Flames roar from logs nestled beneath a metal plate, searing hot and ready to replicate a grill or griddle in a warm, inviting format. It’s a scene we all instantly recognize, with the anticipation of blistered hot dogs, bronzed vegetable skewers or oozing toasted marshmallows emerging in the near future. But what if the Gulf Coast’s most beloved bivalve seared on that wood-fired surface instead of more traditional outdoor eats?
Roasted oysters are rarely featured alongside our raw, fried and charbroiled specialties around these parts, but in other areas across the country, oyster roasts are as well known as crawfish boils or fish fries are to the Bay Area. Popular in the Carolinas and other states along the East Coast, the “Lowcountry” or “Carolina” roast has roots originating from Native Americans who occupied the coast long before colonists settled there. The purpose of the roast is to elevate the natural flavor of an oyster by steaming it in its own juices, emphasizing its salinity and gently warming the meat for a steaming, briny bite.
This practice was picked up by Northeastern transplant Bill Walton and introduced to locals when he moved to Dauphin Island to farm oysters as the oyster aquaculture extension specialist for Auburn University. He used his signature off-bottom farmed oysters — bivalves that are meticulously grown in baskets and rotated many times throughout their lives to create beautifully clam-shelled oysters with glistening, clean shells that never touch the muddy ground — for roasted oysters with pure flavor and an eye-catching presentation. Since then, roasts have added another dimension to oyster consumption on both sides of the Bay.
“I had never heard of it until we were in Scouts, I would say 6 or 7 years ago,” says Gulf Coast native Steve Sasser who met Walton when their children were in Cub Scouts together. Over the years, their core group of parents-turned-friends have roasted oysters on both sides of the Bay, gathering together to commune over good food and even better company. Walton recently moved back out of state, so Sasser now carries on their years-long oyster roasting tradition to keep the fire alive, both figuratively and literally.
“Being from the South, a lot of people have been around oysters. But growing up, an oyster was an oyster,” he says. “I didn’t know the difference between any oysters.” What he did know is that he loved to cook, loved to eat and loved to share those passions with others. So now, when the weather is right and the music is loud, Sasser gathers friends and family to roast oysters and crack cold ones as they celebrate the fruits of our local shores.
How to Throw an Oyster Roast with Daphne’s Steve Sasser
Start with the Best
“The start of a good oyster roast is a good oyster,” Sasser says. “When you’re doing a roast — as compared to grilling oysters, for example — there’s only one ingredient: the oyster. You start with a good one, and chances are it’s going to be good.” With so many local oyster farms to choose from, you really can’t go wrong, but Sasser favors Murder Point oysters for their impeccable flavor and pristine appearance. “To me, they’re the best oysters in the world.”
Keep the live oysters cool until ready to use. “These are live until we cook them,” Sasser says. Oysters spoil very quickly once they die, so they need to stay cool without being submerged in ice or cold water, to avoid drowning them before cooking.
Gather the Gear
Equip your setup with a hot metal surface, a wet burlap sack and extra water for steaming. Sasser doesn’t look for an exact surface temperature before he gets started, but be sure it’s hot enough to allow the oysters to steam over high heat. Place the oysters rounded-side down on your preheated surface, then cover them with the wet burlap and allow them to steam until they begin to open, adding more water as needed to keep the burlap moistened.
Shuck and serve them while they’re warm for peak juiciness. To get the job done safely, start with a protective glove and a sturdy oyster knife. Insert the knife into the joint, then wiggle the knife until the shells loosen from one another. Slide your knife along the edge of the top shell to clean the oyster from the surface, then pop the top shell off before shucking the oyster off the bottom shell. To serve, leave it resting on the half shell for premium presentation.
Use what you have. The setup doesn’t have to be fancy or formal; any hot metal surface will do the trick! “The fire is fun to do, but you could do this on a grill on top of a griddle,” Sasser says. “The first roast I went to was literally on the back of a stop sign, and it worked like a champ. It was sitting on top of a fire, and the stop sign was the cooking surface.” Your only limitation is your own imagination.
Keep It Casual
“The best things to go with oysters are good friends and cold beer,” Sasser says. “Usually with an oyster roast, you do it so you can eat the oysters as they are.” No need to get fancy with extravagant sauces or an abundance of accoutrements. Take the grazing approach, with a variety of raw and charbroiled oysters to accompany the roast, along with platters of your favorite dips, hors d’oeuvres and desserts. “There’s no fancy serving presentation. It’s very hands on,” he says, so keep the offerings simple and hand-held. But, consider offering some mignonette, hot sauce or spiced garlic butter to please the less practiced oyster eaters in your group.
Have fun with it! “You can’t mess it up,” says Sasser. “If it’s already a good oyster, you can eat it raw.” The roast is just a bonus.