Frequently Asked Questions: The Atlantic Razor Clam

Video Feature: How To Prepare Razor Clams for Raw Use

Q: What is a razor clam?

A “razor clam” is a general term for an elongated saltwater clam that resembles a closed straight razor. Different razor clam species can be found across the coasts of North America. There are over 23 species in the Atlantic alone. The most common Atlantic razor, however, is the Ensis directus, or more commonly known as the Atlantic jackknife clam.

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Q: Where can you find razor clams?

Razor clams can be found in intertidal and subtidal zones of bays and estuaries. They are filter feeders with short siphons, so they live just beneath the surface to feed. When low tides expose the bottom, they dig and burrow themselves deeper into the mud with their strong muscular feet. They are extremely sensitive to vibrations, so depending on where they’re being attacked from, they can propel themselves out of their burrows or dig even deeper to escape.

Q: How are razor clams harvested?

There are a number of ways to harvest razor clams depending on which zone they live in:

Subtidal Razor Clams

Razor clams found in the subtidal zone are usually diver caught and harvested by hand because of their brittle shells. The subtidal zone never goes dry, therefore the only way to access them is to dive underwater to reach the bottom.

Intertidal Razor Clams (most common in New England)

Harvesting razors from the intertidal zone may not require diving gear, but the clams are also harvested by hand. At low tides, the water recedes to give diggers access to the bottom. Diggers must dig quickly or use tricks and tools like clam guns and salt solutions to catch these fast movers. In Massachusetts, a salt solution is sprayed into their burrows. This salinity disturbs the clams enough to get them to emerge from their holes. Diggers then pull the razors by hand before they escape.

Q: Why are razor clams so limited? When are they available?

Razor clams are a limited item because they must be harvested gently and by hand. Unlike other shellfish, they cannot be dredged. Subtidal razors cannot be harvested in great supply and intertidal razors can only be harvested if ­all of the following conditions are true:

  1. Low negative tides to access the sea bed

  2. Low negative tides within daylight hours

  3. Weather and air temperatures permitting

Tides are dictated by the pull of gravity between the Moon and the Earth. When the moon aligns with the sun twice a month (New Moon and Full Moon), this pull of gravity (or tractive force) causes high tides to be higher and low tides to be lower. These extreme low tides are the opportune times for razor clamming, but if they occur outside of daylight hours, no shellfishing will be allowed.

Summer is a good time for razors because there’s a longer window for low tide to occur during daylight hours. In other seasons, checking low tides on a tide chart will be useful in predicting when razors may be available in a given month.

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What to look for in a tide chart   Look in the “low” column for negative tides. Each area is different, but the smaller the number, the lower the tide. if the time of the negative tide falls within daylight (see “Sun” column), likely chances there will be razors available around that date,  weather permitting . These tides will coincide with the new moon and full moon (see “Moon” column) in each month.

What to look for in a tide chart

Look in the “low” column for negative tides. Each area is different, but the smaller the number, the lower the tide. if the time of the negative tide falls within daylight (see “Sun” column), likely chances there will be razors available around that date, weather permitting. These tides will coincide with the new moon and full moon (see “Moon” column) in each month.

Q: What’s the best way to transport and keep razor clams fresh?

When transporting razor clams, it is important to make sure they are packed tightly so they do not move around. Their shells are fragile and susceptible to breakage. Some harvesters will make bundles and band them together with rubber bands to help them stay closed and alive. If transporting with wet ice, the containers should have drainage to prevent the clams from sitting in still water. The best way to keep razor clams fresh is in a fridge with a damp towel over them, making sure there is plenty of drainage.

Q: What is a razor clam’s shelf life? How soon should it be used?

We recommend using these clams immediately for the best results, especially if serving them raw. The typical shelf life of a razor clam is about 5 days from harvest.

Q: How do I prepare or clean a razor clam?

Razor clams can be easily steamed open, so they do not require much prep besides a rinse. If you’re using them raw, however, you’ll want to clean off some debris. In this video, Bekah shares a quick overview on how to prepare razor clams for raw use.

Q: What are some ways to serve razor clams?

  1. Raw: slice only the foot section thinly and serve back in the shell. Garnish with herbs, oils, caviars, and other aromatic elements.

  2. Ceviche: using the foot section, slice it thinly and toss it with fresh citrus juice. Let it sit for a few hours before serving with your favorite corn or potato chips.

  3. Grilled: put the entire rinsed clam on the grill over high heat just until they open – finish with lemon juice, salt, and olive oil for a simple yet classic treat.

  4. Sauté: Begin by sweating onions, garlic, and/or shallots and then add the clams and a bit of white wine. Once the clams open up, transfer to a dish and serve. Garnish with fine herbs. These can also be removed from the shell, chopped and tossed with the cooking liquid as a sauce for pasta.

  5. Seared: remove one shell and season the clam. Place meat side down on a hot surface (like a griddle, plancha, or heavy bottomed pan) for just a few minutes until the meat has a light brown color. Remove and garnish as you would for a raw preparation.

  6. Poached: remove the meats (foot and belly) completely from the shell and place in a heavy bottomed pot and cover with olive oil. Add garlic cloves, whole mustard seeds and whole coriander seeds. Bring from room temperature to a warm state over medium low heat. Pull from the heat and cool when you see small bubbles start to rise from the clams. Cool and serve on toast with fresh aioli and parsley.

How long do oysters stay fresh?

Ah, the age-old question: how long does something perishable last? We have all asked that at some point in our lives, especially in front of our fridge. Sometimes, it’s easy to figure out: a weird smell, visible mold – it’s probably time to throw it out. But what about perishable foods with less obvious signs, like oysters without “Best By” dates?

We have been conditioned to rely on dates to help us decide if something is still fresh or safe to eat, but what does “fresh” really mean for oysters? Have we assessed quality without a date bias? Our industry has become so focused on harvest dates and marketing that the oyster’s actual freshness is being overlooked.

From a food safety perspective, oysters stored at proper temperatures can be safe to eat for months. Oysters were historically stored in pits or cellars during winter and consumed during the winter months. “Pitting” or overwintering oysters in coolers and cellars is still a popular technique for growers to keep oysters safe from winter sea ice.

From a freshness perspective, we at Pangea Shellfish define oyster freshness as the following:

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A fresh oyster is alive, has ample liquor, and maintains its aroma and flavor from harvest.

Based on that definition, there are some signs when an oyster has gone bad:

  • The oyster is gaping open, which means it is weak or dead.

  • The oyster is dry, which means it is weak, injured or dying.

  • The oyster smells or tastes different from harvest.

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We have generally found oysters to maintain our definition of “freshness” for up to 14 days. Our observations, though, have been anecdotal, and we didn’t have concrete proof. So, for the month of May, we decided to put our assumptions to the test by shucking one oyster per day and tracking the changes over time.

A Month-Long Freshness Test

The Sample

For this test, we used a 100-count bag of Salten Rock Oysters from our Blish Point Oyster Farm in Barnstable, MA. We chose this oyster because we knew its seed to market process intimately. If something occurred during the test, we could potentially trace the issue back to the farm.

Procedure

We randomly selected 1 of 14 bags from Lot C-748. The lot was harvested on Saturday, April 27, picked up by our company truck, and received at our Boston facility at 4:40PM the same day. We stored the bag of oysters in a crate, on a shelf, and in our cooler for the entire test period. The cooler temperature averaged 41° F. The oysters received no special treatment. No special handling, no ice or special storage, and no wet storage.

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We evaluated one oyster per day. Before Bekah and I shucked each oyster, we recorded the oyster’s size in inches and weight in grams. Once open, we recorded its temp, captured a photo, and noted its liquor content and flavor. On the last day of the test, May 31, we shucked all the remaining oysters to see how they held up.

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Data & Results

Starting Bag Weight: 13.96 LB
Ending Bag Weight: 13.19 LB
Weight Change: -0.77 LB

Bag Yield: 96% (4 oysters dead or dry)
Size range: 3.0” - 4.0”
Average size: 3.6”

Figure 1: The following shows the weight of each oyster evaluated per day during the test.

one oyster weight was recorded each work day in May. 79 oyster weights were recorded on may 31.

one oyster weight was recorded each work day in May. 79 oyster weights were recorded on may 31.

Figure 2: The following shows the distribution of oyster weights shucked on May 31 (34 days post-harvest). The average weight of these oysters were 56.1 grams.

Most of the oyster weights ranged between 48 to 64 grams. Mean: 56.1 grams; Median: 55.2 grams; mode: 56.4 grams.

Most of the oyster weights ranged between 48 to 64 grams. Mean: 56.1 grams; Median: 55.2 grams; mode: 56.4 grams.

Figure 3: The following photos and notes were captured to assess meat, liquor, and flavor. Click on the photo for the oyster’s details.

Discussion of Results

Change in Overall Bag Weight

At the start of the test, the bag weighed 13.96 lb, and over the 34-day period, it lost 0.77 lb (349 g). If we average the weight loss across the bag, each oyster lost about 0.0077 lb (~3.5 g), about the weight of 2 playing cards. We expected this weight loss and it's within reason. Over time, moisture from the outer shells will evaporate and some oysters will weaken, losing some of its liquor in the process.

Change in Individual Oyster Weights

We hypothesized that the individual weight per oyster would decrease over time due to the expected moisture and liquor loss. What we found, however, was there was no direct correlation between time transpired and weight. In fact, oysters evaluated on May 31 (34 days post-harvest) ranged up to 80.9 grams, heavier than all oysters evaluated prior. Liquor was also visible in most of the oysters on the last day (see Figure 3).

This doesn’t mean that the oysters gained weight after harvest (that’d be highly improbable). Instead, this called out a flaw in our testing method. We were just as likely to draw 5 of the largest oysters or smallest oysters from the bag each week. Doing a more extensive test or having an oyster “control group” would make this more bulletproof. But hey, we’re oyster people, not scientists. One thing we can say is that the oysters we selected each day were of average weight compared to everything else in the bag (see Figure 1).

Change in Smell and Flavor

The oysters evaluated towards the start of our test easily met our definition of fresh: ample liquor, great meat fill, and flavor on point. The oysters continued to pass our standards for a few weeks with a couple exceptions (May 8 & 10). There were no significant changes until we reached May 17, 20 days post-harvest. From that point on, the smell and flavor started to turn. A couple of dead oysters started to make the bag stink. Oysters still had full meats and liquor, but they no longer tasted clean or pleasant. The funky lingering finish clearly was not representative of its merroir anymore.

Conclusions & Considerations

So what did we conclude or prove from this test?

1. Oysters are safe to eat even 30 days after its harvest date *if it has been handled and stored properly.

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Photo May 31, 3 50 01 PM.jpg

Here is a photo of me eating one of the oysters on May 31, 34 days post-harvest. Happy to report I did not get sick and am alive and well to write this! (I also ate them during week 5 to assess flavor.) The caveat about handling and storage is super important to mention, though. The oysters were safe to eat because they were properly handled and stored at temp. This is a must to ensure safe consumption regardless of its harvest date. Mishandling is one of the greatest risks for foodborne illnesses caused by oysters, so please do your part.

2. An oyster can maintain its “freshness” or quality up to 14 days after harvest.**

From our test, oyster quality started to decline 20+ days after harvest. We generally tell customers oysters stay fresh up to 14 days, but our results showed the period of freshness may actually be longer. We like to err on the side of caution, so 14 days from harvest is probably a good rule of thumb to follow.

**This is a general conclusion and may not apply to all oysters. We recognize that different species of oysters have different shelf lives. Atlantic oysters (virginica) tend to keep better than Pacific oysters (gigas). Performing this test with Pacific oysters could have yielded a shorter freshness window. We used a farmed oyster versus a wild oyster. We used a Massachusetts oyster that feeds longer than a Canadian oyster. We acknowledge these differences in oyster characteristics can affect the outcome. This was also only one test done on a small scale. Perhaps we will repeat this again to compare our results, and maybe on another variety!

3. Freshness is not determined by dates, weights, or visual indicators. It’s all in the taste.

Before we embarked on this test, we thought we could assess quality by looking at an oyster and its numbers, i.e. its dates and weights. But what this experiment showed us is those characteristics can be deceiving. It doesn’t matter if an oyster is live, plump, and full of liquor. It doesn’t matter if an oyster was harvested 24 days ago. What matters most is if an oyster tastes good, and to determine that, you’re just going to have to eat it.

Mussels: An Overview & Industry Opinions

Please note: mussels are animals, so between May through July, you may see signs of spawn. Find recommended handling tips here. Make sure to share these best practices with your customers to minimize quality concerns.

Credit: Acadia Aqua Farms

Credit: Acadia Aqua Farms

We spend a lot of time talking about oysters because that's a majority of our business, but we wouldn’t be a shellfish company without mussels. On the East Coast, PEI mussels are king. They are affordable, clean, and supply is almost year-round. Many customers have asked us for them, but we have to explain that we carry only one mussel. That mussel is the Hollander & DeKoning Dutch style mussel out of Maine. Both are Blue Mussels from the North Atlantic, but their cultivation methods differ and so does their merroir. These distinctions set them apart in flavor and in quality.

A mussel overview

There are many species of mussels in the world, and about 17 of them are edible. The most common are Blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis), Pacific Blue mussels (Mytilus trossellus), and New Zealand green-lipped mussels (Perna canaliculus). Like oysters, they are filter-feeders that consume algae and plankton from the water.

Mussels are available wild or farmed, but nearly 90% of the world’s mussel supply is now cultivated. Wild mussels live along intertidal zones, clinging to rocks or bottom surfaces with their byssal threads. Cultivated mussels also cling to surfaces, but growers strategically attach them to different off-bottom gear. Depending on the geographical features of an area, farmers may choose to cultivate mussels in the following ways.

Off-Bottom Methods

Longline cultivation

Longline cultivation

Bouchot cultivation

Bouchot cultivation

Raft Cultivation

Raft Cultivation

  • Longline

    This is a common method of growing mussels in PEI. Longlines attached to buoys house many strands of seeded rope that hang vertically in the water column. Socking used can protect the mussels from falling off the rope or from predation.

  • Rope-and-pole (Bouchot)

    The rope-and-pole is a popular French method because it does not need a lot of space and produces clean and uniform mussels. Seeded ropes are wound around large poles that stick into the bay or harbor. The poles are then covered in fine netting known as a socking. These ropes provide a solid area for the juvenile mussels to attach to while the socking protects them from predation and falling loose.

  • Raft

    This method is quite common and easy to maintain in crowded areas as well. Lines of socking-covered seeded ropes hang from a raft where harvesters can gain easy access to the mussels at any tide.

  • Socking

    This method uses a long, single strand of rope covered in socking material anchored at both ends by buoys. The mussels are able to move along the tide while having access to the nutrients floating on the surface. This is a method predominantly used in New Zealand.

Bottom Culture Method (Dutch Style)

Bottom culturing is a hybrid method of wild growout and cultivation. Growers collect wild mussel seed and plant them on the sea floor bed without the aid of any rope or other gear. These mussels are more susceptible to predation and weather, but in the process, become more resilient.

Advantages & Disadvantages

Like oyster farming, there are advantages and disadvantages to each method. Off-bottom methods do not need a ton of space and will guarantee higher product yield. These methods will also produce clean shells and clean meats, but their pampered lifestyle may lead to thinner shells. Potential overcrowding on ropes may also affect meat to shell ratio (1). Ultimately, the product strength will affect usage yield and shelf-life.

Bottom cultured mussels are more like wild mussels. They will have robust flavors, stronger shells, and more substantial meats. Unfortunately, like wild mussels, they can be gritty or dirty if they are not properly purged and cleaned. Farmers also need decent amount of acreage to plant and seed beds, so mussels do not get overcrowded. Aside from high operational costs, growers also have to assume the potential risk of losing product out in the open to Mother Nature.

Acadia Aqua Farms, producers of Hollander & DeKoning Mussels

Acadia Aqua Farms, producers of Hollander & DeKoning Mussels

Maine mussels or PEI mussels?

In the North Atlantic region, most of the mussel supply hails from Canada (PEI) or Maine. Mark Bittman flat out rejected PEI mussels in a New York Time’s Diner’s Journal post. It was interesting to read his perspective on why he thought PEI mussels weren’t “the best.” We are clearly partial to our Maine Hollanders, but we got curious: what mussels do others in the industry prefer?

We reached out to a few chefs in the region to hear their opinion.

Rose Thornton – Seafood Executive and former Chef

Personally, I do not think there is enough of a difference between Maine cultured mussels and PEI mussels to warrant the price difference. Are there certain times of year that Maine mussel meats are far superior to PEIs? Certainly. But at their core, mussels are a restaurant's money maker. Whether a chef chooses to put white wine, buffalo sauce, or a teriyaki ginger fume over a couple pounds of mussels, they can make more on this well-loved friend to grilled bread than they will on a 32 oz porterhouse once the steam settles.

Credit: Josephine Proul, Local 111

Credit: Josephine Proul, Local 111

Josephine Proul – Local 111

When I was first introduced to the crop of mussels from Bangs Island, I realized quickly it was not PEI in the best, most amazing way. They weren’t like the other basic mussels. The reality was that these mussels were in a category of their own: plump, briny and clean, consistent from mollusk to mollusk. I was also stoked that they were from Maine!! As a restaurant owner [who] supports and showcases as much regional products as possible, it makes these mussels approachable to the guest.

Credit: Matt Drummond, Red Paint Hospitality Group

Credit: Matt Drummond, Red Paint Hospitality Group

Matt Drummond — Corporate Executive Chef, Red Paint Hospitality Group

Though PEI [mussels] typically are very easy to clean and uniform, I prefer Maine [mussels] due to their larger size. They have more of a true flavor in my opinion. I also believe that people are slowly more accustomed to seeing Maine mussels on menus, but they are uneducated on the differences compared to PEI -- mostly the fact that Maine mussels sometimes can have that wonderful natural thing called “sand” in them, which is pretty difficult to clean out before cooking.

Credit: Paul Callahan, Brine Oyster Bar

Credit: Paul Callahan, Brine Oyster Bar

Paul Callahan – Chef, Brine Oyster Bar

It’s nice to see small-scale mussel growers making a name for themselves and taking the time to bring back rope grown mussels that are spaced appropriately. This conscious decision to put craft over money makes for a better product. The meat to shell ratio is perfect. The mussels don’t shrink out. The mussels are plumper. The flavors are a little bit more intense because of the “merroir” being more south in warmer waters.

Humans have consumed mussels for thousands of years, and they are found in cuisines all over the world. PEI, Maine, wild or cultivated, there is something warm and comforting about a large, steaming bowl of mussels. Can you tell the difference between Maine and PEI Mussels? Do you have a preference? Share your thoughts with us below.

And as always, #eatmoremussels.

The Underappreciated Atlantic Surf Clam

Every summer at clam shacks in New England, the classic debate rises: fried clam strips or fried clam bellies? In my opinion, the two should not be compared. These sweet and salty fried treats are not even products from the same clam. The popular option is to use whole bellies, which come from the Eastern shores and are known as steamers, soft-shells, or piss clams. The less popular option, strips, are cut from a larger hard shell clam, the Atlantic surf clam. Both are an amazing sea treat, but I think the surf clam deserves some more attention.

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The Atlantic Surf Clam (Spisula solidissima) is a large, hard shell clam that is found in large numbers along the coast of the Northeast and primarily harvested in New England. They are triangle-shaped measuring on average six inches across at the time of optimal harvest. Their weight at this size is about two pounds making them one of the largest clams we eat. Most of these landings occur in the Nantucket Shoals where annual quotas remain around 3 million pounds. These landings are primarily used for processed products with very little sold as live product to the end consumer. Processed products include clam juice, clam strips, minced clams, and the belly (viscera) used for bait or industrial use.

 
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How surf clams are processed

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The first step in the production process is to remove the meat from the shell by hand. Lines of workers remove the meat by using short, blunt knives and make quick work of the difficult process. The juice released in this process is strained, packed, and frozen for use as a base in sauces and soups. Next, the meat is rinsed of any sand or grit, and a quick burst of heat removes any membranes or connective tissues that are not fit for consumption. The majority of the viscera, or belly, is removed and discarded, or saved for bait. The siphon, the mantle (or strap), the two adductors, and the foot are chopped and sold as minced clams. These pieces are usually about the size of a dime and stored back in their own juice in plastic containers. This product is used as a base for soups and chowders as well as an ingredient in items like stuffed clams and croquettes. The foot, if not used for minced, will be cut lengthwise and sold as the clam strip.

The emergence of the clam strip

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The clam strip is a relatively new way to use the surf clam. It was created for a business in the 1950s: Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. The famous orange and turquoise roadside respite was well known for their ice cream and quick and eat food, but the one thing they had people clamoring for was their fried clam plate. During that time, soft shell clams were increasingly scarce and the demand for fried clams was high. The restaurant’s source for clams was a company by the name of Saffron Brothers, a family business that started in the early 1940s by digging soft shell clams in Ipswich, MA. Not wanting to lose the business, the Saffron Brothers came up with the idea of using a clam that was readily available and less expensive to harvest. The brothers armed boats with hydraulic dredges, pulling up the large clams in droves. They processed them and sent them to the restaurant and were received with open arms. A new product was born and a New England staple emerged: Howard Johnson’s Tendersweet Clams. Soon, establishments up and down the Eastern Seaboard were using and frying the strips, hoping to capitalize off the acclaim. Since then, it has remained a staple in New England and enjoyed by many throughout the year.

Uses in fine dining

Photo Courtesy of Chef Brian Young of The Emory

Photo Courtesy of Chef Brian Young of The Emory

Surf clams can also be found on high-end sushi menus, commonly known as Giant Clam (Hokkigai). Often, the foot will be steamed, sliced lengthwise, and served on rice as nigiri. The tip of the foot will turn a bright pink or red, making it a standout among the tuna and salmon. Another way this clam can be used is in a raw preparation by using more than just the foot. By separating the parts of the clam normally used for minced clams, careful slicing can turn them into a high-end dish. The texture and flavor profile are similar to geoduck, yet mild and versatile enough for a large number of applications. Chef Brian Young of The Emory in Boston uses surf clams as a vessel for delicate and high-end ingredients. He thinks that all of the extra work to clean them is well worth it. On the right, you can see a dish that he created for a dinner at the James Beard house this past winter. The surf clam is sliced thinly and served raw with cultured cream, caviar, mizuna, and potato chips dusted with dried Italian truffles. This surf clam dish is certainly a whole other world from a fried clam basket or Striped Bass bait.

Curious about how to use these clams in your kitchen? Here’s a quick video on how to break them down and a recipe for a quick and easy dish inspired by spring.

#eatmoreclams

*As this piece was in production, an ordinance was put in place on April 9th, closing Nantucket Shoals for surf clam harvest until further notice. Since this is the largest area of harvest in the Northeast, it is hard to say exactly how the industry will change, but we are waiting on more updated information. Stay with us as we navigate this closure and find out more on the future of the East’s most underappreciated clam.

Winter Effects On Oyster Quality

From February to April, we tend to see quality issues on certain varieties of oysters. It’s something that happens each year, so we put together this FAQ to help address your winter concerns.

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What are oysters doing during winter?

When we’re asked to think of animals that hibernate, bears, bats and other small mammals usually come to mind. But did you know, oysters also “hibernate” during the winter? Contrary to children’s books and fairy tales, animals in hibernation are not sleeping. Hibernation is a form of dormancy in which animals conserve energy to survive harsh environmental conditions. Oysters go dormant during winter because water temperatures can stay below freezing for months. Evolution has also taught them that there is no food in the water when everything is iced over.

How do oysters survive their winter dormancy?

To prepare for winter dormancy, oysters feed like crazy during the fall to build up glycogen, their sugar stores — which is why they are so sweet in autumn. When the water temperatures drop to 40° F, it signals the oyster to stop metabolizing and go dormant. The oyster will barely pump during this time and survive on its glycogen to get through the winter. When the waters warm up and food is back in the water, the oysters will become active again and start feeding. They will pump, filter, and eat from spring to fall until water temperatures drop again, triggering another cycle of dormancy.

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What is winter kill?

Inevitably, there are oysters that will die during winter dormancy. This phenomenon is called winter kill. Oysters run out of glycogen to stay alive or they are too weak to withstand the harsh conditions. The worst part is, some of these oysters die remaining shut. This makes them difficult to detect even when harvesters go through them by hand.

What are some signs of winter kill?

Because some oysters die shut, they cannot be detected until they are shaken up or shucked open to reveal dry, shriveled, smelly meats. Dormant oysters are weaker and have difficulty healing themselves, so any chipping during harvest, culling, packing, or transit can lead to liquor loss.

Once we hit late February and into March, we are basically asking the oysters to do the most impossible journey possible. Out of the water, through the packing house and shipped across the [Canadian] border by refrigerated truck. If at any point in that journey, the oyster [attempts] to feed or gets jostled in a harsh manner that loosens the abductor muscle, the oyster will spill some of its precious liquor and there’s no opportunity to replace the liquor… The oyster will not likely open again until spring when he’s either bone dry from survival or is sufficiently convinced that the water temperatures are steady again.
— Jacob Dockendorff, PEI Producer

Why does winter kill affect certain varieties more than others?

If you are a Pangea Shellfish customer, you will notice that certain oyster varieties are unavailable from March to May like wild-harvested Malpeques. These are the months when winter kill is most apparent, and Canadian supply is a great example.

Canadian waters get colder earlier in the year than locations down south. This also means the oysters enter dormancy earlier than its southern brethren. If a Canadian oyster enters dormancy in early November, it may not start feeding again until May when waters warm. It basically needs to survive on its glycogen that whole time! It’s impossible to ask the oysters to be in tip-top shape from March through May when they have not eaten for six to seven months.

You will also see signs of winter kill in New England oysters as we approach March, but it’s not as noticeable because their dormancy period is shorter. New England oysters are likely feeding until the end of November and start feeding again in late March. They have to survive about four months compared to the six months Canadian oysters endure.

Average Water temperatures in Summerside, PEI.  Water temps drop to 40F by early november and do not warm back up until late May. Oysters are dormant that entire period.  Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Summerside, PEI. Water temps drop to 40F by early november and do not warm back up until late May. Oysters are dormant that entire period. Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Barnstable, MA.  New England water temps do not drop to 40F until late November / December, which allows the oysters to feed longer and remain in dormancy for a shorter amount of time compared to Canadian oysters.  Source: NOAA

Average Water temperatures in Barnstable, MA. New England water temps do not drop to 40F until late November / December, which allows the oysters to feed longer and remain in dormancy for a shorter amount of time compared to Canadian oysters. Source: NOAA

Which varieties are less susceptible to winter kill?

Winter kill is less of an issue for southern varieties because of warmer water conditions, but generally, farmed oysters have a better chance of survival than wild oysters. Growers make sure their oysters have the best access to food throughout the year and condition them to have stronger abductor muscles. Farms also have different wintering and culling methods to tackle winter kill and limit its effects on product quality. So, despite Canadian oysters being more susceptible, many of the cultured Canadian varieties look nice throughout the season.

When will quality improve?

When the oysters finally start pumping and feeding again, it will take a couple of weeks for their quality to improve as they replenish themselves. Timing will vary by area because water temperatures differ by location, but we will see most varieties in better shape by late May.

Is there anything I can do to limit the effects of winter kill?

Yes! Be gentle. The oysters are weak, so any tough handling will result in dry or dead oysters. Give them extra attention and protection, especially in transit.

If you encounter a smelly bag, make sure to go through the bag or box because it could just be one dead oyster responsible for the smell. Discard the dead and rinse the rest. The remaining live oysters are just fine!

If there are any issues, contact your supplier. Dead oysters can go unnoticed until shucked, so giving your supplier feedback can help them assess the situation.

Duxbury Bay, January 2019, Mike Cesarini.

Duxbury Bay, January 2019, Mike Cesarini.

Special thanks to our Canadian producers for contributing to this piece.

Have a winter quality question not listed here? Ask it in the comments section below.

From Bycatch to Center of the Plate: Jonah Crab

Crabs live all over the world, and the number of crab species in existence reaches about 4500. Those that are edible have strong followings all over the world such as the Stone Crab, Dungeness Crab, King Crab, and Blue Crab. Here in New England, we focus on the Jonah Crab which is medium-sized and contains some of the sweetest meat around.

The Jonah Crab's habitat stretches from the icy waters of Northeastern Canada all the way down to the Carolinas.  The majority of its landings are in Prince Edward Island, Maine, and Rhode Island. In the past, these crabs were discarded as a by-catch of lobstering. Once the demand for the crabs increased, a devoted fishery was created. The harvesters began to catch the crabs in increased numbers using baited pots as they did in fishing lobsters.

The crabs follow a similar seasonality to lobster: they are at their best in the colder months. The colder water concentrates the natural sugars in the meat to give you a sweet and succulent bite. Its flavor is sweet like Pacific Dungeness crab with the firm yet delicate texture of the Florida Stone Crab. What is special about the Jonah is that the meat can be displayed and processed in many ways. Here are some popular products that are available both fresh and frozen:

Cap Off claws

Cap Off claws

Cocktail Claws:

These ready to eat morsels are comprised of just the claw with the ‘cap’ or base of the claw removed. The top of the claw, where the pincers are, is kept on to maintain the structure of the meat. These are most commonly served on their own with cocktail sauce or an aioli.

Empress Claws:

Like the cap off claws but more of the shell is removed leaving just one pincer on for an elegant display. These are often served on their own or even as a part of an impressive shellfish tower.

Triple score claws

Triple score claws

Triple Score Claws:

These include the whole arm with slits scored into the shell for you pop them open yourself. Some of the best meat is in those arm sections! These are served their own, or can be used as toppers to large bowls of shellfish stew.

All Leg Meat

All Leg Meat

All Leg Meat:

This is exactly what it sounds like, meat from the legs of the crab. This is picked from the shell by way of meticulous hand picking or via air hoses that force the meat out. This is the best option for elegant garnishes or as additions to pastas.

Combo Meat: 60% body meat and 40% leg meat.

The meat that comes from the body in smaller pieces and is either picked by hand or processed by machine which is mixed with large chunks from the legs. This is perfect for fillings and crab cakes.


Crab muscle structure is not that different than human muscles

Crab muscle structure is not that different than human muscles

Fresh vs. Frozen

Since both fresh and frozen crab are available on the market, what is the difference between the two? First, we need to go into what happens to the meat (apart from the shell) during the freezing process. Crab muscle structure is a lot like ours with bands of filaments held together by proteins. These proteins allow the muscle to move by sliding over one another powered by the enzymes actin and myosin. Think of actin and myosin as lubricants that help the muscle filaments slide over each other. When muscles freeze, they will expand, pulling apart the filaments and denaturing the actin first and then the myosin. When the meat thaws, the muscle will contract again, but the denatured enzymes will leak out of the muscle fibers as they are not able to adhere to anything. Without the aid of the enzymes, the meat will appear to be drier thawed versus frozen.

Crab in the shell is frozen with the aid of a glaze, which is a layer of ultra-cooled water that freezes on contact. This protects the meat and allows the crab to thaw quickly and evenly. Crab out of the shell is frozen in small batches in their own containers. Thawing should take place slowly in a fridge overnight. If the thawing process is rushed, the crab can lose more moisture creating an almost rubbery texture. There will still be some moisture loss, but not as much if the crab was not glazed.

An untrained eye may not be able to detect much of a change as this reaction is slight and the muscle fibers of the crab are not as compact as other animals (shown side-by-side below). To the connoisseur, frozen is a different game than fresh, but both have a prominent place in crab-loving dishes.

Fresh (l) and tHAWED (r)

Fresh (l) and tHAWED (r)

For fresh crab, it is best used in cold applications and areas where the crab will be served as the highlight of the dish. Being able to bite into a large, sweet, moist chunk of crab is a delight and it should be the freshest and brightest texture of all. Some examples of classic uses include Crab Louis salad, with fresh pasta, or as a garnish to a crab bisque.

For frozen, it is best used in fillings, cakes, and other hot preparations. The addition of other ingredients will help some of the meat’s natural sweetness come through, and the meat’s drier texture will help in the binding process (just make sure it is well drained first!). As for fresh or frozen claws, both can be consumed in the same way without much of a difference in taste, but the fresh will be sweeter. The advantage of using frozen is that you can depend on a long shelf life and have them at the ready. Just make sure you give them the time they need to thaw properly.

Looking to branch out into crab? Call us for products available and our ordering schedule.

#eatmorecrab

Our 2019 U.S. Shellfish Industry Outlook

2019 Shellfish Industry Outlook.jpg

Over the last ten years, we have seen the oyster market explode. We saw the rise of farmed oysters, the rapid openings of raw bars, and the expansion of the cocktail-size oyster market. The shellfish industry continues to surprise us with innovation and newcomers. But as it grows, it is also drawing more attention from the public sphere. As we look forward into 2019, here are the industry issues and trends we are thinking about and how they may affect the shellfish market.

Supply Trends

Climate Change

At the most recent 2019 Northeast Aquaculture Conference & Exposition, climate change was the hot topic. The ramifications of climate change for the shellfish industry are far-reaching. Ocean acidification and warming waters are affecting shellfish health and development. Shellfish are becoming more susceptible to disease and less resistant to invasive species. More frequent and extreme weather systems also increase the risk of losses. Stormwater runoff carrying excess nitrogen is causing more algal blooms harmful to shellfish.

Figure 2.31: Shells Dissolve in Acidified Ocean Water (Nina Bednarsek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory )

Figure 2.31: Shells Dissolve in Acidified Ocean Water (Nina Bednarsek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory )

Global-Temperature-Chart-529px.png

2019 IMPLICATIONS

Climate change is the new reality, and it will likely continue this year and into the near future. The consequences of climate change will definitely affect supply. Winter storms, wind, and other weather systems will limit farm access and production. There could be more frequent shellfish area closures due to heavy rain or algal blooms. Vibrio bacteria also thrives in warmer waters, which increases the risk of illnesses and related closures.

The warmer temperatures will likely induce shellfish to spawn sooner and potentially longer.  This will affect their quality during the warmer months. The soft shell clam fishery continues to struggle with climate change, and its decline will limit supply. Connecticut, a large producer of hard shell clams, is seeing a decline in wild set seed. This will likely put future pressure on hard shell supply as well.

Regulations affecting catch and harvest

“They have no idea about the impact on the habitat and the fishery… And they’ve made a regulation that’s going to affect people dramatically in a negative way.”

- Former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang

Public agencies and regulators are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, these regulations can hurt the industry. This past December, the New England Fisheries Management Council closed an area in Nantucket Shoals to protect aquatic habitat. The area, however, was also vital to the surf clam industry. The closure may cause surf clam harvest and production to drop by 50%. Surf clam is a New England staple — it’s the main ingredient in New England clam chowder.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

Market prices on wild shellfish will likely increase with supply constraints. Product costs on surf clams have already gone up since the closure. These costs inevitably get passed along the supply chain to the consumer. Local, state, and federal regulations affect the industry's ability to produce and sell. If new rules apply in 2019, they may pose unforeseen supply challenges.

Oyster farmers are more prepared

Despite all the doom and gloom around climate change and regulations, oyster producers are readier than ever. Growers have had to deal with the effects of climate change and red tape for more than a few years now. Oyster hatcheries now breed seed to adapt to ocean acidification. Industry changes have forced growers to find smarter approaches, and they’re now more prepared for the unexpected.

Preparing oysters for winter on the Standish Shore Oyster Farm

Preparing oysters for winter on the Standish Shore Oyster Farm

2019 IMPLICATIONS

If Mother Nature is kind, farmed supply will be relatively steady throughout the year. It's hard to predict unforeseen forces like new regulations or industry shifts. So if all stays the same, weather aside, we expect oysters to be fairly available moving through 2019.

Market Trends

Credit: Sara Norris

Credit: Sara Norris

Interests in something new

The raw bar market is starting to mature. Restaurants and diners are now looking to branch out of local varieties. Demand for Pacific oysters is growing on the East Coast. Interest in Northeast oysters is growing in Gulf regions. The Midwest is seeing a lift in shellfish growth from both coasts.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

Demand for local seafood will remain strong, but this increasing interest for different and new will help farms reach markets outside their local regions. Smaller producers will have more opportunities to find their niche market. More restaurants are also adding oysters to their menus, so businesses will need to stay creative to entice their customers with their shellfish offerings.

Interests from abroad

Despite growing domestic demand, the international appetite for American shellfish is even greater. Asia and Europe are heavy seafood consumers. Domestic producers can command a higher price in these export markets. As of late, politics have definitely affected seafood exports going to China. The West Coast shellfish industry is feeling its effects. On the European front, the FDA is working with the EU to lift an import ban on American oysters.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

The global political climate has been difficult to predict. If trade tariffs stay, shellfish exports, especially to China, will continue to struggle. As a result, Pacific shellfish availability could improve in the domestic market. If the FDA and the EU are able to lift the American oyster ban, this will be great news for producers. Peak shellfish consumption in the EU occurs during the winter when consumption is slow in the US.

More aquaculture, more public visibility

The growth of the shellfish industry has definitely not gone unnoticed. The oyster farm boom has drawn attention in many local communities concerned with their water access and waterfront sight lines. These NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) issues are miring the industry in lengthy and/or costly legal battles. These issues are leading to delays in permitting and sometimes, forcing farms to close up shop.

milford-oyster-festival-19.jpg

More consumers enjoying shellfish also means increased risk of shellfish-related foodborne illnesses. These illnesses receive more media attention, which can become greater public concern. Media outlets sometimes paint the industry as careless despite the industry’s preventative efforts.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

The good news, however, is that many in the public, especially younger generations, have good faith in the industry. They understand that farmed shellfish and aquaculture are sustainable choices. Misinformation remains, but consumers are getting smarter by engaging with producers and suppliers. They are educating themselves and asking questions about their food sources.

This good faith has helped the industry weather difficult situations. There have been times past when the public has come to the industry’s defense. Our industry will continue to invest in public education and marketing with hope to continue this momentum of public support.

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Overall, we expect 2019 to be a pretty steady year. But then again, that can all change in a second based on the whims of Mother Nature. It’s part of our jobs to deal with the unexpected, so we’ll figure it out as an industry. We have seen lots of change over the years, so this year may be no different. Keeps us on our toes. In to 2019 we go.

james-standish-shore-boat.jpg

A Simple Guide to Sea Urchins

Growing up, I remember sea urchins being ubiquitous in the aquarium touch pools. I didn't think of these spiny, little sea creatures any other way until I was a young adult and had uni for the first time. Since then, sea urchin and food have been synonymous. In the past, I rarely found sea urchin outside a sushi restaurant, but lately, I’m seeing sea urchin more and more in unexpected places. In 2016, Nestle named it one of the top ten food trends due to their unique flavor. Chefs are finding more creative uses for sea urchin as they push the envelope, and it seems this little “sea hedgehog” is an ingredient that's here to stay.

About the Sea Urchin

Sea urchins are echinoderms most closely related to sea cucumbers and sea stars. Their spherical shells, or tests, are made up of plates and movable spines that protect them from predators. There are about 950 species of sea urchins that inhabit a wide range of depth zones in all climates across the world’s oceans. About 18 of them are edible. They primarily feed on algae and kelp, but are also omnivorous scavengers that will feed on animal matter.

Source: Shape of Life. A time-lapse video shows how urchins actively graze on kelp.

Sea Urchin as Food

When it comes to consumption, sea urchins are harvested for their gonads, also known as uni. These bright yellow to orange lobes are “stockpiles” of sugars, amino acids, and salts: a trifecta of sweet, salty, and umami. It’s been dubbed as the foie gras of the sea given its buttery texture and delicate ocean flavors. Like oysters, sea urchins also vary in flavor depending on its species and diet. Urchin lovers, for example, prize Hokkaido uni because of its flavor, developed from the urchin's diet of Hokkadio macro algae kombu.

The green, red, and purple species have the highest demand globally because their lobes tend to be larger and visually more appetizing. 99% of sea urchin are wild and harvested by diving or drags.

There are about 950 species of sea urchins… About 18 of them are edible.

99% of sea urchin are wild and harvested by diving or drags.

Source: Food Republic. L to R: Maine, Santa Barbara, and Hokkaido sea urchin.

Source: Food Republic. L to R: Maine, Santa Barbara, and Hokkaido sea urchin.

The Global and Domestic Market for Sea Urchin and Uni

The greatest consumption of sea urchin occurs in Japan, France, and Korea. Japanese consumption, however, wins by a landslide: the country consumes 80-90% of the current global supply. Sea urchin is a traditional staple in Japanese cuisine. Japan was the largest global harvester of sea urchins until the 1980s, but high demand and a decrease in domestic supply forced it to look abroad. From the 1980s to 1994, the US, particularly Maine, was the largest exporter of green sea urchin. Today, it’s Chile, which exports Chilean red urchin and accounts for 50% of global landings. Overall global supply has decreased over the last twenty years due to storms, decreasing kelp beds, invasive species, and over fishing. In 1995, global landings totaled 120,000 tonnes. In 2017, it decreased to 75,000.

In North America, the main sources of sea urchin come from the Canadian Maritime; Maine; and the Pacific coast from British Columbia to California. Green sea urchins are harvested from the Atlantic, while red and purple urchins are harvested from the Pacific. These days, domestic supply stays domestic to meet growing demand and ethnic markets. Domestic supply is also supplemented by imported product, mostly from Chile, during summer months.

How to Prepare Sea Urchin

Sea urchin is usually served raw as sushi, commonly seen in Japanese cuisine, but it has a variety of applications. Mediterranean cuisines have used urchin in sauces, pastas, and on breads for centuries. Modern day chefs are even transforming the ingredient into foams and mousses.

Preparing sea urchin is super easy with super tasty results. Bekah demonstrates how in this quick tutorial.

And as a bonus, here’s a recipe to try from our Pangea test kitchen —
Linguine with Uni and Meyer Lemon

Let's Get Sauced

By Bekah Angoff and Jessica Hertel

When ordering oysters at any establishment, there is an expectation of what that plate should look like: a mound of ice, your bivalves of choice, and a combination of lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, hot sauce, horseradish and mignonette. What do you use? Do you give everything a squirt of lemon and dig in, or is there a specific layering ritual with the sauces on hand? Whatever your calling, there are specific reasons for the presence of each condiment:

Lemon: Lemon is a normal accompaniment for seafood, as some with sensitive nosed like to lessen the aroma of fish with the fresh lemon. For oysters, the acid acts as a bit of a mask for the brine and the citrus aroma makes the oyster appear to be sweeter, which is the reason this is the number one side piece for an oyster.

Cocktail Sauce: The main component of cocktail sauce is ketchup; a thick and viscus substance that is sweet with a light touch of vinegar. Mix in some horseradish and a dash of tobacco and Worcestershire, and you have yourself a culinary wallop. The umami notes in the ketchup and the sharpness of the horseradish both enhance the sweet umami finish of an oyster.

Horseradish: When you isolate just the horseradish from cocktail sauce, you have a sharp and spicy bite with a punch of vinegar. This will give the appearance of more salt, but the aromatic pungency will mask most of or all of the finish of the oyster. A perfect condiment for brine hounds with an appreciation for a zesty zing.

Hot Sauce: Hot sauce is a very general term for a multitude of formats. Traditionally, Tabasco is used as the vinegary base is a palate reviver, and again, down-playing the appearance of salt in the brine. What the spice (capsaicin) does is add texture or heat to your palate in small doses but be careful about piling it on. The intensity of the heat can take away from the finish of the oyster, especially if you have a sauce with other aromatics in it.

Mignonette: Mignonette has that vinegar element that we love to use to lessen the appearance of salt but with a lower acidity found in red wine vinegar. The enhancement is slightly less than straight lemon juice. Also, with the addition of shallots and black pepper, we can round out the experience a bit.  The sweetness of the shallots will bring out the sweet notes of any oyster’s finish, and the pepper is just a little bit of heat (see above) that will help enhance the brine against the vinegar.

the conference room set up for the tasting. each employee tasted and rated all of the sauces in a blind tasting

the conference room set up for the tasting. each employee tasted and rated all of the sauces in a blind tasting

Now that we know what the purpose of each traditional sauce is, what is the best option for each? Jessica and I took homemade and store-bought sauces for each category (except for the lemon – do you know how to make a lemon from scratch?) and set up a blind taste-test to see which sauce would reign supreme. We decided on mostly store-bought along with a classic recipe used at Pangea and set them up in our conference room for the whole Pangea staff to try a and evaluate. I’ll let Jessica take over from here to explain our findings.


Cocktail Sauce:

We all know the basic components of cocktail sauce: start with ketchup, some horseradish, and maybe some hot sauce and/or Worcestershire.  With so many brands to choose from are they all really that different? Surprisingly we found that they had some very clear differences in texture and flavor.  Some more pleasing than others. What we tried; Heinz, McCormick, Old Bay, Whole Foods 365, and Pangea’s Cocktail Sauce.  The nice thing about homemade items is that you can tweak them to your preferences. 

The Winners! –

1st - Old Bay - peppery, aromatic, with a zesty sweetness
2nd - Pangea’s Homemade – zesty and zingy with a subtle sweetness
3rd & 4th - Tied - Heinz & McCormick’s - flavor very different from each other Heinz had a BBQ note, McCormick’s was tomato heavy, and a pasty consistency
5th - Whole Foods - has a solid tang and zest, but consistency is watery and has no spice

Horseradish:

A horse is a horse is a horseradish, right? Wrong, they all differ quite a bit from one to the next.  Now there are not a lot of brands to choose from at your local grocer, Gold’s is the most readily available.  But with the handy dandy inter web and those giants of commerce Amazon being the giants they are we got our hands on a few others.  A basic homemade horseradish is pureed horseradish root, water, vinegar, and/or a salt sugar combo.  The notable differences in each were heat level and texture.  What we tried; Golds, Beaver, Tulkoff, and homemade.  Now if you have a food processor then making your own might be an option, but I have to say that hand grating a horseradish root is not only time consuming but tiring! Our recommendations would be to simply find your favorite brand and let them do the work!

The Winners! –

                1st - Tulkoff Ex Hot - clearly, we here at Pangea are fans of the spice!
                2nd – Beaver - also high on the spice level with a creamy texture
                3rd - Golds - texture was a little rough and unless you get the extra hot its somewhat mild
                4th - Homemade - it’s a pain to make and clearly not our forte

the Hot Sauce blind test set up - remember not to double dip!

the Hot Sauce blind test set up - remember not to double dip!

Hot Sauce:

The variety is real!  The possible combinations of capsaicin providing peppers, to vinegar, spices, and additives are endless.  In a 1.4-billion-dollar industry there are hundreds if not thousands of different kinds of hot sauce.  Fun fact Tabasco accounts for 18% of the market.  So, we put the classics up against an awesome local product and tossed our own creation in the mix.  The thing to note with hot sauce is that one may be delicious on your breakfast but contains an element that doesn’t pair the best with your oysters (like sugar).   What we tried; Tabasco, Siracha, Cholula, Alex’s Ugly, Pangea Hot Sauce.  With so many products out there, have fun and try through some, or just get our recipe and make your own. 

The Winners! –

1st by a mile - Alex’s Ugly (good kick to it not too vinegar driven, great consistency)
2nd & 3rd Tied - Homemade & Cholula (Cholula – tangy and spicy and fresh.  Pangea – tangy spicy with a fruity element)
4th - Siracha (element of sweetness, and a pasty consistency)
5th - Classic Tabasco (runny and vinegar driven, with all the choices out there today try something new!)

Mignonette:

This category really ends up being more about the individual ingredients rather than what brand is best.  There are very few places that sell a premade mignonette.  Certain Wholefoods locations seem to be the only ones who make it based on our research.  Don’t fret, they are super easy to make, very little kitchen skills required.  Basically, they are just minced shallots, pepper (of the black or white variety) and vinegar.  Now the real differences are in the vinegar components, either straight, multiple kinds, or cut with a little wine or water.  What we tested here was what vinegar components worked best for oysters.  What we tried; Classic Red Wine Vinegar, Sherry Vinegar, Prosecco Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Pangea Blueberry White Balsamic.

The Winners! –

1st - Pangea’s Blueberry White Balsamic BY A MILE – white balsamic offers a subtle sweetness
2nd – The Classic Red Wine Vinegar – its hard to beat a classic - take the Camaro for example!
3rd – Prosecco & White wine Vinegar – with the addition of a pinch of sugar took some of the edge off
4th – Balsamic Vinegar, little harsher than the rest, and color is a bit off putting
5th – Sherry Vinegar – just not the favorite

Overall, the highest scores went out to Blueberry Mignonette and Alex’s Ugly Sauce for the clear front runners in their respective category. Alex’s Sauce can be found in many groceries stores around New England and the recipe for the mignonette can be found here.  However, we did also poll the staff to find out their favorite way to eat an oyster.  We clearly might be a little biased about the quality of our product, but the majority of Pangea staffers prefer to eat their oysters completely naked.