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Mussels 101

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Mussel 101

Most mussels found on the market are cultivated. Mussels are formed of two thin oblong shells of equal size. The shells of the blue mussel or “common mussel” are usually smooth but sometimes have concentric striations (the swirls in the shell). They are blue-black and often have purple eroded sections. The meat of the mussel is more or less fleshy and firm, depending on the species, of which there are many.



Mussels are sold fresh (either shelled or unshelled) or canned.
Only buy mussels in the shell if they are live. In this case, the shells are shut; if they are partly open, they close slowly when tapped.

Canned mussels are available in their own juices, in oil, tomato, white wine or smoked.



In The Fridge: fresh unshelled mussels, 3 days in a container (cover with a damp cloth); shelled mussels, 24-48 hours in a sealed container (cover in their own liquid). It is best to eat them as soon as possible.

In The Freezer: 3 months, shelled in a freezer container (cover with their own juices).



Wash and dry the mussels. It is not necessary to remove all the beards**, as they add flavor to the cooking stock.

Remove any open mussels that don’t close again when they are tapped, or that have damaged shell, as they are no longer edible.

Particularly heavy mussels may be filled with mud or sand. Discard them or soak them for 1 hour or linger in fresh salted water (4-5 Tbsp. per 4 cups of water). Sometimes after soaking or being brushed, the mussel’s abductor muscle (the muscle that allows the mussel to open and close) escapes from the shell and it seems to be dead. Slide the two shell halves over each other; if they don’t move, the mussel is live, if not, discard.



Poached or steamed: until they are open (2-5 minutes), then cook as directed in the recipe. Discard mussels that stay closed after cooking.



Mussels are rarely eaten raw, except sometimes when they are harvested out at sea and are very fresh and unpolluted.

Mussels are prepared as moules marinière (steamed in their own juices with white wine and seasonings), grilled, gratinéed, sautéed, fried, cooked on a kabob, marinated or stuffed.

They are used in both delicate and hearty soups, sauces, hor d’oeuvres, salads, paella, stews and omelets.

Canned mussels are eaten as is, cold or hot.


Did you know that mussels are a good source of iron, vitamin B12 and zinc?


NOTE: **Look at the crack where the two shells meet and you’ll see a little ‘tag’ of what looks like threads of brown seaweed. This is mussel’s “the beard” (a.k.a. the Byssus Thread, for the biologists among us). The beards on some of the mussels may have been removed during processing, so it’s ok if you don’t find one on every mussel.

Pinch the beard between your thumb and first finger. Use a side to side motion and firmly tug the beard out. This can feel a bit like a game of tug-of-war between you and the mussel!

The beard isn’t harmful or inedible (just not particularly desirable to our taste buds), so don’t fret if there are a few little threads left that you can’t grasp.

With a bit of practice, cleaning and de-bearding a few pounds of mussels should only take about 15 minutes of your prep time. 


(Information taken from a culinary textbook, “The Visual Food Lover’s Guide”)




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