Quick—name a dish that’s inexpensive, quick-cooking, fancy enough for a party, but easy enough to make on a weeknight. If you said mussels, we’re on the same wavelength. These tasty bivalves are a favorite around these parts, and with good reason. Whether you simmer your way to mussel nirvana on the regular or have never cooked them at home before, it’s time for a refresher course. Avoid these common mistakes, and you’ll make a pot of mussels so good, they’ll rival your city’s best French bistro or your beach’s raddest seafood shack.
1. Don’t Forget to Clean ‘Em Up
If you’re sourcing your mussels from a trusted fishmonger, it’s unlikely that they’ll be totally filled with grit and dirt. Still, it will serve you well to give them a quick clean before cooking them. Transfer the raw mussels to a colander and place them under cold water, gently shaking so all of the mussels get rinsed. Use a sharp paring knife to scrape off any barnacles or dirt on the shells, and check for beards. If there’s a furry patch attached to the mussel, tug it out with your knife and discard. Many mussels come de-bearded, but there’s usually one or two that sneak by, unnoticed. And, most importantly, any mussel that isn’t closed—or doesn’t close when you give it a good tap with your fingernail—needs to be thrown out. An open mussel is a dead mussel, and one dead mussel will ruin a whole pot of them.
2. Always Add Aromatics
Don’t just dump the mussels in a pan and let ‘er rip. Before you cook the shellfish, sauté some chopped onion, garlic, and/or ginger. We wouldn’t be mad if you threw some lemongrass, chiles, or shallots in there, depending on where you want to take the flavor. Cooking aromatics before adding the liquid and mussels builds a base for your sauce, which is going to be important down the line, when you sop it up with thick slabs of bread.
3. Add Some Liquid, Please and Thank You
Mussels are cooked through steam, which means you’re going to need some liquid in the pot to get things going. Why use water when you have things like coconut milk, soy sauce, fish sauce, chopped tomatoes in their juice, or maybe even a bit of booze? Adding a bracingly dry white wine or a crisp lager to your pot will infuse the shellfish with flavor—not to mention help create a pool of sauce to be poured all over the mussels. Whatever liquid you choose, it will add and carry flavor from your aromatics into the mussels.
4. Simmer, Don’t Boil
Once you’ve cooked the aromatics and added the liquid and mussels, things happen fast. Bring the liquid up to a boil and immediately lower it to a lively simmer. A rolling boil will cook the mussels too aggressively, but you’re not aiming for low and slow, either. And be sure to use a wide, shallow pot or sauté pan—you don’t want to stack the mussels on top of each other, as that will take longer to cook.
5. Keep a Lid On It
The mussels cook when hot steam produced from the simmering liquid wafts through the pot. You want to minimize any of that precious, aromatic hot air leaving the pot, but we do want to make sure the mussels are cooking evenly. We say only open the pot once, about seven minutes into the simmer, for a quick stir. Then get that lid right back on top.
6. Discard the Duds
This is a biggie, and one of the most important mistakes to avoid. Remember how you checked to make sure that all of the mussels were closed before you started cooking them? Well, now you need to make sure that they’re all open. Remove the mussels from the stovetop, poke around the pan with a pair of tongs or slotted spoon. Check for any that refused to open, fish them out, and discard. Unopened mussels were dead from the start, and are unsafe to eat. All mussels need to be gently pried open to eat, but if the shell is so tightly closed you need a crowbar, it means that one is no good.
7. Don’t Leave Out the Herbs
You’re almost there! The only step left is to finish the sauce with a knob of butter (totally optional, but encouraged) and a shower of fresh herbs. Chopped parsley leaves, dill fronds, cilantro, celery leaves, and anise-scented tarragon are all practically made for mussels. (Steer clear of woodier herbs, like rosemary and sage.) And don’t add them until just before serving—they should retain their color and freshness when presented to the diner (even if it’s just yourself).
8. Mussels Without Bread Are No Mussels at All
A mussels-must: Serve plenty of fresh, crusty bread with a pillowy interior alongside. The bread will serve as a vehicle for that aromatic, boozy, briny sauce you worked so hard to create. And if you want to flex even harder, throw a little mayo on that bread. Maybe a ginger-y, garlicky aioli? Just a thought. And here’s one more. Don’t forget to place a large bowl on the table for the empty shells. That’s just common courtesy.