The secret to superior fried oysters: Listen closely

Ann Maloney

THE WASHINGTON POST – If you live in New Orleans, you can easily pick up a pint of freshly shucked oysters at most grocery stores, especially in late fall and throughout winter as folks prepare to make oyster dishes that are traditional there for the holiday table.

Gulf of Mexico oysters usually are fat and salty. If they are fresh, we eat them straight from the shell, but they also are great for frying and then tucking into a sandwich or eating on a platter with fresh lemon juice or a touch of tartar sauce.

Louisiana’s bigger oysters make better fryers because they are inexpensive and because their size and plumpness allows you to more easily avoid the kiss of death: Over-frying.

Crisp on the outside and custardy on the inside is the goal for fried oysters, and in her cookbook Mosquito Supper Club, restaurateur Melissa M Martin describes how you should use your senses rather than a timer when deciding if the bivalves are done. She wrote, “The oysters will make a lot of noise at first and then calm down – keep your face and appendages away from the pot as the oysters talk. Listen for the moment when they quiet down; that’s when they are done.”

The issue for many home cooks, however, can be getting your hands on freshly shucked oysters.

Fried oysters with garlic rice. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

If you don’t live adjacent to oyster-rich waters, you can order the bivalves online or visit a seafood market and ask if they will shuck them for you.

Even if you do have access to fresh oysters, they vary dramatically in size, flavour and cost depending on where they are harvested.

If your oysters are smallish, Martin’s preferred way of frying them works well.

She lightly dusts them in flour and cornmeal – no dairy, no egg – and then quickly fries them in very hot oil until they are just golden and, as she said, quiet.

Martin suggests tossing the hot-from-the-fryer oysters in a bit of melted butter and generous shakes of hot sauce and serving them over rice with a sprinkling of parsley and sliced scallion. I had never eaten them this way, but was eager to try it. Now, this is a new favourite of mine.

I tweaked her serving suggestion a bit by making a garlic-flavoured rice as the base. I tossed a few cloves into the rice as it simmered and steamed in water. Then, I crushed the softened garlic and tossed it with the freshly cooked rice.

The garlic-scented rice with the spicy, buttery oysters were like a taste of home – even if it turned out the oysters I bought had been harvested from Long Island’s Great South Bay.

FRIED OYSTERS WITH GARLIC RICE

30 minutes

Two servings

This simple dish requires you to do one thing just right: Lightly fry the oysters. The bivalves are coated in cornmeal and cornstarch, and then fried until just crunchy on the outside but still custardy on the inside.

Shucked oysters usually are sold by the pint. The number of oysters in a pint will vary dramatically depending on their size. For example, small oysters may come as many as 25 to 30 to a pint, while a pint of medium or large oysters could yield 16 to 18 per pint.

INGREDIENTS

For the rice

Two teaspoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup long-grain white rice

One cup water

Two large garlic cloves

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

For the oysters

Peanut oil or another neutral oil, for frying

One cup (five ounces) fine-ground cornmeal

1/2 cup (two ounces) cornstarch

One teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of cayenne pepper

One pint shucked oysters, well-drained

Two tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Hot sauce, to taste, plus more for serving

For serving

Two tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, for serving

Scant 1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions, for serving

Lemon, optional

DIRECTIONS

In a medium saucepan over high heat, melt the butter, add the rice and toss to coat. Add the water, whole garlic cloves and salt. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low and simmer until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, in a large heavy-bottom pot over medium-high heat, add three inches of oil and heat to 375 degrees. Use an instant-read thermometer or test the oil by dropping a bit of flour into it. If the flour sizzles, the oil is ready.

Set a paper-lined tray next to the stove. In a small bowl, combine the cornmeal, cornstarch, salt, black pepper and cayenne.

Dredge the oysters in the cornmeal mixture and carefully add them to the hot oil. Use caution: Oysters have a lot of water in them, so they will pop and sputter in the hot oil. If they do not, the oil is not hot enough.

Look for the oysters to turn a light golden and “quiet down”. As soon as an oyster has stopped sputtering, lift it out using a spider, slotted spoon or tongs. Cooking times will vary depending on the size of the oyster, so it is better to use your eyes and ears. It should take one to two minutes. Do not overcook. Do not crowd the oysters in the pot. Cook in batches, if necessary.

Place the fried oysters on the paper-lined tray to drain. Then, transfer the drained, fried oysters to a large bowl, drizzle the two tablespoons butter over and add about 12 shakes – or more – of hot sauce. Toss together.

Ready the rice

The garlic cloves should be resting atop the rice in the pot. Mash it against the side of the pot and fluff the garlic into the rice with a fork.

Transfer half of the rice to a shallow bowl. Add a generous pile of oysters and sprinkle the dish with parsley and green onions. Repeat with second bowl. Serve with a lemon wedge, if using, and additional hot sauce, if desired.

VARIATION (or for leftover fried oysters): For one serving, toast two slices of thick-cut bread. Spread mayonnaise on one slice, top with a slice of tomato sprinkled with salt and pepper. Top with fried oysters and add iceberg lettuce, pickles and hot sauce, if desired. Serve open-faced or closed.