This study aimed to achieve high frequencies of nuclear maturation and penetrability through the zona pellucida of hamster oocytes cultured under protein-free conditions. Completion of nuclear maturation by cumulus-intact, immature oocytes (79% metaphase II stage) was depressed (37% p < 0·05) by adding four amino acids (glutamine, isoleucine, methionine and phenylalanine) reported necessary for nuclear maturation of cumulus-free oocytes. Following in vitro maturation, cumulus cells were removed and oocytes were inseminated with capacitated sperm, but after 6 h sperm:egg co-incubation, only 24% of in vitro matured oocytes were penetrated compared with 60% of in vivo matured oocytes (p < 0·05). Time required for zona lysis by α-chymotrypsin was not significantly different among in vitro and in vivo matured oocytes and 1-cell embryos. Addition to the maturation medium of soybean trypsin inhibitor or fetuin, both known to inhibit the zona reaction in vitro, did not improve penetrability of in vitro matured oocytes, implying that in hamsters, unlike other rodent species, a premature zona reaction is unlikely to be responsible for inhibiting sperm penetration. When oocytes were incubated with 20% periovulatory oviductal fluid (OF) for another 3 h after maturation, penetration was significantly improved (60% vs 37% with and without OF, respectively; p < 0·05), but was not equivalent to penetration of in vivo matured follicular oocytes similarly treated with OF (84%, p < 0·05)However, zona penetration was further improved by increasing sperm concentration from 1·0 × 104 (66%) to 5·0 or 10·0 × 104 sperm/ml (89%, p < 0·05). This study shows that nuclear maturation of hamster oocytes can occur in chemically defined medium, and indicates that a deficiency in the zona of in vitro matured oocytes can be overcome by preincubation with OF and insemination at high sperm conccentration.