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What Do Mussels Taste Like? – The Ultimate Guide

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Mussels are an incredibly popular seafood choice thanks to their versatility, delicious flavor, and affordability.

They are considered bivalve mollusks, which just means that they have a two-part hinged shell like clams, oysters, and scallops, though they have their own unique taste and texture.

Many restaurants around the world have mussel dishes on their menus, but they are also easy enough to prepare at home that the home cook can feel confident in their ability to create tasty mussel dishes to wow their friends and family. 

So what do mussels taste like? When they are properly prepared, mussels are slightly salty, like the ocean, and a little bit sweet with umami (savory) undertones. They should be tender, but slightly chewy and pair well with many delicious flavors. 

Read on to learn everything about how to properly cook mussels, what they taste like, and what flavors to pair them with. 

What Do Mussels Taste Like?

In this article we are talking specifically about saltwater mussels since most freshwater mussel species don’t taste great and aren’t as readily available to purchase. 

Since they are filter feeders, freshwater mussels can become concentrated sources of toxins and pollutants depending on the water they live in.

For that reason, we’ll focus on their oceanic cousins. They taste delicious and are readily available at most grocery stores

Saltwater mussels live in the ocean, so it should come as no surprise that they have a briny, salty flavor, not unlike oysters and clams.

They are also a little sweet, which complements that saltiness, and have umami, or savory, undertone. 

They don’t taste overwhelmingly fishy or salty and their delicate flavor profile makes them a great vehicle for everything from garlic to fennel to tomatoes to olive oil.

I’m going to share some complimentary flavors below, but generally mussels provide a great canvas for creativity in the kitchen.

What’s The Difference Between Blue, Black, And Green Mussels?

In terms of mussel flavor, the main difference between black and green mussels is intensity. Both of them are going to be salty, slightly sweet, and pack that subtle umami savoriness.

However, black or blue mussels are going to have a stronger flavor than their green counterparts

If you are looking for a milder flavor, then the green mussels are going to be your best option.

Black or blue mussels are going to give you a tangier punch of flavor, which will stand up well to strong flavors like garlic, shallots, and even coconut milk

Are Mussels Slimy?

One of the main mental blocks people can often have towards mussels is the belief that they are slimy and gooey. This belief could not be further from the truth.

When properly prepared mussels have a wonderfully soft but slightly chewy texture

They are a little firmer than scallops, but softer than clams so if you enjoy clams there’s a good chance you will love mussels too. 

The only time mussels really end up slimy is if you have cooked a mussel that has already gone off.

In order to prevent that from happening you will want to make sure all the mussels you are going to cook are still alive since cooking dead mussels leads to a slimy, unpleasant final product. 

The best way to do this is to sort through your mussels to make sure that all the shells are still closed. If you find any mussels with open shells you will want to discard them since that means they are not alive and will not be pleasant to eat. 

Are Mussels Rubbery?

Like many foods, when improperly prepared the texture can be off-putting. If you overcook your mussels they will end up rubbery and hard instead of soft and chewy.

Mussels don’t take too long to cook so you will want to keep a close eye on them while they cook. 

We’ll get into more detail below, but generally when you’re steaming mussels they will only take about five to seven minutes to cook.

You want to stop cooking the mussels as soon as their shells pop open to prevent them from getting rubbery and hard. 

What Do Mussels Smell Like?

There is a misconception that seafood should smell strong and fishy. When fresh, most seafood will have little smell at all and if it does it should be light and pleasant like the ocean or sea air.

Mussels are no exception to this rule. When they are fresh they should smell salty and fresh.

If your mussels have a strong fishy odor you will want to discard them. That scent means that your mussel is likely not fresh and won’t have a great flavor once you’ve prepared it. 

There’s nothing worse when you’re eating than working your way through a delicious bowl of mussels only to hit upon a slimy, stinky one.

So before you cook your mussels you will want to sort through them to remove any with open, chipped, or cracked shells or that have a strong fishy smell.

How To Buy Fresh Mussels 

Before you can take your mussels home to cook you will want to make sure you are buying the best possible quality that you can.

Since mussels are alive when you buy them, you will want to make sure they are cold and wet, but not submerged in water so that they can breathe.

Most grocery stores will keep their mussels on ice. If they only come in bags, you should open the bag to check the following criteria are met. 

  • All of your mussel shells should be fully closed. If you find one that is open, try giving it a very gentle tap against the counter. If the shell snaps shut then it is still alive and safe to eat. 
  • Avoid chipped or cracked shells. If you find a mussel with a chipped or cracked shell, discard it. 
  • They should smell fresh and salty like the ocean. If they smell strong and fishy, don’t buy them.
  • Bring a cooler bag and ice packs to keep them fresh. If you live more than a few minutes away from the grocery store make sure you come prepared. You don’t want your beautiful fresh mussels going off before you get home. 

How To Store Fresh Mussels 

Since mussels are used to living in the ocean they like being cold and wet. Ideally, you will be cooking with your mussels the same day that you buy them, but if you need to store them follow these steps to keep them fresh and healthy.

  • If they came in a mesh or net bag you can keep them in that original bag. If they are in plastic, remove them so they don’t suffocate
  • Place the mussels in a colander over a large bowl. This step will allow any liquid they release to drop to the bottom bowl to prevent suffocation. 
  • You can cover the colander with a damp cloth or paper towel then place it in the fridge. Never cover your mussels with plastic since they need to be able to breathe. 
  • Use your mussels within 1-2 days. Before you cook them, make sure you go through and remove any mussels that have died or opened during storage. 

How To Cook Mussels 

Cooking a basic mussel dish is incredibly simple. There are a few important steps you will want to take in preparation of cooking to ensure that your final dish is fresh, flavorful, and delicious. 

Step 1: Sort Through Your Mussels

  • Before you start cleaning and cooking your mussels you will want to sort through them to remove any that have gone off
  • Throw away any mussels that:
    • Smell strong or fishy
    • Have open shells 
    • Have cracked or chipped shells 

Step 2: Properly Clean Your Mussels

  • Do not clean your mussels until right before you are ready to cook them since this process can kill them.
  • Gently rinse your mussels one at a time under cool running water. You will want to scrub off any debris or sand. Keep the rest of the mussels in a bowl by the sink, then place the cleaned mussels in a colander.
  • Once your mussel is rinsed look for the beard. This is the hairy rope that the mussels grow on in the ocean. You will want to remove this beard by grabbing it and pulling it towards the clasp or narrow end of the mussel. 
  • The beard should come off if you tug it firmly. If it doesn’t, you can take a pair of scissors and chop the beard as close to the shell as possible. 

Step 3: Cook The Mussels 

Cooking the mussels is the easiest part of the whole process and the place where you can flex your creative muscles. In this section I will give a very basic outline and below you can see some great flavor combinations to try out. 

  • Find a large pot, like a stockpot, with a well-sealed lid. Since your mussels will take up about 1/3 more space once they open, you will want to err on the side of larger is better. 
  • Depending on what you choose to cook your mussels in, such as white wine and butter, you will want to put about 1 inch of the cooking liquid in the pot. You don’t want to use more than this since the purpose is to steam the mussels not boil them. Boiling can dry them out. 
  • Bring your water to a boil then add your mussels and put on the lid of the pot. 
  • Set a timer for 3 minutes. Once the timer goes off, give your mussels a stir and move the unopened shells to the bottom to help them cook. 
  • Place the lid back on the pot and set a time for another 2-4 minutes total
  • Remove your pot from the heat and remove any shells that haven’t opened. 
  • Serve your mussels with the delicious liquid from your pot and a side of crusty baguette to soak it all up. 
  • Enjoy!

What Flavors Go Well With Mussels? 

The different flavor options you can pair with mussels are virtually endless and include everything from a classic white wine cream sauce to a zesty Thai coconut broth. Read on to discover different flavors to enjoy: 

Classic White Wine Cream Sauce

Per 2 pounds of mussels:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil or butter
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
  • 2 small shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
  1. Heat a large saucepan over medium, add the olive oil garlic, and shallots. Saute for about 3-5 minutes until softened. 
  2. Add the white wine, cream, butter, and parsley and mix together.
  3. Add mussels, stir together, then cover the pot with a lid and steam for 5-7 minutes, until mussels are opened. 
  4. Remove your mussels from the heat and separate them into two bowls, dividing the sauce equally. 
  5. Serve with baguette for dipping or pour over pasta or rice. 

Mussels With Tomato And Fennel Sauce

Recipe for two pounds of mussels:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
  • 1 bulbs finely sliced fennel 
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/3 cup white wine or dry vermouth
  • 3 cups chopped tomatoes or one 29 oz. can
  • 2 teaspoons fresh tarragon, finely chopped 
  • 1/2 cup veggie or fish broth
  1. Heat a large stockpot over medium heat.
  2. Add olive oil and let it warm for about 30 seconds then add the garlic, fennel, and sea salt. 
  3. Stir together and then cover to soften for about 2-3 minutes
  4. Add the white wine, tomatoes, and tarragon and bring to a gentle boil over high heat. 
  5. Add the broth and mussels, stir together, then cover and let steam for 3-5 minutes. Check the mussels and remove any opened ones. 
  6. Recover and steam for another 2 minutes
  7. Remove from the heat and serve over pasta, rice, or with a loaf of baguette. 

Thai Mussels

Per 2 pounds of Mussels:

  • 1 inch of ginger, cut into matchsticks
  • 1 stalk of lemongrass, sliced into rounds
  • 1 Thai red chiles, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1.5 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup veggie or fish broth
  • Fresh lime to squeeze over at the end

Saffron Citrus Mussels

Per 2 pounds of Mussels:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • Orange zest from one orange
  • Lemon zest from one lemon
  • Fresh lemon squeezed at the end

Cilantro Lime Mussels

Per 2 pounds of Mussels:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 jalapeno, finely sliced
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup white wine 
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Zest and juice of a lime

How Many Mussels Should Be Served Per Person?

Mussels are a great choice for dinner parties since they are quick and easy to prepare. They are a crowd pleaser and super versatile in what flavors you can pair them with, so you can really show off your culinary skills. 

A general rule of thumb when serving mussels as an entree is to prepare about one pound of mussels per adult. Depending on how many people you’re serving you may need a couple of stockpots.

If you want to serve your mussels as an appetizer then aim for preparing about half a pound per adult. And don’t forget the crusty bread to soak up all the sauce. 

Up Next: What Does Swordfish Taste Like?

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