There's something about cooking shellfish that intimidates many people. They think they won't clean it properly or they'll overcook it, and worst of all, that there's good chance the meat has gone bad and will make them sick. But none of that is true if you take special care when preparing shellfish. Actually, there's almost nothing easier than cooking mussels.
It's true. With mussels you don't have to worry about digging into them to clean them, like you do with shrimp, nor do you have to shuck them, as you do with oysters. Mussels are simple to fix, not to mention delicious, and they can go from net (or other packaging) to table in about 15 minutes. That makes these shellfish some of the easiest and most elegant dishes you could ever serve while entertaining.
1. Clean them
If you ever get the chance to pick up some fresh wild mussels, do it! But the most available ones are typically farmed, so they won't be as dirty as mussels from the sea. Still, you should clean them. Place them in a colander in the sink and run cold water over them. Stir the mussels with your hand as you do, as they'll likely be sitting on top of each other, and you want to make sure you get every one. If you feel any pieces of dirt, just rub it off with your finger and run cold water over the mussels again.
As mentioned, because most mussels today are farmed, they don't need a lot of treating, but they do have a beard -- the slimy membrane that attaches them to a solid surface. Usually mussel farms remove this membrane, but there may be a few still attached.
To remove it, hold the membrane firmly and pull it down and toward the hinge of the mussel. Continue pulling until the membrane detaches, and then discard it. The membrane can sometimes be a little slippery; using a paper towel can help.
2. Inspect them
Chances are good that the mussels you get will be fresh, but even the freshest can have a few dead ones in the bunch. Once mussels die, it doesn't take long for the meat to start to deteriorate and potentially cause some pretty serious illnesses, such as food poisoning. To make sure that doesn't happen, you need to inspect the mussels while cleaning them.
Most of the mussels will likely, and should be, tightly closed. They open and close their shells for several reasons, so seeing one open doesn't necessarily mean the mussel isn't fresh. Tap another mussel against the side of the open one. If the open mussel closes, it's good to eat. If it stays open, throw it away.
3. Steam the mussels
Like most shellfish, mussels can be prepared any number of ways. One of the most popular is by steaming. Because it's so easy, it's an ideal technique for beginners, too. Steaming is not only simple, but it's an excellent way to flavor the mussels, as you can steam them in just about any liquid.
Think white wine, a curry sauce or even vegetable broth. All are suitable for steaming mussels. You can also add finely diced shallots, sliced jalapeño peppers, chili flakes -- the options are limitless! Whatever flavoring you choose, use enough liquid to just cover the bottom of your pot (or wok or frying pan). Place the pot over high heat and add the mussels before covering with a lid. Keep the heat on high and continue cooking for about three minutes. At this point, the mussels will open as they steam. At the three-minute mark, remove any that have opened and give the others a chance to do so. Remove those that continue to open, checking every so often for about two more minutes.
Use tongs or a spoon to scoop the mussels into a bowl, making sure you pour some of the broth over them. Not only have you worked hard to get all that flavor into it, but you also now have some of the liquid from inside the mussel, which is one of the tastiest parts.
4. Don't overcook them
As explained in the tip above, mussels will cook very quickly, anywhere from three to five minutes. If you've ever had a mussel that was tough or chewy, you've had one that was overcooked. The minute the shells start to open, they're done. If you cook them for even a few seconds longer, your mussels will turn from delicate and delicious to unpleasant and unappetizing. This is why you need to check on them often and remove them from the heat as soon as they start to pop open.
5. Throw out closed mussels
This tip is actually debatable, but it's the easiest route to go to make sure you don't eat bad mussels. Sometimes you'll get a few stubborn ones that just don't open, no matter how long you've cooked them. The traditional thought is that these mussels are bad and should be discarded. Today, however, many experts say you can simply pry the shell open, smell it to see if it's gone bad and if not, enjoy it. But many people still simply toss these as a fail-proof.
6. Bake mussels
Baked mussels can be tricky, because unless you want to go through the process of shucking and cleaning them, you'll need to steam the mussels first to get the meat out. It's the easiest and most popular way to start off baking mussels. But, after steaming them, they'll be done -- and again, you don't want to overcook them. To prevent them from becoming rubbery, choose a recipe that has a short baking time, typically no more than five minutes.
7. Grill mussels
Grilling mussels can be a super-fast and easy way to create a scruptious mussel dish with a bit of smoky flavor. Clean and debeard your mussels, and then toss them across the grill grates in a single layer. Close the lid and check at three minutes to see which have opened, removing any that do before continuing to cook those that are still closed.
To keep the delicious briny liquid released from the mussels, you can also place them in a large, heat-proof container with some liquid and steam them as you would on top of the stove.