The Wild South

The Case for Grilling Your Oysters

Nothing against the traditional roast, but while the oyster-getting is good, fire up the grill

Photo: T. Edward Nickens

There’s not a lot of time left—the months with an “R” in their names are running out fast as a neap tide—so you need to get this right. There are a handful of ways to cook oysters in the shell, and some are better than others. I’ll go out on a limb and say that my way is the best.

It always ruffles my feathers a bit to show up at an event dubbed an “oyster roast” only to find a couple of 20,000 BTU burners heating up giant shiny cauldrons. Those, I’m afraid, are not roasted oysters. Not that steamed oysters can’t be quite good, as long as they’re yanked off the heat in time. And when you have a pile of people to feed, steamed oysters keep the masses happy. But there’s a better way.

The better way is the traditional Lowcountry oyster roast—a sheet of metal atop a bed of roaring coals, a layer of oysters, and a topknot of wet burlap. The oysters get a hint of woodsy smoke flavor, and they’re served with a communal joy forged in the fire.     

Yet there is a better way still. One that’s simpler, quicker, and less fussy.

I’ve turned into a dedicated oyster griller. I want the flames licking the shells, the shells popping open, and a bit of oyster liquor dripping on the coals or hot grill and sending up briny plumes. That’s my Southern aromatherapy. You don’t get that with a steam pot.

photo: T. Edward Nickens

We do them two ways. The first method has to be the simplest way there is to cook bivalves. The oysters go on the grill cup-side down—always look for the slightly deeper bottom shell, so it will hold in the oyster’s liquor—then we put the lid down and crank the heat to medium high. That’s it. And these are oysters grilled to order, like eggs at a country diner. Want your oysters barely cooked, still swimming in a cup full of brine? Grab tongs or a heavy kitchen mitt and snatch them off. Prefer a hard-cooked oyster, all smokified and charred around the edges? Hang on to your hat just a minute. And no judging. Eat them just as you wish, barely warmed over or practically flame-broiled. 

Our other favorite grilling technique is to shuck the oysters first, then line them up on the grill sans the top shell. A couple of years ago, my son, Jack, made a simple butter compote for oysters that’s become a family staple: Combine a softened stick of butter with a tablespoon of brown sugar, 3 ounces of chopped chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, and a dash of bourbon. Spoon a pat onto each oyster after you place them on the grill, and Sweet Mother of Pearl you will slice your lips to ribbons sucking out the sauce. 

Cooking oysters like this is crazy simple, with hardly any prep time or cleanup. You could make a bigger mess grilling a hot dog. But time’s a-wasting. Don’t let the blues start running before you close out the oyster season in smoky style.

Follow T. Edward Nickens on Instagram @enickens