Debearding Mussels: Do I Really Have to Do That?

There are certain labor-intensive recipe phrases that can make the most diligent cook roll her eyes. "Do I really have to do that?" we wonder. Leave your Do I Really Have To Do That? questions in the comments and they shall be answered, saving us all a lot of needless trouble.

With prices as low as $1.99 for a sustainable seafood option, we should all be scooping up mussels and making easy bistro-style meals at home, right? Only one thing stands between us: the beard. If you've cleaned mussels you know what a pesky task it can be. What would happen if we just didn't pluck that hairy bit off?

"I've certainly tasted it when I didn't do a good job of debearding," Chef John Ash said via email. "No flavor really, just a bunch of inedible fibers."

Now here's the best news we've heard all week: "Farmed mussels don't need debearding because they are grown in bags and don't need rocks," Ash explained. Huzzah! The beard, called a byssus if you want to get technical, attaches mussels to their under-the-sea hangouts, like the ocean floor and rocks. Cultivated mussels grown in bags still naturally secrete the fibers, but far less than wild mussels. No rocks, no beard (for the most part).

Steamed mussels at Flex Mussels in Charlottetown, PEI. The majority of mussels available in North American supermarkets are farmed mussels from Prince Edward Island (what's up, Anne Shirley!) with smooth blue-black shells and a delicate flavor. Wild mussels look the part with rough shells, often with barnacles still attached, and thick beards; they have a strong, almost gamey flavor. So while wild seafood is often the better option, the opposite is true for farmed mussels. They show up on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Green List, meaning they are healthy and not harmful to the oceans. Snatch up those bags at the supermarket and have a moules frites party!

When shopping, look for tightly closed shells. Store mussels in the fridge, loosely covered, for up to a day. When you're ready to cook, sort through your haul and discard mussels with chipped or broken shells. If you find open shells, gently tap them. If they snap shut, they're still alive; toss any that remain open. Remove any beards you may find by grasping the fibers between your thumb and forefinger and pulling toward the hinge of the mussel. "You need to be sure to cook mussels soon after cleaning, because removing the beard kills them," Ash said. Because they are stored in tanks that help them flush out grit and impurities, mussels don't need to be soaked in a bowl of water before cooking.

Final verdict: No, you don't really have to debeard mussels, and the beard isn't harmful if you accidentally eat some. Now go forth and steam!

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