Real Food Encyclopedia | Blue Mussels

There are a lot of mussel species out there, but the most common type in markets and on restaurant menus in North America is the humble Mytilus edulis, the blue mussel. Found around the world along temperate coasts, blue mussels have been eaten by humans for thousands of years and are particularly popular in Europe. Native people along America’s coasts were known to have eaten them, and the Pilgrims depended on mussels in their difficult first years along the coast of shellfish-rich Cape Cod Bay. However, blue mussels didn’t become popular in US kitchens until World War II, when the US Government pushed canned mussels on a nation eagerly trying to avoid food shortages. In the 1970s, mussel aquaculture got its start in North America, and the mussel’s popularity continues to grow in the US.

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Fun Facts about Blue Mussels:

  • The United States imports 90 percent of its blue mussels, primarily from Canada and New Zealand.
  • Orange-tinted mussel meats are mature females, while the ivory-colored meats are males and immature females.
  • The byssal threads on mussels (the little “beard” that you remove before eating them) that are used to attach the animals to wave-swept rocks are so strong that scientists are using them as inspiration to create adhesives that don’t require formaldehyde, a human carcinogen.
  • While wild mussels can live upwards of 24 years in the wild, when farmed they are harvested at just two to three years. 

What to Look for When Buying Blue Mussels

While you can buy them canned, there’s no replacement for fresh mussels. Like oysters or clams, fresh mussels mean live mussels. Find sacks of mussels (usually two pounds worth) sitting on ice in your favorite market and take a moment to see if there are many open, broken shells. If many of the shells are open or cracked, take a pass. Most importantly, the mussels should smell fresh — like seawater — never fishy.

Sustainability of Blue Mussels

Aquaculture in ocean waters has earned a bad rap, most of it deserved. However, shellfish aquaculture is different: It’s not just a sustainable way to produce food — it can be beneficial to the surrounding environment.

Growing mussels on ropes submersed in coastal waters is one of the most environmentally-friendly forms of aquaculture. The mussels don’t require feed because they filter their food (phytoplankton) from the water. There are few examples of disease outbreaks among farmed mussels, which means that the farms have little impact on the surrounding environment. Farmed mussels even help to reduce greenhouse gasses, because they remove carbon dioxide from the ocean as they form their shells.

A single mussel filters up to 10 gallons of water per day as it feeds on phytoplankton, and they can improve water quality by reducing the amount of toxins and excess nutrients in coastal waters. However, mussels for human consumption must be grown in a healthy environment, free of harmful toxins that can present health risks. Aquaculture farms are regulated and inspected, so you can feel confident that while the shellfish you are eating are likely helping to reduce excess nutrients, they’re not filtering out chemicals and toxins.

Blue Mussel Seasonality

Blue mussels are available all year, although they peak in winter and early spring when their meat is largest. Production slows somewhat during the summer months when mussels spawn and their meat thins.

Blue Mussels and Geography

While about 700,000 pounds of farmed mussels were produced in the US in 2013, Canada dominates the market. In 2011 the country exported nearly 30 million pounds of mussels to the US, about 80 percent of which was grown in Prince Edward Island (aka, PEI). Eastern Canada is, of course, home to long, cold winters, so farmers there must plan for harvesting in frozen bays. They use GPS markers to find mussel-encrusted ropes which are hauled up by winches after workers break through the ice with chainsaws and special blades. 

Blue mussels can be harvested in the wild or they can be farmed; however, most mussels that we eat in the US are farmed. Mussel farming is most often done by “seeding” young mussels on ropes or rafts, but some farmers form beds of mussels on the ocean floor. Unlike oyster farming which often requires hatcheries, to seed mussels all farmers have to do is lower some frayed rope or plastic mesh into the water column to provide a place for some of the billions of mussel larva already swimming around in late spring to settle down and grow. By fall, once they have grown to about an inch in length, they are removed from the ropes, sorted by size and then stuffed like sausages into long socks which are placed back into the water. Over a few months, the mussels work their way out of the socks in their never-ending quest for food, causing the socks to collapse into thin ropes in the center of the all the mussels. After two years, the mussels are about two to three inches in length and are ready to be pulled up and harvested.

Eating Blue Mussels

Storing Blue Mussels

Just like other shellfish, you want to keep your mussels alive and kicking right up until you cook them. Keep them cold and damp (not wet!) by storing them in the fridge in a bowl covered with a damp cloth or paper towel. You can keep them like that for a couple of days — just make sure that before you cook them they smell like a pleasant day at the ocean, not a sad day at a rotting seaweed-covered beach. After you cook them, you can store mussels in the freezer for three to four months (chowder for later!) by removing them from the shells, placing them in an air-tight container and covering them completely with the broth you used for cooking. 

Cooking with Blue Mussels

While there are many ways to serve mussels, simplicity often works best. Your best bet is to steam them — and be sure to get creative with your liquid of choice. Wine? Beer? Vermouth? Plain old water and lemon juice? All great options! Make it fancier by trying the classic French Moules Marinieres or get creative by making mussels with linguini. You can even pickle mussels!

Blue Mussel Nutrition

Blue mussels are highly nutritious. They are a particularly rich source of Vitamin B-12, manganese and selenium. They also provide a significant amount of your recommended daily iron and zinc intake. A three-ounce serving provides 40 percent of your daily recommended protein needs, and most of the fat is in the form of heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Mussels are also a decent source of antioxidants and omega-3s.