How to Eat Mussels Like You Know What You’re Doing

Want to learn how to eat mussels like a pro? We're shelling out all the expert tips.

A common listing on seafood restaurant menus, mussels are typically served swimming in mouthwatering broth. I love steamed mussels, especially served with crusty bread to sop up the extra goodness, but I don’t order them very often because learning how to eat mussels can be intimidating. The only edible part of the mussel is the meat inside, and the de-shelling process can seem a bit much.

News flash: It’s really not. Eating mussels is quite simple (similar to learning how to eat crawfish, oysters and lobster), and the end result (while messy) is full of flavor. “Some of the most delectable shellfish eating experiences require getting a bit messy,” says Cynthia Nims, a chef and the author of numerous seafood cookbooks, including Shellfish. “It’s part of the fun.”

We’ve asked the experts for their mussel-eating tips and the table manners and etiquette rules you should follow when diving into shellfish.

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What are mussels?

Mussels are mollusks, which is the same family of sea creatures as clams and oysters. They can live in salt water or fresh water and, like many of their shellfish cousins, should be alive right up until they are cooked.

As far as sustainable fish, mussels are near the top of the list. That’s because they don’t require any feed or fertilizer to grow and don’t really produce waste. That seafood fact also makes them very inexpensive (much cheaper than clams or shrimp).

How are mussels cooked?

Mussels take on delicate flavors, which is why steamed mussels are very common, especially cooked in white wine and garlic or tomato-based sauces. You can also find the shellfish in soups and stews or seafood pastas. When cooked, they taste faintly briny and have a firm yet melt-in-your-mouth texture.

A mussel has a hinge that keeps its shell together, and well-cooked mussels should open slightly. “Pay close attention to what the shells of the mussels look like when they arrive,” says Matt King, COO and brand president at Boston-based restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods. “If they’re still closed after cooking, it could be an indication that they weren’t cooked properly and should be discarded.”

If you’re cooking your mussels at home, make sure to remove the beards before you do so. “This tough, stringy material, also known as the byssal thread, is how the mussel attached itself to whatever its home base was as it grew,” says Nims. You don’t want to eat that.

How to eat mussels

“When you’re served a big, aromatic bowl of mussels in their shells, the only way to tackle them is hands-on,” Nims says. Here’s how to dig in.

At a restaurant

1. Pick up the mussel by the shell

Picking Up Mussels Gettyimages 1433594245 JveditThai Liang Lim/getty images

Yes, you will need to use your hands. Pick up the shell and hold it in your non-dominant hand. Trust us, it will make the next step easier.

2. Remove the meat

Eating Mussels With A Fork Gettyimages 136391874 JveditMonika Clarke Photography/getty images

“Use a fork to remove the meat,” says Nims. “Often, a smaller seafood fork will be provided. Another option is to use one of the empty mussel shells. After eating the meat from the first mussel, you can then use that shell like a mini pair of tongs, plucking the meat from the next mussel with the shell’s broad end.”

If you’re trying not to be annoying, King recommends using one of these methods before using your fingers to pull the meat out. “And try to avoid slurping,” he adds.

3. Eat the meat

fresh mussels peeled seafood meal on the table copy space food background rustica-lesa/Getty Images

Once you’ve pulled the bite-size meat out, it’s time to eat it. “Dip the meat into the broth or sauce provided for added flavor, and enjoy,” says King.

4. Discard the shell

Leftover seafood after dinner at a restaurant. empty mussel shells on a plate. Dirty dishesSvitlana Lutchenko/Getty Images

“You should be given a bowl in which you can put the empty shells as you work your way through the mussels,” notes Nims. If not, it’s not a sign of a bad restaurant, just ask for one! Conversely, if your table is too crowded for an extra bowl, you can try balancing your empty shells on the side of your plate, though the pile is going to grow quickly.

At home

“Since eating mussels is already a relatively casual experience, I don’t think there’s much difference in how to approach it at home versus in a restaurant,” says Nims. The only difference might be that you’re free to pull the meat out of the shell with your fingers—although, be careful, it is a bit slippery! Just remember to set the table with extra napkins.

You’re also free to go after the juices that are left in the bowl however you like, whether that’s dunking bread, slurping it off a spoon or drinking it straight from the bowl.

Now that you know how to eat mussels like a pro, learn how to eat with chopsticks and how to eat soup dumplings.

About the experts

Alyssa Sybertz
Alyssa Sybertz is a wellness and lifestyle writer and editor who covers food, cooking and science for Reader's Digest, Food & Wine, Southern Living, Allrecipes and more. An avid hiker and reader of romance, she is also the author of The OMAD Diet.