The prospect of turning shells into dinner can be intimidating. But today we’re here to take the mystery out of mussels, and to share the joys of just how easy it can be to prepare this fruit of the sea at home.
Mussels have many perks: they are less expensive than other sea foods such as crabs or lobsters, and have a sweet taste that is beloved in cuisines worldwide. These mollusks are lean, and high in omega-3 fatty acids. As well as their nutritional benefits, cooked mussels are visually stunning: the contrast of their orange meat and open, darkish shells makes a meal feel special.
There are dozens of different mussels species, but the two main varieties you will see sold are the Atlantic blue mussel and the Pacific green-lipped or New Zealand mussel. Stateside, you will most likely encounter the common blue mussel, but should you pick up another variety, they are exchangeable in recipes. The blue mussel has a very black shell – it’s the lip of the shell that may be blue tinged. Blue mussels are about 2 -3 in in length while the green-lipped variety are larger, about 3-4 in long, and have slightly tougher meat.
The majority of mussels that you will see in markets today are farmed instead of wild. This is good news both for the environment and for cooks. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, farmed mussels are the “best choice” when it comes to mussel buying because the methods used are responsible, chemical free, and get this, may actually benefit the surrounding ocean habitat. On the consumer side of things, farmed mussels are typically grown suspended in seawater, rather than on the ocean floor, which means less sand and grit for you to clean off.
How to select & store: As with any seafood, the key is freshness. Mussels from the supermarket or fishmonger will be sold loose or in plastic net bags, which contain about 2-3 lbs. You want mussels with closed shells (or shells that close when tapped lightly on a counter – this means they’re still alive) that appear slightly glossy and that have a fresh sea smell. Mussels that do not close when tapped are dead or dehydrated, neither of which will taste good, and should be tossed out.
As we’ve said, fresh is best when it comes to seafood – you should use mussels on the day you buy them if you can. Put mussels in a large bowl and cover them with a damp kitchen towel in the coldest part of your refrigerator until you’re ready to use. Again, this should be the first day, but if it’s not, take note that the mussels will release a small amount of liquid each day, which you should drain.
Never store mussels in anything airtight because they are alive and you want to keep them that way.
How to Clean: Firstly, it’s important to note that you shouldn’t clean mussels until you are ready to cook them – the “debearding” process kills them, and you don’t want them sitting around for long after that.
Discard any mussels that may have cracked shells, feel unusually heavy (these are probably full of dirt), or remain open even after being tapped gently on the kitchen counter. Scrub each mussel individually with a stiff brush under running water.
Next, you need to “debeard” your mussels. A beard, in technical terms, is the byssal thread. It’s a little brown tuft of fibers that the mussels use to attach themselves to rocks, and sometimes to defend themselves against invading mollusks, by tethering them in place. Pretty cool, but it’s not a particularly desirable addition to your mussel dish.
To remove the beard, look at the crack where the two shells meet and you will see what looks like some brown threads of seaweed. Pinch the beard between your thumb and forefinger, and remove by pulling town towards the hinge of the shell and outwards. You can also use a knife to cut the beard off. Many commercially available mussels may have already been de-bearded, so do not despair if you don’t see a beard- it’s probably been taken off for you.
How to cook: The simplest and most common way to cook mussels is by steaming them. Mussels contain a small amount of liquid within them, so they can simply by adding to a pot alone to cook. However, using a small amount of flavorful liquid (stock, wine, beer, etc) and aromatics can turn your mussels into a beautiful dish in just a few minutes. This is the basic formula for steamed mussel dishes, such as moule frites, mussels with fries, a favorite in bistros and throughout Belgium.
Boil about a cup of liquid in a 4-5 quart saucepan. Add aromatic vegetables (onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, etc) and / or herbs and spices (parsley, thyme, bay leaf, etc). Simmer the liquid over low heat for a couple minutes to reduce and develop flavor. One of the great things about cooking mussels is their flexibility — feel free to play and explore with your favorite flavors. A precise recipe isn’t truly necessary.
Add the mussels to the pot, and cover. About a pound per person for a main course will do the trick. Cook, stirring once halfway through, until all the mussels have opened, about 5-7 minutes. Be sure not to overcook mussels, as they become rubbery very quickly. However, the best thing about cooking mussels is that they make it easy for you to know when they’re done: it’s simply when they’ve opened.
As the mussels cook, they release flavorful liquid. Carefully scoop mussels into a bowl with a slotted spoon. Discard any mussels with broken shells or that haven’t opened yet. Give the liquid a minute or so to sit in the pot; this will allow any grit to settle on the bottom. Spoon as much liquid as you like over the mussels. Serve immediately with crusty bread or something dunkable.
Cleaned mussels may also be grilled in a single layer until they open, again for about 5-7 minutes. You can also roast mussels. Place mussels in no more than 2 layers in a pan and top with chunks of butter. Roast in a 450 ºF oven until the shells have opened, about 5-7 minutes. All preparations should be eaten immediately, and go great with a squeeze of lemon.
Give one of these recipes a try. We promise that your shellfish experience won’t leave you shellshocked.
Steamed Mussels in White Wine Broth from Inspired Taste
Choros à la Chalaca (Peruvian Mussels with Corn Salsa) from Girl Cooks World
Thai Steamed Mussels in Chili, Lime, and Coconut Milk from Winner Celebration Party featured on NoshOn.It
Cook’s Illustrated Paella featured on The Culinary Chronicles
Spaghetti With Mussels from Manu’s Menu
Stuffed Mussels, Istanbul Street Style from Sippity Sup