Oysters look like something that should stay firmly planted in the ocean — even more so once the shell comes off. It’s fair to say that the oyster is, at the very least, visually unappetizing.
Then the oyster touches your tongue. Depending on where it’s from, you might taste the clean water of a distant inlet or the brash waves of the salty ocean. Maybe you taste the brininess of seawood and the ocean floor or something more metallic and minerally, like rocks washed clean by ferocious currents. Sometimes the taste is sweeter and more acidic, like the green rind of an unripe melon or the crisp snap of a fresh cucumber. The layered, fresh, and complex flavors are why oysters, despite their appearance, are considered a delicacy.
Oysters taste different depending on where they’re sourced from. In the US, oysters grow in blooms of millions at a time on the coasts of Washington, California, Alabama, Maine, and others. The diversity found in US waters gives other famous oyster countries, like France, a run for its money.
“American oysters have a different brininess to them than French oysters that is lighter, and cup sizes can vary,” explains Josh Sauer, executive chef at the Long Branch, New Jersey, French restaurant Avenue. “French oysters are milkier with a metallic flavor, are flatter, and have a little cup.”
Though oysters can be eaten grilled or fried, they’re typically served on the halfshell with three tried-and-true sides: cocktail sauce, vinegar and shallot-based mignonette sauce, and fresh lemon wedges. These light, fresh dressings don’t overwhelm the natural flavors of the oysters (unless you have a heavy hand with the cocktail sauce). If you want to experience the full range of natural flavors, eat them plain and raw by wriggling the meat loose, tilting your head back, and slurping. The oyster is meant to be swallowed in one bite, but if you really want to savor the brine, give it a few chews first.
You may have heard it’s only safe to eat oysters in months with the letter “r” in the name. It’s a complete myth. Oysters farmed in clean water and harvested hygienically are safe to eat all year around. The old adage stems from believing that one should avoid eating oysters in the summer when they can spoil faster. Wild oysters also spawn in the summer, leaving the meat thin and soggy. However, most oysters raised in aquaculture don’t spawn. Some oysters taste better in certain months, however, so do they have a prime season.
The best places to find oysters are, unsurprisingly, on the coasts. These are the essential oyster-bearing regions in America, plus the best oysters to eat in each one.
Northeast and East Coast
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
On Cape Cod, Massachusetts, you’ll find an abundance of must-try oysters varieties, most notably WiAnno, Duxbury, and Wellfleet. Prime oyster season here tends to run from October to March.
Wellfleet oysters are salty with a clean finish, balanced by a touch of sweetness. Eat them plain or with a light spritz of lemon juice to cut down on the brininess. The meat of a Duxbery oyster is fatty and buttery, while WiAnno oysters are briny and sweet.
Cape Cod is home to many hidden oyster gems. Worth mentioning are farmed varieties like the creamy Cotuit, which tastes distinctly of the ocean, and the Barnstable, similarly briny with a sweet, seaweed-like finish.
Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island
There are pockets of Rhode Island where oysters grow in abundance. In Point Judith Pond, just south of Narragansett Bay, you’ll find Moonstone oysters (available between September and July), which have gleaming, marble-white shells and taste intensely salty with a “brothy umami richness,” according to one account.
Many other oysters call Narragansett Bay home, like Beaver Tail and Wild Goose oysters. The most notable variety are the Quonset Point (available all year), which have an orange-hued shell. Phytoplankton in the bay give the oysters this citrus color and fattens up the meat. The flavor is clean and light, but one warning: The shells are brittle and difficult to shuck.
Another praise-worthy Rhode Island oyster is the Ninigret, found in Ninigret Pond near Charlestown. Ninigret oysters are briny with a distinctive sweet aftertaste.
Long Island, New York
The mild flavor of Blue Point oysters make them the perfect beginner oyster, and they tend to pair well with the stronger, spicier flavors of cocktail sauce. A genuine Blue Point oyster also has a briny aftertaste. Blue Points are best enjoyed from September to July.
By 1800, the Blue Point was so popular that seafood dealers pirated the name, applying it to any oyster found near Long Island. New York tried to ban improper use of the name, but the law never really stuck. These days, Blue Island Oysters farms genuine Blue Points from the Long Island Sound.
Damariscotta River, Maine
Maine oysters are famously abundant, and there are too many variations in the state to list here. The standout varieties come from the Damariscotta river.
Glidden Point oysters are sometimes called the “gold standard” of Maine oysters. They have a rich, briny flavor and tender meat that’s best enjoyed with a spritz of lemon juice or a sprinkle of black pepper. The crisp, clean waters of the Damariscotta wash the oysters clear of any sand or silt. Mature oysters are harvested by hand by Glidden Point Oyster Farms.
Belon and Pemaquid oysters can be found in the Damariscotta, as well. Belon oysters originated from the Belon River in France, but in the 1950s, farmers began cultivating them in Maine. They have a metallic, nutty flavor, sometimes compared to a penny. Pemaquid oysters, on the other hand, are crisp and salty. Skip the cocktail sauce and dot these oysters with hot sauce and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Belon oysters are technically in season from September to June, but quantities are limited once the river freezes. Pemaquids taste best from March to December.
Chesapeake Bay, Virginia and Maryland
Inland from the Atlantic Ocean and running through Virginia and Maryland, Chesapeake Bay is so hospitable to oysters that it once seemed as though there were as many oysters there as stars in the sky. However, aggressive over-harvesting has lead to serious depletion of many oyster stocks in the bay, and the majority of high-quality oysters you’ll find in the area are farmed.
Here, you’ll find exceptionally sweet oysters like the tender Rappahannock, the more balanced Stingray, and tongue-puckeringly briny Olde Salt, grown by Rappahannock Oyster Co. Whitecap oysters are grown in cages where the Potomac merges with Chesapeake Bay and have a sweeter, creamier flavor. The best time for Chesapeake Bay oysters is from September to July.
Virginia has a vibrant oyster culture that extends far beyond Chesapeake Bay to the state’s eastern shore and Atlantic coast.
Willapa and Samish Bays
Shigoku oysters, a variety of Pacific oysters, thrive in the waters of the coast of northern Washington. In Japanese, shigoku means “ultimate,” an apt name for this well-balanced oyster. The meat is briny and firm with just a touch of light sweetness and a flavor often favorably compared to cucumber. Taylor Shellfish Farms introduced the Shigoku to Washington in 2009, and they can be ordered all year around.
Shigoku oysters are suspension grown, a farming method in which the oysters are raised in bags suspended in the water that move with the currents. The result is an extra clean flavor, and because the bags follow the natural movement of the water when the tide goes in and out, the oysters move too. This movement allows the oyster meat to firm up and the shells to “chip,” a process that helps them grow deeper instead of wider.
Totten Inlet in the Puget Sound
Olympia oysters, also called Oly oysters, are the only oyster species native to Puget Sound waters. Found mostly in Totten Inlet in the Puget Sound, Olympias are also farmed in the nearby Eld Inlet (where the meat of the beach-grown oysters is buttery and tastes like watermelon rind to some) by Olympia-based Chelsea Farms.
Though Olys are delicate in size (they rarely grow larger than a 50-cent coin), this oyster is a survivor. Pollution and overharvesting drove them to extinction in nearly every other part of Puget Sound, but they live on. Their flavor is bold and intense, perhaps best described as earthy, with a lingering, smoky aftertaste. Olys are highly briny, so be prepared to taste ocean.
Another popular variety from Totten Inlet is the Kumamoto oyster, which is originally from Japan. This oyster gained a following for its sweet taste, reminiscent of fresh honeydew melon, and a mild brininess. Oyster-eating amateurs will love Kumamotos alongside a splash of lemon juice or vinegary mignonette sauce.
“Nothing beats a Kumamoto,” Sauer says, “which has a deep cup, mild brine, and a creamy texture.”
At nearby Hammersley Inlet, oysters are plump with a clean, light cucumber flavor that pairs well with the typical accoutrements of an oyster side dish: fresh lemons and cocktail sauce.
Oysters are so plentiful in Hood Canal that you can pick them up by the handful on the beaches. A friend with a cabin on Hood Canal tells me that “oysters out number rocks” in the area. Among the varieties that grow here are the super briny Summerstone and the smooth-shelled, crisp Blue Pool oyster, both grown and sold by the Hama Hama Company.
Hama Hama oysters are one of Hood Canal’s most celebrated varieties and have a cucumber aftertaste and a pleasant saltiness. They’re beach grown and accustomed to moving with the tides and shifting currents. The Hamma Hamma River (yes, it’s spelled differently than the oyster) provides millions of these oysters at a time, also harvested by Hama Hama Company. Though (like most other oysters) Hama Hamas are available all year around, they are sweeter in the spring and have a brinier finish in the fall and winter.
There are surprisingly few places to grow oysters in California. The state simply doesn’t have enough bays where oysters can thrive (San Francisco Bay grew millions of oysters in the mid-1800s, but it’s now far too polluted).
Yet tucked away in Marin County is an anomaly: Tomales Bay, home to Hog Island Oyster Co. Here, you’ll find the Hog Island Sweetwater, the bay’s signature oyster that’s farmed year-round. As the name suggests, these oysters are sweet with a smoky, metallic finish and mild brininess. At Hog Island (where you can plan a “shuck your own oyster picnic” at the nearby beach) you’ll also find French Hog oysters, which have a strong seaweed flavor, and Kumamotos like those from Totten Inlet.
In the cold, salty waters of Morro Bay, Pacific Gold oysters prosper. These fresh, bright oysters have a flavor that’s often compared to lemongrass or the green rind of a melon. Pacific Gold are the same variety as Hama Hama oysters, but the waters in Morro Bay make for a sweeter, saltier oyster once its mature. Though they can be eaten raw, Morro Bay Oyster Co., where they’re farmed, recommends grilling Pacific Gold oysters.
Another farmed oyster you’ll find in Morro Bay is the Grassy Bar, said to taste like fresh watermelon and sea water.
Gulf Coast and the Atlantic
Caminda Bay, Louisiana
Oysters found in this part of Louisiana are bigger than those found anywhere else in America. Caminda Bay is home to a wealth of oysters — not just the Caminda Bay but the Triple N and the Beauregard Island. They’re grown in floating cages, where they’re safe from predators and can tumble along with the tides and currents. The result is a meaty, rich oyster that stands out for its bold saltiness. The meat stays plump and juicy throughout the summer because the oysters don’t spawn.
This region is still considered up-and-coming compared to some of the long-standing oyster regions on this list. Its oysters hit mainstream markets in 2015.
Salty and rich, Alabama oysters are among the most beloved in the country. In fact, the state was once the number one oyster producer in America. Like Louisiana oysters, Alabama oysters are triploids, so a farmed oyster like Isle Dauphin stays fat throughout the year. The deliciously buttery and salty Murder Point are another Alabama favorite.
However, oyster stocks have hit historic lows in Alabama in recent years. In 2018, the state halted the public sale of its oysters, citing a dire shortage. The ban has been lifted in some areas of the state while it works to restore the once thriving oyster population.
Capers Island, South Carolina
Off the coast of Charleston, near Capers Island, a succulent and powerfully briny oyster called the Capers Blade grows in clusters. Clammer Dave, aka Dave Belanger, harvests them by hand, and they’re on the menu at one of Charleston’s most prestigious restaurants, Husk.
Meanwhile, in Beaufort County, South Carolina, Lady Island Oysters farms another favorite: the Single Lady oyster, which is known for its crisp, briny flavor and sweet finish.
Galveston Bay, Texas
The heart of the Texas oyster harvest takes place in Galveston Bay. Pepper Grove and Ladies Pass are two notable varieties of Texas oysters. The meat is chewy and sweet but with an umami aftertaste and brininess that will remind you of a mouth full of ocean water. Galveston’s oyster industry took a big hit following Hurricane Harvey, but in 2018, plans to build a protected reef just for oysters in the bay were announced.