Remember when you were a little kid and your mom let you bring home a bucket of sea creatures you’d collected on a hot summer day, and you put them in the cool shade of the back porch to keep them safe, and the next morning when you went out to throw a party for your new pets, it turned into a funeral? You’d think those life lessons would stick with us all, but we still get asked by well meaning customers, “If I want them to last, I should store them in a bucket of water right?” Sometimes my response is a little too loud “NOOOOOOO – NEVER STORE BIVALVES IN ANY KIND OF STANDING WATER.” Not freshwater, not seawater – and NO shellfish: not mussels, not oysters, not clams, not seasnails, not limpids, not crabs, not lobsters, not any live creature (unless you’re itching to relive some poignant childhood moments — that burial ode to the urchin you can still almost remember).
A bucket of water will not sustain life for very long at all. Even with no visible creatures, it will quickly rot. Seawater is especially full of creatures that are processing away (for some great pictures of the plethora of plankton, in just an eyedropper full of water, see the previous post). And freshwater can have its own host of the wrong kind of bacteria, that flourish in the right conditions.
Bivalves placed in even a small amount of standing water will open, consume all available oxygen, and die. Think about it. An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water in a SINGLE day. Maybe if you had a 50 gallon drum of very fresh seawater, with ONE oyster inside, your pet may survive one day — but don’t count on it. The amazing thing is, that same oyster can survive up to two weeks out of water. Out of water, oysters shut down and their metabolism slows to a crawl. Mussels are not nearly as hardy, and need to be refrigerated and eaten within a day or two. But even mussels should not be placed in standing water for that day or two. It’s like putting a pillow over their little lips and suffocating them – murderous.
In caring for your freshly bought bivalves your goal is to keep them alive as long as possible. A live oyster will clamp shut when tapped, never eat a dead oyster on the half shell. Store them in a cool place 40-45 F is ideal. Avoid direct contact with gelpacks (freezing them will kill them). A clean damp cloth draped over them will help them from getting dried out under refrigeration. In Brittany, France they still transport oysters wrapped in kelp to keep them insulated and moist. As long as they’re alive when you shuck them, they’re good to eat.
Take good care of them and they will delight your palate.