Mussels are bivalve members of the mollusk family that live in both the Pacific and the Atlantic.
Mussels begin spawning young when they are about 2 years old. During the summer months, a Mussel will produce about a million young Mussels, or “spats”, about the size of a pin head. These drift around on the surface on the water, until they find something to attach themselves to. They usually come to “roost” in clumps on rocks. Generally, about 2 ½ thousand survive to become adults. Depending on how warm the water is, they can grow to adults in one to 2 years. Mussels filter about 15 gallons of water (55 litres) a day, and eat the plankton that they filter out from it.
Today, they are usually farmed (aka “cultured”) on ropes lowered into the water. The ropes are seeded with young ones, and then the ropes are just hauled up when they are ready to harvest. If you are harvesting them from the wild growing on rocks, you just pull them off with a twist. Many prefer farmed oysters, thinking them more likely to be fatter and contain less grit in them.
Mussels can live out of water for up to a week (after all, they are used to being out of water for some time, as they live on ocean shores where the tide is out half the time), but will die pretty promptly in fresh water.
The Blue Mussel, whose shell is black tinged with blue, is the most common Mussel in North America.
Mussels are less expensive than oysters and scallops. They are sometimes the same price as clams, but Mussels have more meat in them.
Choose ones whose shells are closed or that will close when you tap them.
If before preparing Mussels you find ones that won’t close when topped, bin them.
Scrub with a brush and rinse. They have “beards”; just use a paring knife to trim and pull these off. Don’t debeard until you are ready to use them, as debearding kills them. Allow about 1 pound (450g) unshelled per person.
For 2 lbs (1 kilo) of Mussels, bring ¼ cup (2 oz/50 ml) of water or white wine to the boil. Put in the Mussels, put the lid on, and give the pot a good shake. Cook over high heat, shaking the pan occasionally. After 3 minutes, check to see if the Mussels have opened. If not, cook covered for another minute. With a slotted spoon, remove from pot to a bowl, and use the Mussels however you intend. Bin any that didn’t open.
You can strain the broth from the pot and if you don’t need it for immediate use, freeze for a recipe that calls for fish stock.
To barbeque, place in a sealed parcel made of tin foil. Before sealing the parcel, drizzle them first with olive oil or white wine, and add any seasonings such as garlic or onion. Place on barbeque for about 5 minutes in such a manner that you can open the parcel easily after the 5 minutes to check on them. If some haven’t opened yet, give them another minute or two — after that, just discard any that haven’t opened.
1 pound mussels = approximately 18 mussels. 1 kg of mussels = approximately 40 mussels
Store in fridge covered with damp paper towel. Never put in fresh water while you are trying to keep them alive, or remove their beards before you are ready to cook them.
Apicius, the Roman “food” writer, gives a recipe for Mussels.
Literature & Lore
Tradition holds that the only Mussels worth eating are harvested in an R month — a month that has an R in its name; most cooks pretty much agree that as far as English names for months go anyway, there’s no reason to deviate from this.