Mussels are quick and easy to cook, as well as delicious, but many people are nervous to tackle them at home. Our beginner’s guide is here to help you start off on the right foot and incorporate more mussels into your diet.

As part of our new Back to Basics series, we’re going to be looking at some common ingredients to help make sure our readers are making the most of the great produce that we have access to here in Ireland. Previously we looked at scallops, housekeeper’s cut of beef, chicken thighs, pork belly; today we're looking at mussels. 

Getty Images.

Getty Images.

Shellfish is broadly divided into two categories: molluscs and crustaceans. Mussels, which are found widely in Ireland, fall into the former category, along with scallops, clams and oysters. Mussels are a bi-valve mollusc, which means they have a hard exterior shell with a hinge that covers a soft invertebrae. Mussels are very nutritious; high in protein, low in calories. They are a great addition to any diet. They are also a great source of iron, zinc and selenium, as well as B group vitamins and vitamin E.

Mussels can be found in waters all around the country, attached in clusters to whatever sturdy surface is nearby. While some species do thrive in fresh water, most are found in salt water, usually within 50 metres of the shore. Europe is the world’s largest producer of mussels, with around 730,000 tonnes taken from European shores yearly. While they can be picked by hand, seafood expert Paul Hynes from La Côte Restaurant in Wexford, says it’s better to go to a reputable fishmonger to purchase your molluscs:

“A reputable fishmonger will be able to help you when you’re buying mussels. Down here in Wexford, mussels fly off the shelves and nearly sell out because they’re so popular. Most of the local Wexford mussels are sold straight to France, they’re really popular there. My customers are particularly fond of larger mussels, as they have more meat in them and sweeter tasting flesh, but smaller mussels are still very tasty.”

When storing mussels, a mistake that a lot of people make is that they rinse them off and leave them in a bowl of water in the fridge, which Paul says is a big mistake:

“Mussels are used to salt water, so leaving them in fresh water will kill them. When I buy them, I clean them off first by removing the beard, which attaches farmed mussels to the rope they’re grown on. Then I scrape off the winkles and dirt from the shell with an old knife. Next, I put the mussels in a strainer and rinse them off, then put them in a container with the lid off and leave them in the fridge. They’re still alive so they need air and this way will keep them alive for a few days. When I’m ready to use the mussels, I cover the container and give it a good rattle- any that pulsate and close are still alive and okay to use. If they stay open, that means they’ve died and aren’t okay to use, so discard those ones.”

Mussels are very easy to cook. Most commonly they are steamed in wine then served in their shells. Moules Marinières, a French dish where the mussels are cooked off with white wine, shallots and garlic, is particularly popular. Paul tells us that this dish will always be popular with his customers, but his top tip is to cook off the onion mix first:

“I like to cook mussels with shallots and thyme, but I cook that off first and reserve it as I find it won’t cook out enough if it’s added in straightaway the mussels. I put the mussels in a pan with wine to steam for a few minutes, then I throw in the onion mix, which adds in the flavour. We have a few dishes on at the minute with mussels because they’re so good at the minute, including a very popular one with cider, smoked bacon, wild mushrooms and onion.”

Looking for some ideas for how to cook mussels? We have some great recipes on the site, including Finn Ní Fhaolain's garlic mussels in white wine and broth, mussel and bacon paella and Lobstar's roaring bay mussels.

Lobstar's Roaring Bay Mussels. Photo: Harry Weir, assisted by Brian Clarke.

Lobstar's Roaring Bay Mussels. Photo: Harry Weir, assisted by Brian Clarke.

How do you like to cook mussels? Let us know in the comments below.