Mussels are like any other shellfish in that they must be prepared very carefully if they are to be enjoyable and above all safe to eat. If they are overcooked in any way, for example, they will assume the consistency of an eraser and be nigh on impossible never mind extremely unpleasant to eat. There are many safe ways in which it is possible to cook mussels including in a sand pit on the beach, in a Spanish paella, or even in a seafish soup or stew. This incredibly simple recipe, however, looks at a really quick and easy way to steam mussels in your home kitchen.

How to Tell if Mussels are Alive or Dead

It is vital that you only eat mussels which are still alive at the time of starting preparation. Checks have to be made in this respect both before and after cooking. Prior to cooking, the shells of the mussels should be tightly closed. If any are open, tap the shell a few times and if all is well, it will close. If the shell doesn't close, the mussel is dead and should never be eaten as serious food poisoning could result. 

How to Prepare Mussels for Cooking

Mussels Beards
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

The beard should be removed from the mussels in the correct fashion before they are cooked

Sometimes, when I go on a sea fishing shore trip, I actually collect mussels myself but more often I buy them from a supermarket or fishmonger's. It used to be that when I bought them, they had already had their barnacles and beards removed and were ready for the pot. Increasingly, however, I'm finding this is not the case and whether they are collected or bought, they have to be fully prepared at home.

The barnacles are the shells of smaller organisms which have become attached to the mussel shells. They can sometimes be removed with a small stiff brush but occasionally they have to be scraped off with a short bladed, sturdy knife. If using this latter method, it is imperative that you protect your hand holding the mussels with a thick towel or ideally an oyster shucking wire glove which are available fairly inexpensively online.

The beard of the mussel actually looks like a bit of weed and will be protruding from usually about half way along the opening side of the shell. In order to remove it, hold the mussel shell in your weaker hand and grip the beard tightly between the thumb and forefinger of your stronger hand. A sharp tug on the beard towards the narrower, pointed end of the mussel will remove it. Be sure not to tug towards the broader end or you can damage the delicate flesh of the mussel inside.

It is optional but I recommend following a simple procedure which helps remove any bits of sand or other grainy deposits from inside the mussels before they are cooked. All I do is sit the mussels in a bowl of cold fresh water for ten minutes. Mussels don't like fresh water and it causes them to expel much of the impurities from within their shells.   

How to Simply Steam Mussels

Mussel Poaching Accompaniments
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Onion, salt and bay leaf flavorants for steaming mussels

Mussels are often steamed in white wine and a variety of other potential flavorants before the poaching liquid is made in to a sauce. That is fine but on this occasion, I wanted to keep it as simple as possible and enjoy the full, natural flavor of the mussels at its simple very best. I therefore began by adding a sliced quarter onion, a broken up bay leaf and around half a teaspoon of sea salt to a large pot. Enough water to cover the base of the pot to a depth of around half an inch maximum was added and the pot was put on to a high heat until the water began boiling. 

Mussels are Added to Poaching Water
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Mussels are added to boiling water

Add the mussels to the pot and sit the lid in place. Cook for two to three minutes until the mussels shells have opened. Note that any mussels which do not open have been dead prior to cooking and must be discarded.

Serving methods are down to personal preference but in this instance I merely used a slotted spoon to lift them to a deep plate and enjoyed them with a buttered bread roll. Sometimes, simplicity truly is the magic ingredient with seafood of all types.

Steamed Mussels
Credit: Gordon Hamilton

Steamed mussels with bread roll and butter