Have you ever marvelled at the process of preparing oysters? We sure have. They are such a wonderfully mysterious treat to experience.

In an effort to try out something new for the holidays, we reached out to former chef and oyster expert, Michael Piergrossi, to serve up some tips on preparing this beautiful and unique appetizer: fresh oysters. Read on for a simple and delicious mignonette recipe and step-by-step instructions for shucking those hard-shelled beauties!

Oysters are the perfect starter or cocktail enhancement for the holiday season. They are as beautiful visually as they are on the palate; sweet, briny, plump, and juicy. It’s really a thing of magic and beauty.

There are many types and varieties, more than ever before, which can make it daunting to the beginner with an untrained eye or looking to take the dive into raw shellfish for the first time. Your local fishmonger or markets fresh fish counter should be able to suggest with ease an oyster that will be to your liking. I personally enjoy a small to medium-sized oyster with a deep cup and hardy shell. They tend to be a little easier to open in my experience and the most rewarding. I am not averse to the big honkers out there but as preferred I tend to go smaller. Even a smaller diameter oyster can have plentiful plump meat if the cup is deep and full.

Since we live in Maine, I am lucky enough to have a variety of local oyster farms and some a bit further away within the tributaries of down east like my favourite of all Glidden Point. Locally here in Eliot Maine, my go-to is Spinney Creeks from the river a few miles away. They have a deep cup, beautiful hard shells and plump meats to really get your appetite going, the perfect aperitif.

What you’ll need:

1 dozen shucked oysters
Tool of the trade: 1 oyster knife

Cranberry Mignonette
1⁄4 cup minced fresh cranberries
1 med to large shallot finely diced
1⁄4 cup cava, champagne, or dry prosecco
1⁄2 cup white wine vinegar
1⁄4 tablespoon sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1⁄2 teaspoon of fresh cracked black pepper

Instructions for the mignonette:

Combine the sparkling wine, minced cranberries, and vinegar in a bowl. (This part can be done in a food processor until the cranberries break down.)

Add the remaining ingredients and let sit refrigerated for at least 15 minutes before spooning a little bit onto each oyster before enjoying.

Shucking an oyster

1. First things first: This scrumptious little bivalve needs to be vigorously scrubbed to remove all the sand, mud, and other possible shell related goodies.

2. Always taking care to keep things cold, I recommend keeping your oysters in a large bowl of ice water as you work on shucking, this way you can take as long as you need to.

3. Next, find a kitchen or tea towel and fold it in half to fit it in the hand of your palm.

4. Now, grab your first oyster. One of its two shells will have a belly to it, while the other will be flat. The belly side is the bottom, and the flat is the top.

5. Set your oyster belly side down on the folded towel. If you’re right-handed, position the oyster so that its hinge is pointing to the right; if you’re a lefty, you’ll want to point that hinge to the left.

6. Now fold the towel over the oyster so that only the hinge is exposed and place your non-dominant hand on top. Try to bunch up the folded towel in front of that hand—if the oyster knife slips, that towel is the only thing preventing you from stabbing yourself.

7. Work your oyster knife into the hinge. This is the part that takes practice. Pretend you’re picking a lock. You’re trying to find a sweet spot in that hinge where the knife can get some leverage. This is all about finesse: Wiggle the knife around until you feel like you can exert some pressure against both the top and bottom shells at once by twisting and prying the knife.

8. Once you feel like you’ve got the knife tip solidly in place, work the oyster knife up and down, while also twisting and rotating it. You may need to reposition the tip of the knife if you’re not having luck. When you’ve found the perfect position, you’ll hear a pop and feel the oyster yield.

9. Rotate the knife blade to separate the top shell from the bottom even more.

10. Inside the oyster is a muscle that connects to the top and bottom shell, and it’s this muscle that the oyster uses to open and close its shell. You need to sever it. Starting from the hinge end, slide the blade across the oyster, keeping it as flat as you can against the top shell. Approximately two-thirds of the way through is where the muscle is, so just sweep the knife across to sever it.

11. Once you cut the muscle, you should be able to pull the top shell off. Use the knife to free any oyster meat that is still stuck to the shell, trying your best not to damage the oyster in the process.

12. The final step is to slide the knife under the oyster, severing the muscle from the bottom shell. Push the oyster around to make sure it’s totally free in the shell.

13. Lay the oysters on a large serving platter over ice, top with the mignonette and enjoy.

A few tools to assist you: