Traditional Oyster Stew

Keep the chill at bay by serving this rich, buttery soup on cold winter nights.

In the days when oysters were plentiful and cheap, oyster stew was a staple dish up and down the East Coast of the United States. Prior to World War II, cookbooks were replete with oyster recipes. It is thought that the popularity of oyster stew gained steam when mid-nineteenth-century Irish immigrants, following their Catholic customs to avoid eating meat during certain religious holidays, adapted a traditional stew recipe that called for ling, a fish not found in New England waters. Oysters have a chewy texture and briny flavor that is similar to ling, so the adaptation was a natural one, and oyster stew was here to stay. The dish became customary to consume on Christmas Eve in many Irish-American communities, and it caught on around the country as a tasty, simple oyster dish.

The key to a good oyster stew is simplicity. The shining star is the oyster liquor that flavors the milk or cream with an intense briny flavor that needs little adornments. Typically, a little cayenne, paprika, or celery salt might be added, but they are not necessary. Finally, there is one addition that I highly recommend, and that is a little dollop of butter. Yes, butter. Old-school New Englanders know this well (nor do they fear butter). It may sound odd to add butter to an already rich, milky stew, but it adds an extra depth of creamy richness that can be oh so very satisfying.

Excerpted from New England Soups from the Sea: Recipes for Chowders, Bisques, Boils, Stews, and Classic Seafood Medleys. Copyright (c) 2022 by Craig Fear. Used with permission of the publisher, The Countryman Press, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


1 dozen Eastern oysters
2 tablespoons butter
1 small yellow onion or 2 to 3 shallots, about a half cup, diced into 1⁄2-inch pieces
2 cups whole milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream

Optional seasonings, to taste:
Freshly ground black pepper
Dollop of butter
Pinch of paprika, cayenne, or celery salt


Shuck the oysters and reserve the liquor. Heat the butter over medium heat in a small to medium saucepan. Add the onions and sauté for about 5 minutes or until softened.

Add the oysters and sauté until the edges start to curl, a few more minutes.

Add the reserved oyster liquor and milk and bring to a very gentle simmer for a few more minutes.

Remove from the heat and serve immediately.

Ladle into individual bowls and add optional seasonings to taste.

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