Photography by Eliesa Johnson

It’s a crisp 10 degrees out, and Jon Wipfli is stoking a wood fire while donning his favorite canvas overalls and a T-shirt. “You want to keep your body warm,” he says, “but it gets hot when you’re working over the flames!” The Minneapolis chef (known for his Minnesota Spoon brand) braves a cold day like this for only one kind of feast: an oyster roast. This low-country tradition involves shoveling mollusks onto a hot grill, covering them with a wet burlap sack and cooking them until they plump up and pop open from the steam.

Oysters? In winter? In Minnesota? The concept may seem like a hard sell, but Wipfli believes there’s something fittingly Northern about this Southern way of cooking. “To me, an oyster roast is about reveling in the challenges of winter, not hiding from them,” he explains. “You’re huddled around the fire, drinking a beer, and everyone gets involved with the shucking. We thrive on that sense of community in the colder months.” 

In the summer, an iced oyster on the half shell is refreshing. But when an oyster is gently smoked and basted in butter, it becomes downright decadent. “This is my kind of comfort food,” Wipfli declares. “When it’s cold all around you, the heat of the oysters is so satisfying. It warms you to the core.” Plus, oysters are at their best come wintertime; the pearly white mollusks become incredibly fatty and succulent in icy waters. And with fantastic local resources like the Fish Guys (Wipfli’s go-to), sourcing fresh oysters from both coasts is easy.

When he opened Animales Barbecue Co. — a 33-foot trailer-meets-smokehouse at Northeast Minneapolis’s Able Seedhouse + Brewery — last August, Wipfli knew that oysters would be a big part of the experience. Alongside 16-hour smoked brisket, locally sourced ribs and Lowry Hill Meats sausage, he cranks out roasted oysters for the masses in the colder months. To help in this endeavor, he commissioned a custom 150-pound steel oyster roaster with a shiny flat top and room for burning logs below.

Foodies in the know can snag tickets for the all-you-can-eat feasts, where Wipfli and his team shovel roasted oysters onto the long, paper-covered outdoor tables at Able (yes, even when the ground is covered in snow). It’s an immersive experience: Guests get a quick shucking lesson before digging into the heaps of steaming mollusks and tossing their discarded shells into buckets. The flurry of activity and radiating heat keep everyone warm. On a normal day, the Animales crew will cruise through 300-plus oysters in a couple hours.

With more than 4,000 roasted oysters under his belt, Wipfli believes this is something that you can — and should — be doing at home (albeit, at a slightly more relaxed pace). “The classic Southern style is a fun down-and-dirty way to do it,” he says, “but when I’m entertaining friends, I opt for the slower pace of a buttered oyster roast.” To pull this off in your own backyard, Wipfli recommends some essentials: a hot grill, a bag of oysters, your thickest winter coat and a few helpful friends.

A shoveled path leads through the snow to the grill. With a clean towel at the ready and an oyster knife peeking out from the front pocket of his bibs, Wipfli carefully arranges oysters on the piping hot grate. Once the shells pop, it’s all hands on deck for the shucking. People balance their beers while cradling the hot oysters in towels, taking care not to spill any of the precious juices. After the top shells come off, the oysters return to the grill for a crowning dollop of butter studded with bacon or spicy Thai chilies. 

The cold air fills with smoke, and everyone creeps in a little closer, eagerly waiting. It’s a friendly melee of shuck, butter, slurp, repeat. It’s low country meets North country. And for Wipfli, it’s the ultimate way to pass a cold winter afternoon. “Minnesotans spend the summer outside around the grill,” he says. “Why don’t we do the same in January?”


How to Host a Winter Oyster Roast

Don’t be intimidated at the idea of hosting a winter oyster roast. If you have your tools at the ready and a friend to help with the shucking, you can easily pull this off for a crowd. Start by grilling one or two oysters at a time until you hit your stride, then move up to larger batches.

Equipment
• A good pair of kitchen tongs
• Several kitchen towels for holding the hot oysters
• Several oyster knives (unless you plan to do all the shucking yourself)
• Your warmest winter gear

Smoke
A gas, wood or charcoal grill will do. Wipfli highly recommends scattering some soaked wood chips over the hot coals or placing a small smoker box under the grate of your gas grill. The aromatic smoke will go a long way to flavor the oysters. Whichever route you choose, make sure your grill is piping hot.

Oysters
When selecting oysters, defer to your fishmonger. You’re looking for medium-sized, reasonably priced ones from cold waters. No need to splurge; the unique nuances of a high-priced oyster will be overpowered by the smoke and flavored butter. East Coast oysters like Wellfleet and Blue Point are great options.

For serving size, Wipfli suggests starting with six mollusks per person. If you’re inviting over some serious oyster enthusiasts, up that to eight to 10.

Lastly, be sure to grill your oysters bowl side down. That way when the top shell pops open from the heat, the briny, flavorful oyster liquor will stay inside the shell.

Butter
Add some variety by experimenting with different flavored butters. If you’re pinched for time, use a good salted butter and serve with your favorite hot sauce. Bring butter to room temperature for easy scooping.

Libations
Pair your oysters with a creamy, malty stout like Able BLK WLF. This dry, dark beer balances out the fatty saltiness of the oysters. Prefer some vino? Local libation connoisseur Erik Eastman recommends pouring the refreshing, refined Via Emilia Cantina di Carpi Sparkling White Lambrusco. He describes it as “light, but not a shrinking violet, with plenty of things to say on the palate without dominating the conversation.”


Buttered Oyster Roast

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 dozen medium-sized oysters, rinsed and scrubbed
compound butter

1. Set up grill for indirect cooking. If using a gas grill, preheat half of burners to high and leave others off. If using wood chips, place soaked chips in smoker box. Using tongs or sturdy grilling gloves, carefully lift grate on hot side of grill and place box on top of burners. Replace grate. If using a charcoal grill, heat coals until glowing. Scatter soaked wood chips over coals. Carefully push coals to one side then set grate on grill. 

2. When grill is very hot, cook oysters in small batches, arranging bowl side down on hot side of grill. Cook uncovered 3 to 5 minutes, until flat top shell pops open. Using tongs, transfer to a platter, taking care not to spill any oyster liquor. Working one by one and cradling with a towel, quickly remove top shells and loosen oysters from bottom shells. Top each oyster with ½ tsp. compound butter and return to cool side of grill. Cook uncovered 2 minutes, until butter is just melted. Transfer to a platter and let cool slightly before serving. Repeat with remaining oysters.


Bacon Butter

Makes 2 cups 

Compound butter acts as an instant flavor enhancer when melted atop roasted oysters. The salty bacon here is a nod to Oysters Casino and adds the perfect touch of smoke. This recipe makes more compound butter than you’ll need, so save the leftovers for smearing on toast, glossing over pasta or stirring into brothy mussels. Can be made and refrigerated up to a week in advance.

4 strips apple wood–smoked bacon (about 4 ounces), finely chopped
medium shallot, minced
2 minced garlic cloves
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp. black pepper
½ cup packed flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1. In a medium nonstick skillet over moderate heat, cook bacon 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until crisp. Drain excess fat. Add shallot, garlic, thyme and pepper, and cook 1 to 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until shallot and garlic are translucent. Remove pan from heat and let cool completely. Fold in parsley.

2. In a medium bowl, combine bacon mixture, butter, lemon zest and lemon juice until evenly incorporated. Scrape into a storage container, cover and refrigerate until ready to use. For easy portioning, bring to room temperature.


Spicy Ginger Butter

Makes 2 cups

The peppery ginger and the clean heat of Thai chilies are unexpected complements to plump, smoky oysters. Any leftover butter is precious; use it to sauté shrimp or baste a thick ribeye steak. Can be made and refrigerated up to a week in advance.

Thai chilies or 1 Fresno pepper, stemmed and minced
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 minced garlic clove
2 tsp. finely grated lime zest
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature

1. In a medium bowl, combine chilies, ginger, garlic, lime zest, lime juice and soy sauce. Let sit 1 hour. Add butter and mix until evenly incorporated. Scrape into a storage container, cover and refrigerate until ready to use. For easy portioning, bring to room temperature. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.