Oyster is the common name for a number of different families of salt-water bivalve molluscs that live in marine or brackish habitats. In some species, the valves are highly calcified, and many are somewhat irregular in shape. Many, but not all oysters are in the superfamily Ostreoidea.
True oysters are members of the family Ostreidae. This family includes the edible oysters, which mainly belong to the genera Ostrea, Crassostrea, Ostreola, Magallana, and Saccostrea. Examples include the European flat oyster, eastern oyster, Olympia oyster, Pacific oyster, and the Sydney rock oyster. Ostreidae evolved in the Early Triassic epoch: The genus Liostrea grew on the shells of living ammonoids.
Pearl farmers can culture a pearl by placing a nucleus, usually a piece of polished mussel shell, inside the oyster. In three to seven years, the oyster can produce a perfect pearl. These pearls are not as valuable as natural pearls, but look exactly the same. Since the beginning of the 20th century, when several researchers discovered how to produce artificial pearls, the cultured pearl market has far outgrown the natural pearl market.
In addition to their gills, oysters can also exchange gases across their mantles, which are lined with many small, thin-walled blood vessels. A small, three-chambered heart, lying under the adductor muscle, pumps colorless blood to all parts of the body. At the same time, two kidneys, located on the underside of the muscle, remove waste products from the blood. Their nervous system includes two pairs of nerve cords and three pairs of ganglia.
Oysters usually reach maturity in one year. They are protandric; during their first year, they spawn as males by releasing sperm into the water. As they grow over the next two or three years and develop greater energy reserves, they spawn as females by releasing eggs. Bay oysters usually spawn from the end of June until mid-August. An increase in water temperature prompts a few oysters to spawn. This triggers spawning in the rest, clouding the water with millions of eggs and sperm. A single female oyster can produce up to 100 million eggs annually. The eggs become fertilized in the water and develop into larvae, which eventually find suitable sites, such as another oyster's shell, on which to settle. Attached oyster larvae are called spat. Spat are oysters less than 25 mm (1 in) long. Many species of bivalves, oysters included, seem to be stimulated to settle near adult conspecifics.
In the early 19th century, oysters were cheap and mainly eaten by the working class. Throughout the 19th century, oyster beds in New York Harbor became the largest source of oysters worldwide. On any day in the late 19th century, six million oysters could be found on barges tied up along the city's waterfront. They were naturally quite popular in New York City, and helped initiate the city's restaurant trade. New York's oystermen became skilled cultivators of their beds, which provided employment for hundreds of workers and nutritious food for thousands. Eventually, rising demand exhausted many of the beds. To increase production, they introduced foreign species, which brought disease; effluent and increasing sedimentation from erosion destroyed most of the beds by the early 20th century. Oysters' popularity has put ever-increasing demands on wild oyster stocks. This scarcity increased prices, converting them from their original role as working-class food to their current status as an expensive delicacy.
Care should be taken when consuming oysters. Purists insist on eating them raw, with no dressing save perhaps lemon juice, vinegar (most commonly shallot vinegar), or cocktail sauce. Upscale restaurants pair raw oysters with mignonette sauce, which consists primarily of fresh chopped shallot, mixed peppercorn, dry white wine and lemon juice or sherry vinegar. Like fine wine, raw oysters have complex flavors that vary greatly among varieties and regions: salty, briny, buttery, metallic, or even fruity. The texture is soft and fleshy, but crisp on the palate. North American varieties include Kumamoto and Yaquina Bay from Oregon, Duxbury and Wellfleet from Massachusetts, Malpeque from Prince Edward Island, Canada, Blue Point from Long Island, New York, Pemaquid from Maine, Rappahannock River from Virginia, Chesapeake from Maryland and Cape May oysters from New Jersey.
Oysters that do not open are generally assumed to be dead before cooking and therefore unsafe. There is only one criterion: the oyster must be capable of tightly closing its shell. Open oysters should be tapped on the shell; a live oyster will close up and is safe to eat.[citation needed] Oysters which are open and unresponsive are dead and must be discarded. Some dead oysters, or oyster shells which are full of sand, may be closed. These make a distinctive noise when tapped, and are known as "clackers".
Oyster depuration begins after the harvest of oysters from farmed locations. The oysters are transported and placed into tanks pumped with clean water for periods of 48 to 72 hours. The holding temperatures and salinity vary according to species. The seawater that the oysters were originally farmed in does not remain in the oyster, since the water used for depuration must be fully sterilized, plus the depuration facility would not necessarily be located near the farming location. Depuration of oysters can remove moderate levels of contamination of most bacterial indicators and pathogens. Well-known contaminants include Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a temperature-sensitive bacterium found in seawater animals, and Escherichia coli, a bacterium found in coastal waters near highly populated cities having sewage systems discharging waste nearby, or in the presence of agricultural discharges. Depuration expands beyond oysters into many shellfish and other related products, especially in seafood that is known to come from potentially polluted areas; depurated seafood is effectively a product cleansed from inside-out to make it safe for human consumption.