The Smart Cook's Guide to Mussels
It's time to get to know this inexpensive, nutritious, and easy to cook shellfish.
Inexpensive, nutritious, and easy to get cook, mussels are a fantastic protein option for dinnertime. And yet, they're criminally underrated and overlooked in many seafood popularity contests. One reason why mussels don't get as much attention as other seafood? If you ask us, it's because their tightly closed, onyx-colored shells practically radiate mystery. And for the home cook who has only ever enjoyed them cooked and piled next to some fries at their favorite gastropub, a cold bag of raw mussels doesn't seem so approachable.
We're here to dispel the idea that mussels are hard to cook, though. In fact, once you've learned how to choose and clean them, you'll quickly realize that preparation is a breeze.
The best place to start de-mystifying this secretive little shellfish is at the store. First, head straight to the fresh seafood area; while most frozen fish is a great option to have stashed away for a super-quick dinner, frozen mussels are far inferior to fresh both in terms of texture and flavor. Tinned mussels are in their own thing entirely, since they usually come pickled in brine or smoked, and are best for snacking on as part of an antipasto platter. It's important to note that there are about 20 to 24 mussels to a pound. If mussels are to be the main course, you should plan on about one pound per person; for an appetizer, make it half a pound.
Look for bags of mussels that have tightly closed shells and a fresh, briny smell to them. It's pretty typical that a cracked shell or two will find their way into a bag, but if the majority of them are cracked or partially open, then that is a sign of a product past its prime. Like with any seafood, make mussels one of your last pickups at the store so they stay cold; if you have a long way to drive, ask for a small bag of ice for the ride.
The majority of fresh supermarket mussels are farm-raised and available year-round, with wild varieties more available in the fall and winter months at specialty seafood stores. As far as sustainability issues are concerned, mussels are considered outliers. Farmed mussels are not only fine, they're often preferred since they can actually improve their surrounding environment. Farmed mussels are also the easiest to prep; because they are grown vertically on ropes, their shells aren't filled with sand and grit from the ocean floor like with wild.
Because mussels are a living product, they require a little extra thought when storing them in the refrigerator. Avoid airtight containers or plastic bags, as either will suffocate them. If you're planning to use the mussels within a day or two, simply nestle them in a bowl and cover them with a damp kitchen towel. To extend their shelf-life for a few days, place them in a colander set over a bowl and cover them with ice, replenishing with more ice as needed.
When you're about ready to cook, transfer mussels to the sink and give them a good rinsing. Look over each shell carefully and scan for any that are cracked (this is a great task to give a budding young chef!). It's safest to just discard the cracked ones, because it's possible they've been dead for a while—and it's never a good idea to take your chances with shellfish. As for open mussels, they could be faking their own death, so to speak: Give the shell a gentle tap against the counter. If it reflexively closes shut, then they're still alive and safe to cook.
Lastly, a few of the mussels may still have their "beards" attached. These are tough, wiry threads that the mussels use to attach themselves to surfaces. Farm-raised mussels are usually de-bearded during processing, however there's a chance a few snuck into your bag and you’ll want to gently pull them off of the shell before cooking.
The mild flavor of mussels means they are a wonderful blank canvas for a myriad of different cuisines and cooking methods: From curried to herb-buttered, grilled to chilled, there are endless ways you can treat a bag of these versatile bivalves. Cooking mussels is a fast and furious affair, so make sure you have all of your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you start. This summery recipe, for instance, is a one-pot dinner that comes together in just 15 minutes; make sure to serve it alongside plenty of crusty bread for sopping up the buttery tomato-and-corn-flecked broth.
Enjoying mussels in a cream-based sauce like the old French chefs intended, is definitely a treat worth having now and then. That said, another way to enjoy mussels that minds the cholesterol is in our tomato-parsley recipe, which calls for parceling them in parchment along with seasoned tomatoes and olive oil and baking them. If you're in the mood for some global cuisine with kick, mussels pair beautifully with bold flavors like in this Spanish-inspired recipe that uses spicy chorizo. You could also go for Thai flavors and cook them in a creamy coconut sauce like in our recipe for mussels sambal.
For fans of "no-recipe recipes," we've got you covered: Drop the mussels into a large, super-hot skillet, along with a glass-worth of white wine. Cover with a lid and within five minutes, they will steam open and release their flavorful, salty-sweet liquid. Now peek under the lid. Are they all opened? Great. If not, let them cook for a couple of more minutes. Next, take them off the heat and stir in a knob of butter and a handful of fresh chopped herbs. Spoon them over some linguine with lemon wedges and dinner is ready.
One last thing before you go off to enjoy these fruits of the sea! Eating a bowl of saucy mussels can be a pretty messy affair. Naturally, Martha has found a way to actually make it look elegant: Use an empty mussel shell to carefully pluck the meat from your next bite.