Although the idea of pickled oysters might at first sound odd or unappealing, think about it. Seafood flavored and treated with acids is a common practice all over the world and is widely agreed to improve the flavor. Think about how you might add a squeeze of lemon to your fish or shrimp. Ceviche, using fruit juice from low-pH citrus like lemons and limes, is a delicious and now well-known technique.
Although I’ve been making all kinds of pickles and ceviche for a number of years now, pickling oysters was a new one for me. I’ve come across the idea several times in various books I’ve read about pickling (such as in Pickles: A Global History), but it’s been more in passing, as an example of historical food preservation practices.
I live in the Atlanta area and seafood markets to buy fresh oysters to shuck at home are very few and far between, even if you can find many great (and some not so great) restaurants offering them. (One such market is the Cajun Meat Company, which I highly recommend if you’re in the Atlanta/Marietta area. You will need to order oysters in advance by phone.)
That lack of availability didn’t stop me from creating some ferments last year with the sole purpose of using the brine as a mignonette (oyster dipping liquid). I just didn’t know when I’d get around to getting the oysters. One of these days I’ll get the shallot mignonette recipe on this site. Another “mignonette” I used was leftover brine from my fermented mustard recipe, which I really enjoyed.
For my New Year’s Eve dinner this year, instead of going with my usual Surf n Turf, we went head on for surf and found a great bundle of oysters, scallops, and lobster by The Lobster Shop, a seafood delivery company based in Maine. Highly recommended! With the three pounds of oysters and fact that I’m the only person in my house who eats them, this was a great opportunity not only to try out my mignonettes with fresh raw oysters, but to also pickle some.
Although I looked at some recipes for inspiration, including one from James Garfield’s 1881 inaugural dinner, the following is my recipe. I really loved how these came out. I included in the recipe a couple small thin habanero slices and I loved that hint of heat but any hot spice addition is optional.
I will warn that at a couple stages during the cooking & pickling process, there are some strong odors created which you will not experience when you eat them. The brine itself ended up having such an enticing bright & tangy taste and aroma and is stunning in a Bloody Mary!
At serving, I garnished them with cilantro and a fresh squeeze of lemon. This was a real treat and I’ll have to do it again.
Serves: 2-4 as an appetizer
Shelf life: Suggested limit of two weeks, refrigerated
You will need:
- Oyster shucking knife (or thin paring knife) & cutting board
- Measuring cups & spoons
- Small saucepan & wooden spoon
- Pint jar (16 oz.) (an 8 oz. jar is a good choice but will not hold all of the brine)
- Fine mesh strainer
- Suggested: Canning funnel
- Suggested: mortar & pestle
- Suggested: citrus juicer
- 2 dozen raw oysters (~2.5 – 3 lbs. oysters, shell on)
- ~1/3 cup retained oyster “liquor” (liquid in the shell), strained
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar (raw suggested)
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 clove garlic
- 10-12 rainbow peppercorns (or use black peppercorn)
- 6-8 allspice berries
- 6 cloves
- 1 bay leaf
- Juice of 1/2 a lemon (~1 – 1.5 TBSP)
- Optional: a few slices of hot pepper (or 1/4 – 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes)
- Optional garnish when serving: lemon wedges and finely chopped parsley or cilantro
1.) Place the hard spices (clove, allspice, and peppercorns) in saucepan and toast on medium-low heat until aromatic, around 1-2 minutes. Move the spices around a few times.
2.) Transfer the spices to mortar and coarsely crush with pestle. Crush bay leaf and combine with the spices, then set aside. Prepare all other seasonings (e.g. juice the 1/2 lemon; slice the garlic and hot pepper).
3.) Thoroughly rinse and then shuck the oysters. As they are shucked, retain all the liquor in the shell (meaning, the liquid). Once finished, strain the liquor through a fine mesh strainer a few times, removing the sediment each time. There will be around 1/3 cup of liquor.
4.) In the saucepan, combine the oysters and liquor and bring to a boil on high heat, then reduce to medium-low and allow to cook until the oysters firm up and become fully opaque, around 4-5 minutes.
5.) Remove the oysters from the saucepan and place in a 16 oz. jar (or 8 oz. jar but there may be some excess pickling brine at the end). Add the garlic and hot pepper to the jar as well.
6.) Add the 1/2 cup vinegar to the saucepan (combined with the cooked oyster liquor), as well as the hard spices, bay leaf, and salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce to low, simmering uncovered for 5 minutes. (Note that both during the cooking of the oysters, and the boiling of the brine, a strong smell will emanate; it is recommended to turn on a vent and/or open windows.) Turn off the heat and allow the brine to cool for about one minute.
7.) Add the brine, including the spices in it, to the jar. Then add the lemon juice and seal the jar tightly. Allow to cool for around ten minutes and then refrigerate. The oysters will be ready the next day, but waiting 2-4 days for the flavor to more fully penetrate is recommended.
Make your own magical batch of something pickled or fermented? Post it at our Insane Facebook group!