Guide to Oysters

A person used to be able to simply order a dozen oysters. No more. Raw bars present patrons with lists of dozens of oysters to choose from. Wellfleets are prized in New England, New Yorkers love their Blue Points, and Kumamotos rule on the West Coast. Yet there are just five species of oysters harvested in the U.S.; all other differences come from where they live, the water they filter, and how they're handled.

  • 01 of 05

    Crassostrea gigas - Pacific Oysters

    Pacific Oysters
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    Pacific oysters are small and sweet and the world's most cultivated oyster. They are growing in popularity in both Europe and the West Coast, where they are starting to over-run the native Olympia (below). Pacific oysters used to be used to describe all small Pacific oysters like Kumamotos and Miyagis. Kumamotos, however, were found to be their own species (below). Pacifics have a distinctly more fluted, sharply pointed shell than Atlantics or European flats.

    Today, Pacifics are usually named...MORE after where they are grown, such as Totten Inlet and Fanny Bay, but some are trade names such as the justly well-known Sweetwater oyster from Hog Island Oyster Company.

  • 02 of 05

    Crassostrea sikamea - Kumamoto Oysters

    Kumamoto oyster
    City Foodsters/flickr/CC By 2.0

    Kumamotos are small, sweet, almost nutty oysters characterized by their deep, almost bowl-shaped shell. Like Pacifics, they have deeply fluted, sharp, pointy shells. They spawn later and in warmer water than other oysters, so they remain firm and sweet well into summer months. Kumamotos are widely cultivated in Japan and the West Coast. The name Kumamoto is so valued that Kumamotos are always labeled as such, although some places will also specify where they are from.

    Kumamotos used to be lumped...MORE in with Pacific oysters, but it ends up they are their own species.

  • 03 of 05

    Crassostrea virginicas - Atlantic Oysters (Bluepoints, Wellfleets, and More)

    Wellfleet Oysters
    Photo © John Burke/Getty Images

    Many people are shocked to learn that Bluepoints and Wellfleets, Malpeques and Beausoleils are all Crassostrea virginicas, as are some 85% of oysters harvested in the U.S. (including most of those in the Gulf of Mexico).

    True bluepoints are raised in Long Island's Great South Bay where they were first found. Today, "bluepoint oyster" is often used as a general term for any Atlantic oyster served on the half-shell (i.e. "New Jersey bluepoints" and "Virginia bluepoints"...MORE that can be found at ​local shops and farmers markets in these respective areas).

    Wellfleet oysters are grown in Wellfleet Harbor in the northeastern part of Cape Cod. Enthusiasts correctly detect many differences between oysters grown in different parts of the harbor.

  • 04 of 05

    Ostrea edulis - European Flats

    Fresh Oysters on the Half-Shell
    Hervé Bois / EyeEm / Getty Images

    European flats are often called Belons. While Belons are European flats, not all European flats are Belons; Belons must be grown in the Brittany region of France. Once the most common oyster in Europe, Europeans are increasingly appreciative of Pacific oysters while Maine and Washington state oyster farms are increasingly charmed by European flats.

    European flats are characterized by their smooth flat shell and lovely seaweed and sharp mineral taste. They have a meaty texture and, for those used...MORE to different kinds of oysters, almost a crunch to them.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Ostrea lurida or Ostrea conchapila - Olympia Oysters

    Olympia Oysters
    Photo © Sheri L Giblin/Getty Images

    Olympias make the tiny Kumamotos look like giants, often coming in about the size of a quarter. They are the only oyster native to the West Coast of the U.S. Their popularity in San Francisco during the Gold Rush almost wiped them out, and they were believed to be extinct for decades. Wild populations still exist and are strictly protected. Olympias at the market and in restaurants are cultivated, mostly in the Puget Sound and British Columbia.

    Olympias are sweet, coppery, and metallic.