Now that you understand the very basic differences in the appearance and flavor of bivalves from each coast, let's talk about what makes them so unique. "Similar to grapes and wine, the difference in flavor between East Coast and West Coast oysters is derived from both their terroir, which is the taste of their place in the sea, and their variety," says Jason Hedlund, global seafood buyer at Whole Foods Market. While there is no single flavor profile for East Coast and West Coast oysters, there are a few characteristics that help to distinguish certain varieties from others.
The East Coast has two primary varieties of oysters: Atlantic oysters, which have a firm texture and strong, savory brininess, and European flats or Belon oysters, which are even brinier and exhibit more of a mineral flavor. Along the West Coast, Pacific oysters are sweet and creamy, while fruity Kumamoto oysters have a slightly firmer texture. Olympia oysters are the most subtle in flavor of the West Coast oysters.
The climate of each coast affects how oysters look, taste, and even how easy they are to shuck. On the East Coast, oysters are harvested from the Gulf of Mexico up to New Brunswick, Canada, but are primarily harvested from the Mid-Atlantic to the Northeast, says Hedlund. On the West Coast, oysters can be harvested anywhere from Chile to Alaska, but are mostly found in the waters near California, Oregon, and Washington. "Oysters are adaptable to many environments, but clean, cold, salt or brackish water makes for excellent tasting oysters," he adds.
Chef Adam Evans of Automatic Seafood in Birmingham, Alabama, suggests talking to your server for recommendations on which oysters are likely the freshest or most suited to your palate. If you're shopping at a fish market or grocery store, talk to the fishmonger to find out when the oysters they're selling were harvested. "Remember to look for oysters that are displayed on ice, tightly closed, feel heavy for their size, and have a harvest tag displayed with them to indicate how long they have been out of the water," advises Hedlund.
If you're an oyster lover, you're in luck. Oysters are one of the most sustainable seafood choices a buyer can make. Hedlund says that the mere presence of oysters in the environment enhances both the water quality and aquatic habitat.