December 16, 2013 | Updated June 18, 2020
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I am generally not a fan of canned meats and fish. Very few of them are as good as fresh (olive oil-packed albacore being a notable exception), and many go from wonderful to foul when punished by the rigors of the pressure-canning process. None in my experience suffer more than smoked mussels.
Mussels are delicate little creatures. Oddly shaped, they seem to be conjured from some as-yet-unknown Georgia O’Keefe painting. Eaten as soon as they pop their shells, they are wonderful bar food.
Messy, briny, usually studded with bits of garlic and greenery, accompanied by lots of beer or wine, a crust of bread to soak up the broth — eating mussels is only slightly less primal than sitting around cracking crabs or peeling crawdads.
But put mussels in a can and you wreck everything that’s lovely about them: Usually smoked, these sad morsels lose their delicacy and become chalky outlines of their former selves. I’ve hated them since I was a teenager.
Hated them so much I avoided smoked mussels wherever I found them. Until now.
Mussel season in California is open from November to April, and I try to make it early in the season, when the mussels are fat.
Both California mussels, Mytilus californianus, and the non-native blue mussel, Mytilus edulis, are all over the coast, waiting to be picked if you have a fishing license. But don’t ask me for my spot; I am not telling.
And as a side note, if you live in California you must call 800 553 4133 before you pick — this hotline lets you know if there are any quarantines, as there is in one of my spots right now. Eating quarantined mussels can kill you, so don’t forget that phone call…
But before I did anything with the mussels, I needed to clean them. If you buy mussels in the store, you need not do this. But wild mussels are not the cleanest things to work with. Here’s what I do:
- Pull them from the rocks by hand and knock off as many barnacles, limpets, etc as I can. I then wash the mussels in seawater before putting them into a 5-gallon bucket. When I am ready to go home, I fill the bucket about two-thirds of the way full of seawater and cover the mussels with it.
- When I am home, I get a large lidded container (I use a big tupperware thingie) and set a sieve over it. I line the sieve with a paper towel and pour some seawater through it. This removes some grit and debris I’d inadvertently brought home. Arrange the mussels in the container and let them purge for a day or two. Yes, mussels have grit in them. Not as much as clams, but they still do.
- When they are ready, I scrub them under running water to get any more debris, etc, off them. Some barnacles and such won’t come off, but that’s not a big deal. This is important: Leave the byssal threads, the beards, on the mussels until right before you cook them. Pulling the beard off can kill the mussel.
Once your mussels are ready to rock, I steam them open in small batches, removing each one just as it pops open. When they are all open (toss those that don’t open), strain the liquid in the pot through a paper towel or cheesecloth and reserve.
Use a small, sharp knife to remove all the mussels — I try to get the little “scallop” muscle that keeps the mussel in its shell, too — and drop them into the strained broth.
Now you smoke the mussels for a couple hours, then toss them in some really good oil. Voila! A masterpiece.
You can just sit there and eat them, as I did, or you can make a seafood salad with them, add the smoked mussels to pasta or rice, set them out as a party appetizer or whatever. If you make too many, please don’t pressure can them. I vacuum sealed my extras and froze them. Thawed, they are almost as good as fresh.
- 4 pounds mussels
- 1 cup dry vermouth or white wine
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 cup high quality olive oil or other oil such as walnut or hazelnut
- Make sure all the mussels are clean. You can debeard them now or do as I do and cut the beard off after I'd steamed the mussels. Bring the vermouth and water to a boil and add some mussels in a single layer. Cover and steam until they are open, which should take between a minute and 3 minutes. Move opened mussels to a bowl or baking sheet and add more fresh ones until you've steamed open all the mussels.
- Strain the cooking liquid through a paper towel or cheesecloth (to remove all the debris) into a bowl. Set aside.
- Use a small, sharp knife to remove the mussels from the shells, trying your best to get the little "scallop" muscle that holds the mussel in its shell -- it's tasty! Use the knife to cut off the beard if you have not done so already. When it's done, drop each mussel into the strained broth. Make sure all the mussels soak for at least 20 minutes.
- Fire up the smoker. I use alder wood, and I like the temperature to be around 145°F. Keep in mind mussels are small, so you will need a pretty fine grate to prevent them from falling through. I use dehydrator grates. Smoke the mussels for 90 minutes to 2 hours -- you don't need a whole lot of time here, just enough to get a smoky flavor without overcooking the mussels. Don't let the smoker get too hot!
- When they are done, toss the mussels in the oil and eat, or store in a glass jar in the fridge for up to a week. Freeze what you don't eat.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
For the love of wild food, please don’t perpetuate the wasteful myth that unopened mussels need to be thrown out!
It’s a well known fallacy started by an English food writer, Jane Grigson back in 1973 and has absolutely no basis but has caused and still causes a MASSIVE amount of waste every year.
If they were alive when you got them, they are almost certainly fine!
If they smell fine, they are fine! (just sniff each one after you scrub them before cooking)
If they stink – don’t eat them. Simple as that.
Some open – some don’t, it has no bearing on their edibility.
This is correct. I asked a mussel farmer once, who confirmed it’s a myth. He said pretty much what you said, ie. Some open, some don’t, just use the sniff test.
The only thing I’d add is it’s important you do the sniff test BEFORE you cook them. The smell and taste of a rotten mussel is ghastly and will ruin your dish.
As someone who normally checks here first, since I had store bought mussels I did not. I have some I steamed in wine etc yesterday on the smoker and some I started on the smoker. Steam first or they separate and get stringy. I have a pic of them side by side
why would you not smoke them open.
Runplestitskin: Because, in my opinion, it makes them too smoky. But there is not reason not to if you like a very smoky oyster.
thanks Sonny, just back from holiday on east coast of New Zealand North Island, we fish and dive, sea permitting. Anyway have been experimenting with brining and smoking fish and mussels. OMG home smoked mussels to die for. I didn’t brine the mussels, as wanted to do a bit of research first, so thanks for your recipe I will give it a go. One thing though how do you stop the outer lip of the mussel from being so chewy or hard to digest after smoking
Linda: Don’t smoke them too hard. The brine helps, too.
1/ cup dry white wine, 1/2 cup Olive oil, season salt pepper Garlic and a sprig of rosemary.1/2 cup brown sugar. let sit in brine after cooked. sit for 1 hour then smoke em
Same way I prepare them. But I let the brine age with the mussels in it then let Semi dry and then cold smoke two hours. Wonderful Pacific Mussel
Hank, have you ever experimented with freshwater mussels? There are several large species that are plentiful in Ohio ‘ s lakes and ponds – I’ve often thought about smoking some, but never have….
Dan: No. They are often protected species, and are even more often LOADED with toxins they filter in from the environment. I know Indians used to eat them, but that was before industry wrecked our streams and rivers.
Since you cook these prior, I wonder if they would be good candidates for cold smoking? I’ve rediscovered my old Pro-Q cold smoker recently for cheese (so much better than usual commercial “smoked” cheese), and if you cooked, chilled, and then cold smoked them on a refrigerator-cold day (if you have those in California!), you might get a purer woodsmoke flavor without any additional cooking. But I don’t know, the hot-smoking method might impart some nice additional flavors / browning. I usually get very little colouration from cold-smoking (vs hot-smoking).
Nic: The hot smoke isn’t overly hot, so I bet a cold smoke would work fine.
You got some amazing recipes on here and I have enjoyed following your recipes.
Just needed to know on the storage life as I have a restaurant and would love to make them and store it away. Is it a week in the fridge and longer in the freezer if so how long can they be kept? if there is any preserve that could be used to extend its shelf life please do let me know.
Bobby: A week in the fridge is about right. In the freezer maybe a month or two.
Alexandre: No salt needed. The brine that comes out of the mussels is enough.
No salt/ When do you put it?
This is OUTSTANDING. Just pulled ’em off the smoker! Dang, they’re good! Doing the pure version with just olive oil for this maiden voyage, might play with adding some spices in the future. Thank you, Hank!!
Thanks they were yum, hey try them in tin foil with garlic butter, chilli cumin, parsley, curry powder & red capiscum, wrap them uncooked in shells about 10 at a time & do them on a hoy BBQ for 7 mins per side, yum! Mussels very cheap in NZ & Aussie, very spoiled we are.
Shane, YOu mentioned about getting them to purge the grit. When they are still alive put them in a bucket of water mixed with cornmeal. they will purge the sand and retain the cornmeal. Sometimes you have to switch from water to cornmeal solution a few time but generally after 2-3 swap outs there is no grit. Hope that helps.
I just tried this for the first time. I did two things slightly differently. I used an aquarium bubbler in the bucket to keep the water oxygenated for the few days before smoking. And I have beehive and more honey than I know what to do with, so I made a honey salt brine to soak them in for a few hours before smoking. And the smoke was plum wood chips and dried banana leaves. Insanely delicious! Some do still have a little grit in them though. I gotta figure out how to get them to purge that grit.
Amber, I live in Minnesota and Costco usually sells live Canadian mussels (5 lbs bags) for $1.99/lb! Be careful with the freshwater ones. A lot of them are endangered (at least here they are) https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/rsg/filter_search.html?mussel=Y&allstatus=Y&action=doFilterSearch
Oh dear. I love mussels and clams. But I live in the Midwest, and they’re so expensive. Maybe this summer I can get some freshwater ones.
Thank you, Hank. I am so doing this on my BGE. I can get a great deal on farmed mussels at Costco, which they unfortunately plastic wrap. Doesn’t that kill them faster?