Cooking Mussels: Tips on Buying, Cleaning and Storing

Cooking fresh mussels
Steamed mussels.

Mussels are one of the easiest seafood to prepare, and even though it's a simple dish, steamed mussels with garlic and white wine are one of the most elegant classics in the culinary arts.

I like to serve them in a bowl with some crusty bread for soaking up the cooking liquid, but they're also amazing served with pasta or rice.

Here are some tips to help you get your mussels from the seafood market to your plate.

Shopping for Mussels

A portion size is around 3/4 to 1 pound per person. When shopping, I would lean toward the generous side since you may find a few dead ones or cracked ones that you'll have to discard, and then after cooking you'll invariably find a few that didn't open. So I like to think in terms of a pound of mussels per person.

Storing Mussels

Fresh mussels are alive, and you want to keep them that way. Dead ones aren't any good. The best way to store mussels is in the refrigerator, in the original mesh or net bag they came in, wrapped in a wet paper towel or even wet newspaper. The key is you want to keep them cold and wet.

But don't store them in water and don't seal them up in a container or in a plastic bag — they need to be able to breathe.

Your fishmonger might just wrap your mussels up in the paper for you to take home. In which case, you can store them on a tray with a wet paper towel around them.

You can store mussels in ice (but only in the fridge, not the freezer), as long as there's a way for the melted ice to drain away so that the mussels don't end up submerged. A good way to do this is to use a metal colander inside a bowl.

Using the methods described above, you can keep your mussels for 24 hours without a problem.

But in general, it's best to purchase your mussels the day you plan to use them.

Cleaning Mussels

Most of the mussels you're likely to see at the seafood counter have dark blue, black or sometimes green shells. They may also have stringy little beards sticking out of their shells, which you should pull off or trim with kitchen shears.

Get rid of any mussels that are cracked, or that are open and don't shut by themselves when gently squeezed. Also, toss out any that are much lighter than the others. A good, fresh mussel should smell like the sea; toss out any that smell bad.

In the old days you used to have to flush out the sand from fresh mussels, but these days that isn't the case anymore. The process involved soaking them in water with a bit of cornmeal, and it was a bit of a hassle. These days commercial mussels are either farmed or they've already been flushed, so you don't need to worry about sand.

Cooking Mussels

Mussels are so easy to prepare, you could just dump them in a dry pan and cook them, covered, until their shells open up and they give off their fragrant liquor. Then you can stir in some butter and black pepper and serve with a crusty bread for dunking in the gorgeous liquid.

And while you can cook them in a dry pan, it's nice to add a little wine to the pan to help with steaming and to add flavor to the liquid. But you're not simmering them, you're steaming them. You really just want a little bit of liquid at the bottom of the pan.

If you're ready to cook, here's a very simple and classic Steamed Mussels Recipe.

Also see: Sauces for Fish and Seafood