Technique: Kimball House’s Bryan Rackley on how to shuck oysters

Novices need not be afraid as long as they follow these simple guidelines
Photograph by Greg Dupree
Photograph by Greg Dupree

Like wine, an oyster tastes distinctly of the place it’s from. So at Kimball House, co-owner Bryan Rackley gives an English major’s attention to the descriptions he writes for the oyster menu. Kumamotos from Humboldt Bay, California, are redolent of “melon and eelgrass,” while the Island Creeks from Duxbury, Massachusetts, will give you a “salt punch in the face, kapow!” Rackley is also just as obsessive about how these briny beauties are presented. Novices need not be afraid to shuck oysters at home if they follow some simple guidelines. Rackley’s method, involving a clean towel set on a kitchen countertop rather than bulky work gloves, keeps hands safe from puncture wounds without butchering the delicate oysters. A knife with a thin, sharp tip—R. Murphy is his preferred brand—is the only other essential tool.

To best appreciate the nuances of oysters harvested from different waters, slurp them plain. Otherwise, Rackley recommends skipping the cocktail sauce and horseradish for a few drops of lemon juice or mignonette sauce. To make the mignonette, mix 1/2 cup each of apple cider vinegar and Champagne vinegar with 2 tablespoons of minced shallots and 1 teaspoon of coarsely cracked black pepper.

The breakdown

Illustration by Joel Kimmel

1. Lay a folded kitchen towel on the counter. Set the oyster cap-side up on the towel between the folds, exposing the hinge side. Secure the oyster by placing one hand on top of the shell.

2. With the other hand, insert the knife tip into the hinge. Use your wrist (not shoulder) to gently twist the knife to pop the shell open. (Do not drive it through with excess pressure, which can pop the oyster’s belly.)

Illustration by Joel Kimmel

3. Drag the knife gently along the inside of the cap, pulling it away from the oyster. Frequently wipe the knife on the towel to keep it clean.

Illustration by Joel Kimmel

4. Sweep the knife along the bottom shell underneath the oyster to detach it from its muscles. Keep the oyster moving from side to side. Scrape off stray shell bits, but keep the flavorful liquid within the shell.

Illustration by Joel Kimmel

5. Arrange the oysters on a bed of crushed or shaved ice. Serve as is with lemon slices and/or mignonette sauce.

Where to Buy
Rackley recommends one of Kimball House’s main suppliers: Island Creek Oysters, based in Duxbury, Massachusetts. They offer 24-hour delivery service and provide tips on buying, storing, shucking, and serving oysters on their website. They also sell knives, hoodies, and other paraphernalia.

1214_technique_oystersrackley_jkimmel_oneuseonlyAbout Bryan Rackley
Last September, Valdosta native Bryan Rackley, 35, opened Kimball House with three friends. The Decatur restaurant has since attracted national attention for an oyster program built on freshness and sheer ambition, usually offering 20 or more varietals from small farms on the East and West coasts.

Bonus recipe: Check out this Cloak and Dagger cocktail for a perfect pairing.

Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

This article originally appeared in our December 2014 issue.