Fresh mussels are a delicious and inexpensive restaurant-quality meal to make at home. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about how to clean mussels, as well as what to look for when shopping for them at the market. Don’t miss the linked mussel recipes for cooking inspiration!
Buying Fresh Mussels
When you visit the seafood counter, the mussels you’re buying are alive. It’s important to look for certain indicators to ensure you’re buying live mussels. Once they’ve died, mussels spoil rapidly.
- Prime mussel season is from October to March.
- Mussels should have wet, shiny shells and be kept on ice at the market. They will often come in a mesh bag with a tag indicating harvest location, date, and use by date. If the mussels are loose in the case, you can ask your fishmonger to show you the tag.
- Let your nose be your guide! Mussels should smell like the ocean and sea air: briny and fresh. They should not smell overly fishy.
- The shells should be closed tightly. If you find any mussels in your bag with open shells, gently tap them on the counter, wait a minute, and see if they close. Discard any mussels don’t close, or those with chipped or cracked shells.
- Transport mussels home from the market in an open-topped bag that can breathe. Tightly tying them up in a plastic bag without air circulation will risk smothering and spoiling them.
It’s ideal to cook mussels the day you buy them, but you can refrigerate them for up to a couple of days.
To store, remove the mussels from their mesh bag and place them in a colander. Place the colander inside of a bowl and cover loosely with a damp paper towel. Remember that the mussels need to breathe.
Store in the refrigerator and change or re-dampen the paper towel daily, discarding any liquid at the bottom of the bowl. Do not store them submerged in water.
The mussels should still smell fresh and briny after storage.
Cleaning and Debearding Mussels
The “beard” on a mussel is a thread-like cluster that extends out of the side of the shell, helping the mussel cling to surfaces. Remove and discard the beard prior to cooking.
Most of the time, mussels at the seafood counter are at least partially de-bearded. If they are not, or if any of the threads remain, just grab them between your thumb and forefinger and pull firmly away from the shell to remove them.
Beyond the beard, mussels should scrubbed under running, cool water with a stiff brush or the tip of a paring knife to remove any barnacles or debris on the outside of the shell.
Soaking Fresh Mussels Before Cooking
Mussels can contain varying amounts of sand and grit in them, depending on whether they’re wild or farm raised. I like to soak the cleaned mussels in cold salt water for 15-20 minutes before cooking to release this debris. I use 1/4 cup kosher salt to every 3 cups of water.
Tips for Cooking Mussels
Mussels don’t require a long cooking time, just 5-7 minutes, or less, in most cases. When the shells open, the mussels are ready.
You can prepare mussels with a variety of cooking methods. The most common is to simmer or steam them in aromatic liquids like wine, tomato sauce, and broth. Pan-roasted, smoked and grilled mussels are also favorites.
When simmering or steaming, it’s best to use a covered wide, large pan so that the steam has room to circulate between the mussels and cook them evenly. I try to arrange them into as close to a single layer as possible; it’s best not to stack them inches deep.
Whatever recipe or method you choose, it’s important not to overcook the mussels so they don’t become tough and chewy. I like to start checking the mussels after about 3 minutes, removing those that have opened from the heat with tongs at 1-minute intervals.
Just like mussels that were open before cooking, any mussels that do not open during cooking should be discarded. This indicates that while the shells were closed, they mussels were not alive initially.
Have questions about buying, prepping, cooking mussels? Leave them in the comments, below!