For those who only enjoy them occasionally, opening or "shucking" fresh oysters can be a rather hazardous activity. The molluscs are understandably reluctant to let you pry their shell open, so it requires the skilled use of an oyster knife and some risk to your fingers. It's much simpler to bake the oysters in the shell, in your oven. After a few minutes they'll open up on their own, and be ready to eat or to cook further.
A Quick Oyster Review
Oysters are filter-feeders, which make their living by pumping sea water in and out and straining microscopic plankton from the brine. This means oysters take on the distinctive flavor of their surroundings, with cold-water oysters generally leaning toward crisp, mineral flavors and warm-water oysters having a richer, meatier taste. Both styles are good, and oyster aficionados cherish the distinctive differences between oysters from different locations. Oysters vary in size, but usually each oyster represents one tasty mouthful or at most, two bites.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit, and fill a small sheet pan with coarse salt. The salt is optional, but it keeps the oysters level in the oven and helps cook them quickly. Place the pan in your oven for at least 15 minutes, to preheat the salt. Clean the oysters before you cook them, running them under cold water and scrubbing them with a stiff brush. If you look at them carefully, you'll see that one half of the shell is relatively flat and the other is cupped. Cook them with the cupped side down, to retain the oyster's natural brine.
Into the Oven
Whisk the preheated pan of salt from your oven, and arrange the oysters around the pan's surface. Nestle them into the hot salt, leaving plenty of room for air to circulate around them. Slide the pan back into your oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until the oysters have opened at least slightly. Rest the first oyster on a clean kitchen towel, and hold it in place with the towel of a heatproof mitt. Cut through the shell's hinge with a small, sharp knife, then cut underneath the oyster to sever it from the shell. Take care not to spill the oyster's brine or "liquor," which contains much of its flavor. Repeat with the remaining oysters.
The warmed, shucked oysters can be served just as they are, with traditional accompaniments such as a squeeze of lemon juice or a dash of Tabasco. Alternatively, you can return them to the oven and cook them further if you wish. For example, Oysters Rockefeller are baked with a garnish of cooked spinach and fennel. You can also cover the oysters with a cream or wine sauce, then breadcrumbs with parsley or finely shredded Parmesan cheese. Bake the oysters until the topping is well browned, and serve them hot.