Mussels 101

Mastering mollusks
Mastering mollusks
A.J. Olmscheid

When we landlocked Minnesotans have a hankering for seafood, we're lucky enough to have the guys at Coastal Seafoods to consult. When I needed to learn about mussels to better judge this week's food fight, I turned to Coastal Seafoods' general manager, Tim Lauer, for a quick mollusk primer. Here's what he has to say about when mussels are in seasonal and how best to prepare them.

  • The most common type of mussel: "When people say mussels, most of the time they're referring to the blue mussel, which primarily comes from the northeast of the United States and Canada--Prince Edward Island, places in Maine and Massachusetts, and Newfoundland."
  • When mussels are in season: "North Atlantic shellfish spawn in the summertime, so they tend to be a little bit weaker when they spawn. They rotate their harvest to different areas to minimize the issue. When things spawn they generally have a shorter shelf life and can be less flavorful. The biggest issue is they have a shorter life out of the water--summertime hot weather and warm water tends to weaken them. You just have to have a quicker turnaround on the product."
  • How mussels affect the environment: "Most mussels that are sold are farmed. They essentially float rafts and have ropes on which they plant mussel seed, and the mussels grow for one to two years. They're cleaner and more full and more uniform than wild mussels. Also, unlike other forms of aquaculture, mussel farming in particular improves the quality of the water, because they filter the water out. So there's no real environment downside to farming them."
  • Where Coastal Seafood gets its mussels: "We buy primarily Prince Edward Island blue mussels at this time of the year. At certain times of the year we bring in a mussel from Maine called Blue Hill Bay, which is also raft grown. It's a little bit of an artisanal farm operation. They don't have the same supply as Prince Edward Island does, so they're a little bit more expensive."
  • Preparing mussels: "With a live mussel with a beard [the threads mussels use to attach themselves to whatever they're growing on], you have to be careful about cleaning it. Do it by debearding it right before you're going to cook it."
  • Does size matter?: "It kind of depends on nationality. The French traditionally have liked the smaller mussel than the Italian or the Portuguese. What I look for is to have it be really full, so no matter what the shell size, I want a mussel that's heavy for its shell size and full of meat."
  • How to tell if a mussel is good: "If you steam them and a certain percentage doesn't open, you should just toss them out [because they're dead so] they spoil really quickly."
  • Best flavor pairings for mussels: "White wine, tomatoes, basil, garlic. Toss them with fresh tomatoes, pasta, a little bit of olive oil. You know, relatively simple. It's really good in a curry. A lot of people do a lemongrass broth, throw in a little bit of curry or coconut milk."

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