Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Science Invents the Shuckless Oyster

Behind the paywall at WaPoo, but in the open at the Virginia Pilot Online: These oysters require no shucking knife. But the process has a catch.
Several years ago, W. Tolar Nolley was attending a Christmas party, where he was trying to jimmy open an oyster. "I looked up, and there was a pretty lady, and I was talking to her, and that thing just went right in," Nolley says. He means the stubby knife went right into his left hand, not the seafood. He has a jagged little scar as a permanent reminder that accidents can happen when shucker meets oyster.
I mean, who hasn't done that? But in my case, it was a beer (or three) and not a pretty lady to blame. However, I've shucked literally thousand of oysters of all sizes from thumbnail size to hand sized, and that was the only serious ding.
Nolley's product eliminates such risk, promising a clean, briny taste of the Chesapeake Bay without any of the bloodshed. It also all but eliminates the need to pry open oysters by hand. As such, No Shuck Oysters could be the final assault on a Chesapeake Bay shucking industry that once thrived but in recent decades has fallen on hard times, the victim of overharvesting, disease, a dining market that prizes oysters on the half shell, and now, possibly, Nolley's company, HPP of Virginia.

"We have the technology to accelerate aquaculture oysters," Nolley says of the expanding farmed-oyster industry along the Chesapeake, which stretches about 200 miles from Maryland to Virginia. "But we really aren't going to have the shuckers, the manpower. That's kind of an old, dying tradition."

A No Shuck Oyster, it's important to note, is not the same thing as a shucked oyster, that juicy morsel without a shell. The former relies on a pricey piece of machinery - Nolley says his smaller unit cost about $650,000 - that processes 600 oysters in just a few minutes. The machine smothers the bivalves in cold, purified water pressurized to 65,000 pounds per square inch. As a point of comparison, the water pressure of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, which contains the deepest known points on Earth, is thought to be about 16,000 pounds per square inch, a force that can kill a human instantly.

This cold-pasteurization method is known as high-pressure processing, or HPP, and an oyster that emerges from an HPP unit has several perks: The process destroys potentially deadly pathogens without altering the bivalve's texture or, for the most part, its taste. It also extends the shelf life of the oyster by a few precious days, or longer, compared with a non-HPP oyster.

Such processing also comes with a fringe benefit, one that Nolley has turned into a selling point: Under pressure, an oyster detaches from its shell, which must then be held together with a rubber band if Nolley still wants to sell the bivalves on the half-shell market.

With an HPP oyster, all you have to do is snip the band, and the shell slowly opens on its own, revealing the frilly delicacy inside. Goodbye, shucking knife. So long, puncture wounds.
I wish we had one of those back when I was shucking bushels for analysis. But, the most important question; does it affect the taste (or texture)?
The Washington Post Food staff recently sampled several No Shuck Oysters, which are available to distributors, restaurants and even those who prefer to slurp bivalves in their privacy of their own homes (or offices). No one thought the oysters tasted especially fresh, even though they all had their liquor still trapped within their shells. "The liquor seems slimier than usual," noted one taster.

Perhaps this is a function of another one of HPP's side effects: The oyster dies under pressure, unlike a raw-bar oyster, which remains alive until you suck it down.

"It doesn't kill them like you step on them or something," says Steven Voisin, chief executive and owner of Louisiana-based Motivatit Seafoods, a pioneer in HPP oysters. "They release from the shell, so they're certainly not able to survive," Voisin continues. "You've got to keep them iced down from that point and handle them as a fresh product, kind of like a fish. You take them out of water, he's going to die, but once he dies, if he's on ice properly, he's still good for a long period of time."
So, maybe. I'll reserve judgement.

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