This old saying has been around almost as long as people have been eating oysters. Nevertheless, why do they suggest that oysters should only be eaten in months with an “r” in them? When can you eat raw oysters with an r in the month or not or must oyster lovers be bereft of their favorite seafood from May through August?
While some think that it was the heat of summer that would cause an oyster to go bad more quickly, that led to this unwritten rule, it has to do with spawning season. Oysters spawn when the water warms in the summer.
Spawning releases hormones inside the oyster, making the creature soft and milky-textured rather than firm and plump. You can eat an oyster safely in this condition; it just is not as palatable as it would be the rest of the year. Because of this, it is often recommended to only eat oysters from cold, northern waters during the summer.
After the waters begin to cool again, oysters stock up on glycogen, making them firm and plump once more. This is why oysters are tastier in the fall and winter.
Commercial oyster companies have come up with two different methods to provide oysters during the summer. Some companies choose to quick freeze oysters individually so they can be thawed and served “raw” during the summer. It is perfectly fine to ask if you are getting frozen oysters during the summer months.
The other method that is used by many oyster farms is growing sexless oysters. Ken Chew, the Associate Dean of the University of Washington College of Ocean and Fishery Science gets the credit for developing triploid, or sexless oysters. Sexless oysters do not spawn, so they do not get low on glycogen during the summer months. They can still be harvested for diners all over the world for summer eating.
So, do you really need to listen to the old adage any longer? Not really. However, if you want to avoid frozen oysters, be sure to ask at the oyster bar if they are fresh or frozen. Save your frozen oysters for cooking and go for the fresh every time if you are eating them on the half shell.
Use the summer to try exotic oysters from other ports of call; perhaps you would like to try some of the European varieties for a change, or choose some from the opposite coast. The best way to get oysters you like is to describe the flavors you like to your server and they can recommend what they have in stock that day that will fit your preferences.
One good reason to stick with cold water oysters in the summer is the Vibrio vulnificu bacteria. This is a bacterium that is always present in oysters, but it is more prevalent in warmer waters during warmer weather.
This bacterium does not pose a threat in a healthy individual, but for those with chronic disease or weakened immunity, it can become life threatening. Cooking kills off the bacteria, however, rendering the oysters perfectly safe to eat.
Photo Credit: Oysters! by Tom Feary, on Flickr
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