Mussels are one of the greatest seafood items you can cook to wow dinner guests; however, the little secret your restaurant server will probably never mention is that they're also the easiest.
Mussels with Buttery Turmeric Broth
Credit: Caitlin Bensel

Though mussels are an essential dish on restaurant and bar menus across the globe, popular for their mild, versatile taste and shareability, these mollusks are frequently left out of the home cooking equation. However, mussels are an amazing option for even the most inexperienced of at-home chefs and shellfish cookers, as they are affordable, extremely easy to prepare, and result in a satisfying and impressive dish to serve to friends and family.

While preparing a perfect batch of mussels might seem intimidating at first, once you’ve made them once or twice you’ll be cooking this unfussy seafood off the top of your head for years to come, without the need for a recipe or guide.

Buying and Cleaning

Fresh mussels can be found in the seafood section of most grocery stores, or from just about any fishmonger, often times served in a net containing pre-measured portions. When shopping for mussels, make sure they have a fresh, briny scent and don’t appear cracked or damaged. These mollusks should always be kept well refrigerated and as cold as possible, so if you’re not planning to cook your mussels within a couple hours of purchasing, a smart move is to transfer the mussels from their store packaging to a wide dish, keeping it covered with a damp paper towel until you’re ready to clean and cook them.

Before cooking your mussels, it’s important to properly clean the batch and check for any potentially dead shellfish, the consumption of which could result in food poisoning or other unfortunate stomach ailments. Rinse your mussels under a stream of cold water, stirring them around to wake up the slumbering mollusks. This motion will cause any mussels that have opened up out of water to close themselves. Tap the shells of any that don’t close during the rinsing process against the counter, and wait for a couple of minutes. If a mussel still doesn’t close completely after this, toss it, along with any with cracked shells.

Use a brush to scrub the sides of the mussels to remove any sand or barnacles lingering on the shells. Check each mollusk to ensure it no longer has its “beard”—a small tuft of stringy brown material along the crack where the shells meet. While many mussels have their beards manually removed prior to purchasing, any that remain can be removed by pinching the beard between your fingers and tugging the material from side to side until it slips out of the shell. If a few threads of the beard won’t budge, don’t fret—these aren’t dangerous to consume, but do have a slightly unpleasant taste that’s best to be avoided.

Steaming Mussels

Once the mussels have been cleaned the hardest and most time-consuming part is over. Steaming mussels—the go-to method of cooking this low-maintenance seafood—is a super simple task that takes just minutes to complete.

Start by filling a pot with the liquid of your choice. While this liquid can vary depending on the flavors you’re aiming for, we’d recommend starting with something classic. The most traditional way to prepare mussels is in white wine or beer, with garlic and herbs like parsley or thyme to add flavor.

Before adding your liquid, prep the pot with flavors you’d like to infuse into your mussels. Some of the most popular additions include finely chopped garlic, scallions, and white onion. Soften these ingredients in butter at the base of your pan before adding your mussels and enough white wine or beer to reach about ¼ inch up the walls of the pan (your mussels shouldn’t be covered completely).

Cover the pan and cook on a medium-high heat for about five minutes, allowing the mussels to steam until the majority of the shells have opened up. Stir the mussels to distribute the liquid and remove from the heat, allowing the remaining closed shells to open. Any that remain shut after cooking and resting should be discarded. Serve the mussels in some of the cooking liquid and add fresh herbs and lemon to the dish if desired. This process can be replicated with a wide variety of broths and liquids, but the wine or beer method will result in the classic mussel flavor you’ve come to expect and love.

Serve your finished mussels with a side of Oven Fries, or some crusty bread or garlic bread with a nice crunch to dip into the remaining broth.

Baking Mussels

While the majority of mussel recipes are complete after the steaming process, baking your mussels allows them to develop more warmth and depth of flavor. To pull off this method, you’ll begin by steaming the mussels, allowing them to open up and get tender.

While the mussels are steaming, craft a filling for the shells, such as this flavorful mixture that incorporates fennel, white wine, and breadcrumbs, or Hazelnut Herb Butter. Preheat the oven broiler and allow the mussels to cool completely before removing half of the shell, leaving only the half that contains the meat. Transfer the mussels to a baking sheet and top with about a teaspoon of the prepared mixture before broiling the mussels for a few minutes until golden brown.

Step Outside the Shell

Once you’ve got the basic mussel cooking technique down, you can start to branch out with more adventurous flavors combinations. Coconut milk makes a great base for Asian-inspired mussel dishes like Coconut Basil Steamed Mussels and spicy, ginger-infused Curried Coconut Mussels.

For something slightly funkier, try your hand at Mussels Bahn Mi Toast with spicy mayo, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and jalapenos; a homey Sausage and Mussel Stuffing; or a Warm Kale Salad with Mussels and Bacon.

Whether you go the traditional wine-steamed route, or travel down a more adventurous path, this affordable and low-maintenance shellfish is guaranteed become one of the go-to proteins being prepped in your kitchen for years to come.