Mussels are like most forms of shellfish in that they are very quick and easy to cook. There are a number of dangers attached to cooking and eating mussels, however, in that they can very easily be spoiled or can represent a danger of food poisoning where they are cooked other than still alive or inappropriately. The extent to which you will have to clean any mussels you intend to cook will depend largely upon how you came by them.
How to tell if mussels are still alive
Before making any attempt to clean the mussels, it is advisable to check for any which may be dead and need to be discarded. Doing this first simply means you will not be wasting time cleaning mussels you are minutes later going to have to throw away. The shells of the mussels should be tightly closed. Where this is not the case, simply tap the shell lightly on a hard surface. If it closes, the mussel is still alive, if it doesn’t, the mussel is dead.
Removing the beards and barnacles
If you have collected the mussels yourself from the sea shore, you will have to perform the cleaning of them from scratch. Store or supermarket bought mussels may already have had their beards and barnacles removed.
The beard of a mussel looks a lot like a little bit of seaweed protruding from one side of the shell. It is vital to remove this in the correct way or you risk tearing the flesh of the mussel in the shell and killing it. Simply hold the closed shell in one hand and grab the beard with the thumb and forefinger of your other hand. Pull the beard firmly and smoothly in the direction of the hinged, pointed end of the shell and it should easily tear free.
Barnacles on mussel shells look like small sea shells found along the shore. That is precisely what they are: the shells of smaller organisms. They will sometimes come free when scrubbed with a very stiff bristled brush but often have to be scraped off with a sturdy, short-bladed knife. If using a knife, be sure to protect your hand holding the mussel with a proper Kevlar glove designed for cleaning shellfish or at the very least, a thickly wrapped towel.
Removing grit and sand from inside the shell
There is nothing worse than lifting a delicious looking, fat and juicy mussel served as part of your meal, tipping it in to your mouth and immediately finding you’ve also got the sand that was trapped in the shell. The way to avoid this is to briefly steep the cleaned mussels in cold, fresh water before they are cooked. Fifteen to twenty minutes is sufficient as lengthy exposure to fresh water will kill them. What this steeping does is essentially irritate the mussels and cause them to expel the impurities from inside their shells. At the end of this process, lift the mussels from the water by hand, leaving the impurities in the bottom of the bowl.
Cooking the mussels
One of the easiest and most effective ways to cook fresh mussels is to steam them in a very little liquid. Add some water and perhaps a splash of white wine to the bottom of a large pot to a depth of no more than half an inch. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a strong boil before adding the mussels. Shake the pot slightly and put the lid on for two or three minutes until the shells have opened. Any mussels where the shells remain closed should be discarded. The remainder are now ready to be served as part of your chosen meal.