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Traditional Oyster Stew Recipe

Seafood Soups

A traditional oyster stew recipe used to be an incredibly popular dish in the eastern half of the United States. At one time it even rivaled clam chowder as one of America’s favorite seafood soup recipes.

From the middle of the 18th century into the early 20th century, oyster saloons were popular establishments that specialized in serving cheap booze and oysters. Oysters were so prolific on the east coast that one could consume an entire meal of them for less than a penny a piece.

Originally published in 1941, Consider The Oyster, written by the great American food writer, MFK Fisher, documents this time and includes recipes for several types of oyster soups, including oyster stew.

Sadly, our native oyster populations became decimated in the second half of the 20th century. This is one of the many reasons oyster stew went out of fashion.

However, in recent years there’s been a resurgence thanks to better water quality, improved conservation of native oyster habitat, and a growing oyster farming industry using sustainable practices.

The overwhelming majority of these oysters are sold to restaurants where they’re served raw and on the half-shell. But historically, they were prepared in many other ways.

So in honor of MFK Fisher and all the great cooks and seafood connoisseurs of the past, the time is now right to re-consider the oyster as a soup or stew!

And the really great thing about making an oyster stew is that it is ridiculously simple. That said, if you’re a total oyster stew-making newbie there are a few basic things to know before you get started.

What is Oyster Stew?

I’m not sure why it’s called a stew because it’s really more of a brothy soup with only a handful of ingredients and steps.

This is how easy it is: First, something in the onion family (onions, shallots, or chives) is sauteed in butter over low heat to medium heat. Next, the oysters are added. Then milk (or cream). And then a few simple seasonings such as freshly ground black pepper, fresh chopped parsley, cayenne, celery salt, or paprika.

That’s it!

Some recipes also use Worcestershire sauce and/or hot sauce. And of course, oyster crackers are often added too.

What is the Difference Between Oyster Stew and Oyster Chowder?

Oyster chowder is actually more like a stew and often includes onions, potatoes, and salt pork or bacon. It’s much heartier than oyster stew but still delicious in its own way!

Why is Oyster Stew Served on Christmas Eve?

In many places around the country, especially the Midwest and South, oyster stew has been a traditional Christmas Eve dish for well over a hundred years now.

It is thought that Irish immigrants, following their Catholic customs to avoid meat during certain religious holidays, adapted a traditional Irish stew recipe using ling (a fish not commonly found in east coast US waters) with oysters.

Ling has a similar texture and briny flavor to oyster stew. The dish became customary to consume on Christmas Eve in many Irish-American communities and caught on as a tasty, simple oyster dish around the country.

Why Are Fresh Oysters So Expensive Today?

fresh oysters on the half-shell

As mentioned previously, in the 19th and early part of the 20th century, it was not unusual to eat a meal of just oysters (good lord I’d give anything to experience that).

Sadly, following World War II many of our once-prolific native oyster reefs were wiped out through pollution and over-harvesting. By the 1970s oyster production in the US had fallen to a mere one percent of its peak years in the early 20th century.

But there’s good news.

Today, in many places around the United States oysters are slowly making a comeback. Many native oyster beds are slowly recovering. Most of what we consume today is coming from well-managed aquaculture farms with a limited supply. Thus, the high cost.

But you only need three to four oysters to make an intensely flavored bowl of oyster stew. And if you buy them directly from a good seafood monger you can get them for a much cheaper price than in fancy restaurants.

A good online source here in New England is The Local Catch. Another positive is that as oysters slowly return to our plates, many recipes that have gone out of fashion are being rediscovered, like traditional oyster stew!

Four Tips to Make Oyster Stew

1. Make sure you know how to shuck oysters

You need to shuck them yourself because you need not just the oysters but the ultra-briny liquor (sorry, not that type of liquor), the liquid inside the shell, which is the key that makes oyster stew so delicious.

As opposed to some shellfish, like clams, you don’t get a lot of liquid from oysters, but what you do get is a powerful punch of oystery deliciousness. It’s like a super-concentrated dose of oyster flavor, kind of like a pseudo-bouillon cube, only real.

And if you’ve never shucked oysters before, this could easily happen…

opening oysters for oyster stew recipe

That is a picture of my bloody hand. Doh!  Like a total idiot, I didn’t use a towel to protect against the oyster knife slipping, which of course, it did. Luckily, it was only a minor gash.

Here’s a simple instructional video for how to shuck oysters safely…

Of course, you might also ask if you can purchase canned oysters or jarred oysters. While they’re certainly convenient, they’re not quite as tasty as freshly shucked oysters.

Remember it’s not just the oyster meats that make a good oyster stew, it’s also the oyster liquor, the juice inside the oyster shells. There’s nothing quite like those juices, fresh from the shell. It’s why fresh oysters on the half-shell are considered so delicious by oyster connoisseurs!

2. Make sure you know what it looks like when oysters start to curl and ruffle

So after you shuck them, you’ll saute the oysters in some butter with some chives or onions, as pictured here…

oysters simmering for oyster stew recipe

You’ll do this for a few minutes until the edges of the oysters start to curl and ruffle. If you’ve never sauteed oysters before, it may not be completely obvious when this starts to happen. So here’s a little visual…

edges of oysters curling

As soon as those edges start to curl, add your oyster liquor and milk or cream. You don’t want to overcook the oysters! You want to keep them nice and soft, meaty, and juicy.

3. Use RICH milk

In the 1967 gem of a little “book” (more like an in-depth pamphlet), Clam Shack Cookery, a collection of old Cape Cod recipes, fisherman Captain Phil Schwind says this about milk…

For the benefit of those who can’t remember back before milk came in cardboard or plastic containers, all pasteurized, homogenized and preserved, there was a time when milk came in round, glass ‘milk bottles’, and if allowed to set, the cream would rise to the top of the bottle. This ‘top’ milk, nearly cream, was what my grandma was referring to when she spoke of ‘whole’ milk. The rest, the skim milk she used to feed our cat, Old Tiger.

He’s referring to raw milk here and throughout the book asks the reader to use “rich milk” in many of the recipes. If you can’t find rich, raw milk, get the best quality WHOLE milk you can find, ideally from grass-fed sources. If you don’t have access to good quality whole milk, use half and half or even cream. The creaminess of half and half is a closer approximation to rich, raw milk than today’s overly processed, flavorless whole milk in supermarkets.

4. Don’t be afraid to add a dollop of butter to your bowl

No fear of fats here on Fearless Eating!  Back before everyone became terrified of butter (and other healthy fats), many traditional oyster stew recipes recommend adding a dollop of butter.  Sounds a little weird to add butter to an already rich, milky stew, but it adds an extra depth of creamy richness that can be so very satisfying.

More Oyster Soup Recipes

The simple oyster stew recipe below is also featured in my new soup cookbook, New England Soups from the Sea, along with 79 other seafood soup recipes. Many are similar to oyster stew in that they are traditional recipes that have faded away but are ripe for rediscovery! If you love oysters you’ll also find oyster soup recipes for:

Oyster Chowder

Oyster Bisque

Oysters Rockefeller Soup

Oysters Mariniere Soup

Oysters Bienville Soup

seafood cookbook imagery

Available Now!

From Rhode Island to Maine—Get 80 locally inspired recipes that honor the traditions of America’s northeast.

Kitchen Tools You’ll Need

How to Make Oyster Stew

Traditional Oyster Stew Recipe

This simple traditional oyster stew highlights the delicious briny flavor of oyster liquor and milk or cream. Serve as an appetizer or a light meal. 

Course Appetizer, Main Course, Soup
Cuisine American
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes
Servings 2 servings
Author Craig Fear

Ingredients

  • 1 dozen fresh oysters
  • 1/2 cup onion, shallots or 1 small bunch of chives, diced
  • 2 TBSPs butter
  • 2 cups rich grass-fed whole milk (ideally raw), half and half or cream
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Optional seasonings

Instructions

  1. Shuck the oysters and reserve the liquor.

  2. In a small to medium saucepan, saute the onion, shallots or chives in butter over medium-low heat for a few minutes.

  3. Add the oysters and cook until the edges start to ruffle, a few more minutes.
  4. Add the oyster liquor and milk, half and half or cream and bring to a very gentle simmer for a few more minutes.
  5. Remove from heat and serve immediately.
  6. Ladle into individual bowls and add optional seasonings, to taste.

More Seafood Stew Recipes to Try

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Traditional Oyster Stew Recipe
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About the Author

Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.

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