It is one of those traditional dishes that is simplicity itself. Fanny Farmer for instance favors but three ingredients; oysters with their liquor, butter and milk, seasoned simply with salt and pepper. You do not need much more. The sole difficulty of the recipe lies in shucking the oysters, but that is not so difficult as it appears and you can avoid the issue if you like (see the notes). For four and may be doubled or otherwise extended; the proportions need not vary.
-2 Tablespoons unsalted butter cut into 4 pieces
-1 cup heavy cream
-1 quart of oysters and their liquor, separated
-1 teaspoon Worcestershire
-about ¼ teaspoon cayenne
-salt and pepper
-about a Tablespoon of minced parsley
- Put a piece of butter into each of 4 bowls.
- Scald the cream and keep it warm.
- Bring the oyster liquor to a boil with the Worcestershire and cayenne.
- Reduce the heat to low and stir in the warm cream.
- Add the oysters to the pot, check the seasoning and simmer the stew until the edges of the oysters just begin to curl.
- Ladle the stew into the bowls and top each one with a portion of parsley.
- Some recipes add paprika but it adds a false note to oyster stew.
- “You can buy preshucked oysters, and some are very good, but quality varies. Talk to your fish vendor about them. If you shuck your own, you can be sure of their origin and freshness.” Jasper White, 50 Chowders (New York 2000, 142)
- White, an otherwise excellent cookbook writer, alludes to the addition of Sherry to oyster stew, but provides neither a recipe of his own in 50 Chowders nor refers to a source for the assertion. It is not a bad idea, best added from a little pitcher at table by each diner. We use amontillado.
- Jane Grigson properly calls oyster stew a “simple classic of American cookery,” although its roots lie in the thicker, less appealing stews found in a number of eighteenth century English cookbooks, including those from Dr. Kitchiner and Mrs. Raffald. They essentially are oysters napped in a heavy white sauce for service on toast.
- Some of the slightly lighter nineteenth century recipes also start with a thickening of white roux. We do not like it.
- Mrs. Grigson’s recipe for oyster stew is a study in elegant style. She uses 3 cups of light cream, “24 large oysters” with their strained liquor, some hot sauce, salt, 4 teaspoons of butter and a little paprika. All you do is
“heat the cream with the strained oyster liquor. Add a dash of Tabasco, salt if required and the oysters. Place 1 teaspoon of butter in four bowls and, when the oysters are firm, pour the stew into the bowls. Sprinkle paprika on top and serve with hot buttered toast, or oyster crackers if you can get them.” Jane Grigson’s Fish Book (London 1973) 262-63
Ditch the paprika: Unlike Britain, oyster crackers are ubiquitous in the United States.
- Wheeler’s, the late chain of London fish houses, served impeccable oysters on the half shell. They put shallots as well as paprika in their oyster stew according to the minimalist Wheeler’s Fish Cookery Book by Macdonald Hastings & Carole Walsh (London 1974) 102:
“OYSTER STEW (speciality of Bernard Walsh)
Shell the oysters. Melt some butter in a pan and cook chopped shallots but do not brown them. Add the oysters with the juice from the shells and a little milk and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add paprika to taste and plenty of cream.”
A founder in his oyster hat
- Lillian Langseth-Christensen presents three variations on oyster stew in The Mystic Seaport Cookbook (New York 1970). Two of them are no different in kind than recipes listed here, but the third is noteworthy for its use of onions along with shallots, dry mustard and thyme. The additions are not necessary, but are old School English and make for an interesting change if you are fortunate enough to eat oyster stew on a regular basis. To make the britishfoodinamerica version for four people you will want:
-3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
-3 minced shallots
-a minced onion
-3 cups milk
-¼ teaspoon dry mustard (Colman’s preferred)
-1 teaspoon dried thyme
- ½ cup oyster liquor
-2 dozen shucked “small oysters”
-1 cup heavy cream, whipped (without sugar)
- Melt the butter in a biggish pot over medium low heat, then cook the shallot and onion until they soften.
- Whisk 2 Tablespoons of the milk into the mustard and bring the rest of the milk to a boil with the shallot and onion.
- Stir the sodden mustard into the pot along with the thyme and oyster liquor. Keep the broth on the boil for another minute, reduce the heat to a simmer and bury the oysters at sea in the stock until they just curl at their edges.
- Check the stock for salt and pepper (you will want pepper and may want a hint of salt), stir the whipped cream into the stew and strew each serving with some parsley.
- The instruction to use whipped cream is not a typographical error and pops up in other recipes for oyster stew. It allows the cream to heat more quickly and gives the stew an oddly interesting texture.
- The original Seaport recipe uses so little mustard, a measly 1/8 teaspoon, that it goes unnoticed.
- Most recipes omit the Worcestershire but our inclusion of it reflects more than the Editor’s usual fetish. No less a source than the Union Oyster House in Boston puts Worcestershire in its oyster stew. See Jean Kerr & Spencer Smith, Union Oyster House Cookbook (Kittery Point, Maine 2008, 58)
- As we have noted in the lyrical, clams are a more forgiving if less elegant (the attributes always seem to go together) cousin of oysters, and although the recipe is rare, one for quahog stew did appear at some specified time in The Vineyard Gazette according to Langseth-Christensen. She calls it “excellent” and she is right. It also is simple. Mash 2 Tablespoons of butter and 3 of flour together with a generous ¼ teaspoon of mace, scald a quart of milk and stir the spiced gunk into the pot. Let the mixture thicken, then dump in a quart of chopped clams and their liquor. Check the stew for salt and pepper; boost it with a little cayenne if you like. Once the mixture steams up, pour the stew into four bowls that each contain half a beaten egg and a Tablespoon of butter.
- The original recipe tells you to use “shelled quahogs,” which are not edible whole. They are huge and rubbery and require both chopping and cooking to become delicious. The squeamish discard any black flesh of the clam but that is a silly move. A sound one, however, is purging the clams to eliminate sand before you shuck them by bathing the bivalves of any size in water and cornmeal. Not at all necessary for oysters.
- The mace, as we are wont to observe, is characteristically English.