What are mussels?

Mussels are bivalve mollusks that grow in saltwater up and down the east coast, though mussels can also be found in freshwater. Mussels are available fresh at most fishmarkets or grocery stores – and typically available frozen as well. Most often, the mussels you are purchasing in the store or ordering at restaurants are from Prince Edward Island in Canada. On the Cape though, you can find mussels that are grown here locally.

Mussels are filter feeders, meaning the pump water in and out – extracting oxygen and food from the water. They filter and eat large quantities mounts of phytoplankton, bacteria and other particles – effectively cleaning the waters where the live. Studies have shown that an individual mussel or oyster can filter over a gallon of water per hour.

Mussels may seem intimidating to cook, but they are actually quick easy. Here’s some of the basic information you need to know, along with simple tips for cooking mussels.

How do I store mussels if I am not going to cook them right away?

  • Remove the mussels from the plastic bag they came in
  • Place mussels in a large bowl and cover with a clean damp cloth. DO NOT STORE IN WATER, this will kill them!
  • Place in the fridge until you’re ready to cook them – but plan to cook them as soon as possible
  • Store in fridge (up to a few days and make sure they still smell like the ocean – clean and briny, not overly fishy)
  • Drain any water that collects in the bowl

How do I know the mussels are alive and ok to eat?

  • Always purchase your mussels from a reputable source – know your fishmonger or seafood counter guy/gal. And shop with your eyes – if the mussels look like they’ve been sitting at the fish counter for awhile, choose something else
  • Toss any mussels with cracked or broken shells. Also toss mussels with open shells that don’t close when lightly tapped on the counter. This is an indicator that the mussel is dead and therefore is not safe to eat. Mussels should be alive prior to cooking
  • Mussels should always smell fresh, briny and salty, just like the sea. They should not smell overly fishy

How do I prep the mussels for cooking?

  • Scrub the mussels under cold running water to remove any debris, like grit or sand. You can use your hands or a scrub brush
  • If the mussels contain their beard (this is a black or green fibrous thread attached) tug gently to remove it before cookingJenny and Lexi cleaning mussels

How do I cook mussels?

  • After cleaning the mussels, set them aside
  • Saute any flavoring ingredients in olive oil or butter (garlic, shallot, onions, etc) over medium heat until fragrant in a large heavy bottomed pot
  • Then, add the mussels and liquid – you don’t need much liquid, I typically only use 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of liquid for 1 pound of mussels. You want enough liquid to full cover the bottom of your pot. Not to worry, there will still be plenty of liquid to mop up with crust bread, as the mussels will release their juices once they open
  • Cover the pot. If you have a clear lid, that will work best because you can see if the mussels are beginning to open. Then, turn up the heat to high
  • Cook for about 2 minutes, then remove the lid and gently stir mussels. Remove any that have opened
  • Mussels are cooked through when their shells open up
  • Continue cooking for another 2-5 minutes until all the mussels have opened – cooking time will vary based on the cookware you’re using and the amount of mussels in the pot – the more mussels, the longer the cooking time
  • If any mussels didn’t open, discard them, as they are not safe to eat
  • Pour the mussels and broth into a serving dish – or bring the pot to the table and serve directly from the pot
  • Serve mussels with hunks of crusty bread for dipping

PRO Tips:

  • Always serve mussels with crusty bread – the broth is arguably the best part
  • To serve as an appetizer, you’ll need about 1/2 lb mussels per person – as an entree, plan for about 1 lb

Need a great recipe for mussels? Try these Mussels with White Wine.