When my friend, Vanessa, a Rhode Island native, invited me over to try her traditional oyster stew recipe, I jumped at the chance. Vanessa says she’s been perfecting her recipe for years, adapting it from old New England cookbooks and her own experiments. It also doesn’t hurt that she grew up in a state with nutrient-rich coastal waters that produces some of our country’s finest oysters. If you know someone from Rhode Island, chances are, they know how to make a traditional oyster stew.
Now as much as I love seafood (and dear god do I LOVE it), I’ve never had an oyster stew. In fact, no one in my family ever made a dish with oysters when I was growing up in the 1980s. Even back then they were still relatively expensive.
But if you go back far enough there was a time when oysters were dirt cheap. It’s hard to imagine it today, but 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). And oyster stew was once so common that it was even considered a traditional Christmas Eve meal. Sadly, so many of our once-prolific native oyster reefs have been wiped out through pollution and over harvesting, and many old-time recipes have faded away with their decline.
But there’s good news.
Today, in many places around the United States oysters are slowly making a comeback. Sure they’re still pricey, but if you buy them direct from a good seafood monger or even oyster farmer, you can get them for a much cheaper price than in fancy restaurants. Vanessa got her oysters directly from 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! So needless to say, I was excited to try it for the first time.
But to be perfectly honest, there was a slightly more selfish reason I was excited to try Vanessa’s recipe. I’ve just started research for my next soup cookbook which will be about New England seafood soups and stews and I wanted to see if this recipe might be good enough to include.
Well, I have clear and unequivocal video evidence of the verdict.
It just so happened, Vanessa whipped out her phone to gauge my reaction (this was very much an unplanned thing so apologies for the lousy lighting):
Needless to say, whenever the book is ready (and it could be a while), it will absolutely be included.
Now as ridiculously simple as it is to make this recipe, if you’re a total oyster stew-making newbie like myself, there are a few basic things to know before you get started.
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. Vanessa says 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, as I had not, this could easily happen…
That is a picture of my bloody hand. Doh! Even though Vanessa taught me how to do it safely and easily, I got a little overconfident when I re-made the recipe myself a week later at home. 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…
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…
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…
As soon as those edges start to curl, add your oyster liquor and milk or cream. You don’t want to overcook the oysters! They’re supposed to be soft, meaty and juicy.
Also, is it just me or does that pic make you think there may be more than one reason why oysters are considered aphrodisiacs? Come on, you know you thought it too. Aaaaaaaanyway….
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 milks 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.
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.
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.