Oyster stew is a simple, rich soup with the star ingredient of oysters. It can be made with either fresh or canned oysters, depending on what is available, and the key to oyster stew is minimal cooking, making it very easy and fast to prepare. This dish is especially popular along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, although it can be found in other regions as well.
It may surprise you to learn that oyster stew was once a poor man's food. In the early days of oyster stew, oysters were so abundant that they were extremely cheap, and even the poorest of families could afford a few dozen oysters, especially for a Sunday treat of oyster stew. The same was true of other now coveted seafood like lobsters and crabs, which were once much larger and more abundant, before heavy fishing and an increased population of people made them more scarce and expensive.
The beauty of oyster stew lies in its simplicity. To make oyster stew, cooks saute 12 ounces (340 grams) of oysters in butter for just a few moments, before adding one quart (one liter) of milk, cream, or half and half and more butter. The stew is cooked over low heat for a few minutes, just until the oysters start to curl, and then it is removed from the heat and served in wide bowls, classically with oyster crackers.
Most people like to add a dash of salt to their oyster stew, along with cracked black pepper and sometimes paprika as well. Adventurous cooks may throw a few shallots or slivers of green onion in the saute pan with the oysters as well, and in some regions cooks may also add sliced bacon. However, too much interference with this milk-based soup is not recommended, because the goal is to allow the flavor of the oysters to shine through, and the flavor can be quickly overwhelmed with added ingredients.
When cooking oyster stew or any sort of stew or sauce which uses shellfish, the important thing to remember is that shellfish turns rubbery when it is overcooked. In the case of canned shellfish, the shellfish is typically cooked already, so your goal is simply to warm it. With the right amount of cooking, the oysters will be tender and flavorful; too much cooking will turn them into rubbery little pencil erasers, and pencil eraser stew is usually not a hit at the dinner table.