How to Tell The Difference Between the 5 Types of US Oysters


How to Tell The Difference Between the 5 Types of US Oysters

August  9, 2017

Oysters, oysters, how we love thee. We partnered with Blue Point Brewing Company to celebrate one of our favorite shellfish, so we invited Cynthia Nims to share her oyster know-how and several varieties to try—just don't forget the beer!

There’s one universal theme for cooking come summertime: simplicity. Picnics, barbecues, and beach-side gatherings are prime opportunities to revel in the best of regional-seasonal products that require minimal kitchen time and allow more time to play during our favorite season of the year. If oysters aren’t among the first things that come to mind when you think about summer feasts, they should be. In their purest form—whether slurped raw or tossed on the grill—it hardly gets any simpler. And they play well with other summertime staples, whether that’s just a bucket of crisp lagers sipped with a few friends, or as a prelude while the burgers or ribs are finishing up at your next barbecue.

Few foods reflect a taste of place better than an oyster. Prodigious filter-feeders, drawing water through their gills to capture nutrients, oysters take on characteristics of the waters they live in: minerality, brininess, vegetal flavors (seaweed-lettuce), crispness, richness, and so on. (Some oyster fans go so far as to call this meroir, the seagoing equivalent of terroir.) So, it’s no simple branding ploy when you see oysters dubbed so many different names on the menu at your favorite oyster bars. Those names—most often reflecting the body of water from which the oyster came—address the fact that oysters from different growing regions can have distinct characteristics, which may be true even from one bay to the next.

Oyster From East to West (In the US)

Five species of oysters are grown in the United States. The Eastern oyster, sometimes known as a Virginica oyster from its Latin name Crassostrea virginica, is the native oyster along the Eastern and Gulf coasts. Because, as just noted, place matters, you’ll rarely find them called simply “Eastern oysters” on menus; instead, they’ll be touted by specific harvest areas such as Chincoteague, Malpeque, Apalachicola, or Wellfleet. The species most prolific on the West Coast is the Pacific oyster which, exactly as for the Eastern oyster, will be given any number of different names depending on where the oyster grew: Totten Inlet, Pickering Passage, Netarts Bay.

Shop the Story

Kumamoto oysters, known as kumos to fans, are another West Coast species smaller than Pacifics. They don’t follow the norm of Pacific and Eastern oysters, often sporting just their species name rather than a place name, though some menus may mention from which bay the oyster was harvested. The West’s only native oyster is the tiny Olympia oyster, rarely bigger than a half-dollar but packing a bold, mineral punch that devotees love. This leaves the European flat oyster which, as its name suggests, is a transplant from the other side of the Atlantic. These round, flat oysters are sometimes sold as “Belon,” the name they carry in their native waters of northern France. Found on both the West and East Coasts, these oysters are in quite slim supply due to challenges in growing them. For oyster aficionados, they’re a treat in which to indulge when the opportunity presents itself.

Differing Flavors

There is no one single flavor profile that all Eastern or Pacific oysters have. Instead, because of that meroir factor, degrees of brininess or minerality, seaweedy character or richness, will vary. In broad terms, though, Eastern oysters tend to be feature a simpler, more salt-forward flavor—from mild to ocean-pow—while Pacific oysters can exhibit some complexity, with a range of mineral, vegetal, savory flavors coming into play.

When it comes to eating oysters, their staunchest of fans will only consume them raw and would never add even a tiny dab of cocktail sauce before they slurp. These purists consider the oyster’s natural “liquor” (the liquid surrounding it in the shell) to be the only accompaniment needed. But for those of us who are up for some variety, oysters are generous in their versatility. In their raw form, embellishments abound from the classic mignonette (red wine vinegar, minced shallot, and a grinding of black pepper) and countless variations on the theme using other vinegars, citrus juice, or acidic element. Frozen mignonettes are popular as well, echoing the icy chill of the perfectly-presented oyster.

Few cooking methods don’t work well with oysters. They can be steamed (in-shell or out), pan- or deep-fried, stewed, smoked, pickled, poached, roasted, or baked in countless forms. Following summertime cooking habits, save some room on the grill for your oysters. You don’t even need to shuck them first: Just set the oysters cupped-side down on a hot grill and wait until the top shell pops up a bit. Remove that shell (a shucking knife may help out here), drizzle the oyster with your accent of choice—melted butter with fresh herbs, arugula pesto, a zesty barbecue sauce—and you’re all set. It’s hardly more work than popping open the cold lager you’ll want to have on hand, its bright crisp flavor ideal to complement but not overwhelm the flavor of the oyster.

Illustration by Meera Patel

Varieties to Try

When traveling to different seaside areas, and scanning the offerings at a restaurant or oyster bar, take the opportunity to try some oysters you haven’t had before. Given how many different options are out there, it becomes a delicious on-going pursuit. Here are a handful to keep an eye out for:

Wellfleet, Massachusetts

Among the best-known and most popular oysters from the East Coast, these have a particularly brisk, briny flavor of the ocean.

Capers Blade, South Carolina

These oysters have a namesake long, slender shape, which makes for a striking presentation. Their briny character is complemented by a light hint of sweetness.

Murder Point, Alabama

A stellar oyster from the Gulf Coast, these have the classic briny character of the Eastern species with a bonus buttery rich flavor to the plump meats.

Kumamotos, California and Washington

Kumamotos have mild, plump, crisp, and not-too-briny meat that makes an ideal intro oyster for first-time slurpers. No wonder they’re so popular.

Hog Island Sweetwaters, California

These Pacifics have a compelling flavor that strikes an elegant balance between brininess and sweetness.

Shigoku, Washington

Not a place name in this case, shigoku means ‘ultimate’ in Japanese, and indeed these are a prime halfshell experience, with their deep shells holding plump meat that’s bright with moderate brininess.

Eld Inlet, Washington

Among many great oysters from numerous waterways of the Puget Sound region, these lovely fluted shells hold salty-sweet meat that has a rich finish.

Belon, Maine

Adopting a French alias (Belon, like Champagne, is generally used only for oysters from a specific region of France), these European Flat oysters are boldly flavored with a strong mineral finish that can be, let’s say, an acquired taste.

Olympia, Washington

Related to the European Flats, these have a pronounced mineral flavor but in a smaller package. They’re a celebrated delicacy to many oyster lovers.

It's beachside or bust for us. We partnered with Blue Point Brewing Company for doing what's just right and good when it's hot: Having a beer, slurping an oyster, and sticking feet in sand or ocean. So, cheers to summer! Read all about Blue Point's Toasted Lager here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Janine O'Flaherty
    Janine O'Flaherty
  • ChefJune
  • Steve
  • Greenstuff
  • Gordon
A lifelong resident of Seattle, Cynthia has been writing about food and travel--both close to home and far afield--for over 25 years. A math major who had a change of heart, Cynthia followed her college degree with studying and working at La Varenne cooking school which did the trick.


Janine O. January 28, 2021
I don't know what they mean by "sweet" when they describe oysters. Oysters never taste "sweet" if by sweet you mean sweet like sugar or milk. I've been scarfing down oysters since I was 3-4 years old and I have never tasted any sweetness in any of them. There's briny, there's mineral, there's bland, etc, but there has never been sweet.
ChefJune August 9, 2018
I love oysters in all their guises. However I'm deathly allergic to beer, but even if I weren't, I'd still prefer chilled Muscadet with my oysters. :)
Steve August 10, 2017
The Texas coast is lined with shallow bays that grow awesome oysters. And Louisiana? King of Gulf seafood. The Gulf coast doesn’t stop in Mobile.
Greenstuff August 9, 2017
Oh my, I see that the sponsor of this article is from New York. No celebration of New York oysters?

Speaking of the sponsor and with all respect to the wonderful beer breweries located close to some of my favorite oyster locales, I have to go with Ernest Hemingway:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Needless to say, I'd be glad to discuss this issue further over some oysters and a beer.
Author Comment
Cynthia N. August 9, 2017
One of, if not *the*, ultimate quotes about the joy of oysters. I had the good fortune of being a judge for an oyster-wine competition for a number of years, that passage read with a near solemnity before we had our first slurp and sip each year. Such a vivid description.
Gordon August 9, 2017
You need to get ready for the mid atlantic states to come a lookin for you. Chesapeake Bay oysters were eaten by the founders of America. You can still find paths covered with broken oyster shells in Colonial Williamsburg. Everyone around the Bay eats them, along with soft shelled crabs. Urbanna VA has an oyster Festival that brings thousands of people to this little river city. So get ready for Maryland and Virginia people to get their 2 cents in!!
Greenstuff August 9, 2017
And how about Long Island Sound? Norwalk, Connecticut once had the world's largest fleet of oyster harvesters! I love all Food52's oyster articles, but I wish this one had been twice as meaty.

Author Comment
Cynthia N. August 9, 2017
There are SO very many outstanding oysters along our coasts, that's for sure. I spent some quality time on the Virginia coast and in DC a couple months ago slurping as many Easterns as I could, including Riptide, Duxbury, Wiley Point, Pemaquid, Quonset Point, Sewansecott, Chincoteague, among others...a lot of delicious territory, and still just scratching the surface. Covering a good number of them all gets to be a book-length proposition, for which Rowan Jacobsen's The Essential Oyster does a great job.
Isabel M. August 12, 2017
I was going to chime in about the recovery of the oyster fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay! These days they often raise them in baskets up off the bottom as it gets too silty from run-off. Our marina in St. Mary's County Maryland
Isabel M. August 12, 2017
(got cut off) grows them in the creek and serves them fresh out of the water. Can't wait for the season to open!