There’s one major difference between the mussels hanging out at the beach and those on the dinner table: hygiene! Before mussels can hit the plate, they need a good scrub. That’s because fresh mussels can be covered with gritty sand, squishy ocean scum, and even a beard. But it’s worth the effort: These molluscs are high in protein, yet much lower in cholesterol and bad saturated fat than red meat.
First, make sure you buy high-quality fresh mussels. To clean the mussel shell, use a simple kitchen scrubber (think of those dark green sponges everyone has by their kitchen sink). Lightly scrub away any dirt or grime you find on the shell. This is especially important if your mussels recipe is cooked and served in the same sauce. You don’t want sand in your white wine broth!
As for debearding mussels, this crucial step can be done with just a twist of the fingers. The mussel beard is a set of strings that hang from the mussel shell to help it attach to wooden poles or on the side of rocks. Once you find the beard, simply grab hold of it between your fingers and give it a twist and a tug. The mussel beard should come loose easily.
While cleaning mussels, this is a good time to look for open shells. Mussels are actually alive, and a closed shell ensures the mussel stays fresh. If you find a shell that has opened and will not close again, the mussel inside has died and is no longer good for eating. (Rest in peace—and throw it out!)
Once you have beardless, clean shells, you are ready to start cooking mussels! No matter how you choose to prepare your mussels, just remember to give them this much-needed bath.