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When does the oyster die?

In a recently-viewed episode of Good Eats, Alton Brown mentioned that properly stored in a refrigerator with a damp towel over the container, oysters could live as long as a week. Then he showed how to open and prepare them.

So, when exactly is an oyster no longer alive? Is it when the shell is forcibly opened, when the oyster knife goes under it to separate it from the bottom shell, or... or... or.... I can't say it.

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  1. I'd guess when the knife is slipped under the shell. But I have the same horrible suspicion that you do. And I'm morbidly curious and awaiting a definitive answer.

    3 Replies
    1. re: shanagain

      I did find this extraordinarily nonauthoritative source, which does mention flash-freezing, which brings me cold comfort.

      1. re: Cinnamon

        Hmm. Neither feels satisfactory. (Potentially because of the "if you doubt, let it sit on your tongue for a minute" addition.)

        I've been googling as well, and I suspect the answer might not be so simple - like, maybe it dies the minute you give it that one sharp "chew" (my method - slide into mouth, give one hard hit with the molars, then down the hatch) - but if you don't follow my method, then what?

        Something funny - after getting over the original idea of when it happens, and at what point - including w/in my anatomy - I am now craving oysters on the half-shell more than I have in years.

        I'm mean. All the bi-valves say so.

        1. re: shanagain

          Actually 2 to 3 quick chomps should dispatch the little devils!!!

    2. I'd always assumed when you cracked the shell (from exposure to the air) but this post got me to thinking there's been times when the shell was slightly open and you tap it and then it closes.

      So now I think maybe when the lemon juice hits it. Definitely when I chew it a few times. I'm not sure there's any need to be squeamish about it, it's not like it's an animal with nervous system and ability to feel pain. Kind of like how the potato doesn't die until you peel it and eat it, until then it can always sprout in the right conditions.

      1 Reply
      1. re: hsk

        That's why my preferred way of eating potatoes is cut into chunky strips, deep-fried and salted. Much safer!

      2. It's fairly difficult to define the moment of death in a creature that has no brain or heart. It is definitely past the point of no return once the shell is forced open, but many of the individual cells will still be alive even after you swallow it.
        If an oyster is fresh, really fresh, and you squirt it with lemon after you open it, it should squirm. That doesn't necessarily mean it's alive though.
        Some of the ganglia will undoubtedly be damaged when the shell is forced open, which will cause the non-reflexive functions of the nervous system to shut down. So, if you're worried about whether it can feel you eating it, then the answer is no. Oysters have only marginally more sensory perception than a rock to begin with, and that will be destroyed when the shell is opened.
        They also can't think, and thus have no idea what is going on even when they can sense.

        11 Replies
        1. re: danieljdwyer

          >>They also can't think, and thus have no idea what is going on even when they can sense.<<

          Had I read this part first, I'd swear you were discussing drivers in LA. :)

          1. re: bulavinaka

            Don't get so regional! ... just backtrack a bit further and all new vistas blossom ...
            "...have only marginally more sensory perception than a rock to begin with, and that will be destroyed when the shell is opened."

            1. re: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis

              It's dead when it explodes crushed between my tounge and the roof of my mouth with just a touch of cocktail sauce or nothing at all if it is particularly salty.

              1. re: James Cristinian

                I down with a spritz of lemon ... sip/sip ... some cocktail sauce off the shell ;-)

              2. re: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis

                Sorry to sound provincial - LA is my home (one of a handful born here). Nothing has changed my opinion for the better since I last posted here over five years ago.

                1. re: bulavinaka

                  well, "home" moves ...
                  and, perhaps, this is a good ...
                  or even necessary.

            2. re: danieljdwyer

              I think that danieljdwyer summarizes the situation pretty well. They're definitely not dead by any definition simply from opening the shell, if it's done carefully (doomed, certainly, but not dead). In my invertebrate zoology class, many years ago, we opened clams - which are basically the same thing - to conduct various observations, and they stayed alive for quite a long time if kept moist and relatively cool.

              1. re: FlyFish

                FlyFish, I didn't eat bivalves for years after I took that class. Knowing all of the functions and names of the body parts detracted from the allure.

                ETA: Ooops, just realized how old this post is

              2. re: danieljdwyer

                I've always loved the French test for freshness in oysters: elles doivent grincer (they must wince) when you sprtiz them with lemon juice. Note that l'huitre is feminine in gender...

                1. re: danieljdwyer

                  Correction! They do have a heart and it pumps colorless blood.

                  1. re: danieljdwyer

                    "It's fairly difficult to define the moment of death in a creature that has no brain or heart."

                    For the same reason, coroners have difficulty when the deceased was a lawyer.

                  2. Ater reading all this, I can sympathize with the quote from Woody Allen (menioned in another Chowhound thread) that when he eats, he wants his food to be dead - not wounded, not sick, but dead.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: ekammin

                      I know that this is probably against the Chowhound creed, but when I eat them raw, I always dip them in cocktail sauce that has enough horseradish mixed with it to kill small mammals.

                    2. What is all this fuss about eating oysters live? Ive always been in the “best when eaten alive” camp when it comes to oysters and thought everybody was since its almost a universal that oysters should not be consumed if they are dead (and raw). I generally slurp them fresh from their shell straight into my stomach without chewing. Never saw a need for a “kill bite”. I assume the stomach acid is what actually dispatches them. Of course Ive also eaten “living” raw lobster tail while the poor animal frantically kicked and clawed in desperation for escape. Now THAT made an impact… I don’t think I would ever do that again. But oysters? Like eating raw vegetables as far as Im concerned.

                      1. Oysters probably die when they get submerged in the 370 degree oil.

                        I think too, only in the cartoon world do bivalves have personalities. Although I’ve never met a scallop I didn’t like.

                        1. Once a knife is slipped under the shell and the oyster is severed from the top half, it is killed instantly. Not to worry, you are not eating live oysters.

                          Alton was just trying to tell you how to keep them alive. You never want to eat dead oysters, muscles or clams, so if you can keep them cold and moist (not drowned), with circulating air, they will live in their little shellfish spa in your fridge for days. Not much different from the seafood market.

                          On a related question: Has anyone tried those oysters with the yellow bands on them that are supposedly pasteurized (I believe that is what the fishmonger said). I was afraid to buy them, having been taught that shellfish must be alive when cooked, and that the shells need to be tight as a drum.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: RGC1982

                            Sometimes what we know needs to be rethought....
                            You'd never notice the difference with the pasteurized oysters and not with these new frozen ones available to the food service industry either.
                            The wonders of modern science.

                            1. re: RGC1982

                              Pasteurized oysters are terrible. I've had them three times, once raw at Deanie's in Metairie, La. They had zero flavor, and when I asked the waitress where they came from, she said they were from Florida and pasteurized. The other two times was at a local grocery to supllement some fresh shucked I had. I fried them and noticed the corn meal wouldn't stick to the second batch, but didn't think much about until it happened twice. That's when I checked the container, sure enough, pasteurized. Never again.

                              1. re: James Cristinian

                                Thanks for that. It sounded like an interesting process but I was wondering/suspecting what you mentioned. Amazing how just fresh things (or those simply preserved via old methods) so often trump newfangled techniques, in taste. (What's tough is when the new techniques become so prevalent that the pre-technique stuff becomes hard to find anymore.)

                                1. re: James Cristinian

                                  I agree wholeheartedly! If a raw oyster is not clear, soft and salty in the shell, I stay away from them. Pasteurized oysters have a milky and harder texture to them. Just had some at Pappadeauxs last week and they were horrible. When asked how fresh they were, the waitress replied that they are "injected with a pasteurization process to kill bacteria".
                                  Won't be doing that for a while! On the other hand, the pontchartrain grouper was excellent. Also had the fried crawfish tails that were good.

                              2. Not sure where I first heard this tidbit but we've been in the Seafood business since I was very small. Ok here goes, The way you can tell if an oyster is dead is if the shell is open on its on. If their shell is still closed its alive. I asked when does the oyster die and was told not until it gets to your stomach and the acid attacks it. (That's if you are a slurper and not someone who chews.) I don't know how the chew thing goes but they are fabulous either way

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: kjeo24

                                  Oyster shells do not open when they die... that would be too easy.
                                  You are probably thinking of mussels and/or clams (which are dead if the shells don't close when you tap them).

                                  Unfortunately is hard to tell if an oyster is dead... We bought 120 of them out of the ocean about a month ago. Unfortunately my SO got sick off of one of them. They were all closed tightly. He said that the one of them tasted a little weird (I don't know why he didn't spit it out).
                                  We also opened one that was clearly dead and full of mud... it was also closed.

                                  I try and smell them before I eat them, and if I eat one that tastes funny, I spit it out!

                                  1. re: lrealml

                                    Well if the shell is open they are definitely dead, but just like mussels and clams they could be dead but still closed (that's why you should not eat cooked ones that haven't opened). Smelling an oyster before eating is the very best way to avoid a bad oyster - it should always smell fresh, like ocean breezes. If you get even a whiff of sewage it's bad. No need to taste it and spit it out. If you like to load up your oyster with sauces it's best to smell before, ideally while you're opening them before they hit the table.

                                2. When they stop struggling?

                                  I'm with Woody Allen conditionally on this, by which I mean I don't want my food to be SEEN to be alive. It should not flop or wiggle, certainly not thrash around while I'm eating it. To be perfectly honest it's not the creature's physical or emotional trauma I care about, it's mine, so as long as Mr. (or Ms.) oyster just lies there it's fine with me.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: Will Owen

                                    I was all set to start quoting Peter Singer's philosophical writings and David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, but I think Will Owen has put this oyster question to bed. On the other hand, he does raise an equally inane question: how does one determine the sex of an oyster?

                                    1. re: Zeldog

                                      Since they're still alive, you could ask them!

                                      ETA: Although, they'd probably just clam up about it. (couldn't resist, ha!)

                                  2. If you hold the oyster to your ear and don't hear the ocean, it's dead.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: beevod

                                      What if you're AT the ocean? If you still don't hear it, maybe you're dead!

                                      I've shucked not more than a couple of dozen, I think (there was strong drink involved), but one thing I distinctly DO remember is that the one dead one I opened was as recognizably so as though it had little XXes over its eyes. Just kinda flabby and not vital. Would they all be so obvious? Can't say. Next shucking opportunity is weekend after next, so we'll see …

                                      1. re: Will Owen

                                        Oysters have eyes??? What??? Oysters are supposed to just lie there, flabby and passive just waiting for me to sprinkle lemon juice on them and dip them in a great ponzu or minionette, and swallow them. Ohhhhhhh they really are an aphordisiac, I'm already excited. ;-)

                                    2. Always work from the back hinge to open.
                                      Always trust your nose.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis

                                        To the question are raw oysters alive when you eat them . yes ,as soon as you brake the hinge on the shell they start to die but death at this point can take hrs . the cells in the oyster are very much alive as you consume them. Hot sauce horseradish and lemon juice may speed up death but not so much that most of the cells are still live as you eat them.much like a salad is still alive as you eat it .

                                        1. re: treyboy

                                          It's fairly easy to tell when something on your tongue is vital.