment. Here are some facts about my new favorite mollusks.

Oysters on crushed ice with antique oyster knife and silver fork with lemon fruit and pearls on a tin plate on a marble slab.Photo: Shutterstock / marilyn barbone
Photo: Shutterstock / marilyn barbone

As a Wisconsin native, I’ll admit I wasn’t always wild about eating oysters, raw or cooked. But after a culinary tour of Gulf Shores, Alabama, and a little schooling there from oyster farmer Lew Childre, I respect the little creatures. Here’s why:

1. A Single Oyster Can Filter Up to 50 Gallons of Water a Day

Oysters clean the water, remove nitrogen, accelerate denitrification and enhance water clarity. Marine grasses grow better in clearer water because more light can get through. The more grasses that grow, the healthier the ecosystem. And the less nitrogen in a marine environment, the better. Think of oysters as the vacuum cleaners of the saltwater ecosystem.

2. Oyster Reefs Provide Habitat for Other Marine Life

Speaking of ecosystems, barnacles, mussels and anemones all attach to oyster shells to grow. Other sea creatures use discarded shells to lay their eggs. Worms, fish and crabs live in the nooks and crannies of oyster reefs. The presence of food attracts bigger predators, creating a dynamic environment.

3. Oysters Protect the Coastline from Erosion

Many oyster reefs have disappeared because of pollution or natural disasters. These “living reefs” are more ecologically friendly than simply constructing barriers, so some coastal areas are reintroducing oysters to their shorelines. In 2016, ecologists in New York’s Jamaica Bay deposited 50,000 oysters on a bed of porcelain chips (oysters like to adhere to porcelain) made from 5,000 discarded toilets that were destined for the landfill. If this creeps you out, take note: These oysters will not be harvested for eating!

4. Most Oysters Found in Restaurants Are Farmed

Farmed oysters are routinely “tumbled” (think of a contraption similar to a clothes dryer with no heat) to make the shells grow rounder, forming cups that serve as half-shell “bowls.” Wild oysters can be oddly shaped depending on the environment where they bed—they just aren’t that pretty. Don’t fret about farming practices, though. Habitat around oyster farms benefits from the cleaner water, just like the habitat of a natural reef.

5. Pearls Aren’t Really Part of the Oyster

Pearls are formed when an irritant, like a grain of sand, makes its way into the oyster shell. Over time, the oyster covers the irritant with nacre, the pretty, pearly substance that forms the inside lining of the shell. The pearl forms over several years as more layers of nacre are added.

6. Oysters Rockefeller Is a Historic Recipe

Oysters Rockefeller was invented in 1899 at Antoine’s in New Orleans, the oldest family-run restaurant in the United States. According to legend, a customer exclaimed, “Why, this is as rich as Rockefeller!” after trying the dish. I’ve tried Antoine’s Rockefeller myself, and it did not disappoint. Give our Oysters Rockefeller recipe a whirl to see if you agree. (Antoine’s original recipe has been a closely guarded secret for nearly 120 years.)

7. Oysters Are Like Fine Wine

Similar to grapes used for wine, an oyster’s flavor comes from the environment where it grew. Water salinity, currents and available nutrients affect the taste. East Coast (Atlantic) oysters tend to be more savory and brinier, while West Coast (Pacific) oysters tend to be buttery and sweeter.

Bonus: Oysters Are Good for You!

In addition to being ecologically friendly and really interesting, oysters are one of the most nutritionally well-balanced foods. They are low in fat, calories and cholesterol, and high in protein, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, zinc and vitamin C. You might still be a little squeamish about slurping them raw out of the shell, and I get that—you don’t need to go all in. Try this classic oyster cheese spread or a traditional oyster dressing to start. You’ll be helping out the good guys!