Ina Garten's Flour Hack To Clean Sandy Mussels

If the late Anthony Bourdain scared you from eating mussels after his "Kitchen Confidential" tell-all cautioned that some chefs don't properly clean and prepare shellfish, it's time to enjoy the popular seafood dish again. Especially when you know that the delicious mollusks can be prepared at home after a bit of cleaning, made easier with a flour hack courtesy of Ina Garten.

Indispensable to our waterways, mussels are filter feeders that can be filled with sand and grow a "beard," a fibrous membrane that anchors them in the water. They require some prep work before cooking but, trust us, the effort is worth the final results. In Garten's cookbook, "Cook Like A Pro," the Barefoot Contessa shares a tip that thoroughly removes any pesky sand stuck in the bivalve so you aren't left with a gritty, unpleasant bite when you dig in.

According to Garten, scrub the mussels with a wire brush to remove any barnacles, seaweed, or mud attached to the shell. Ensure all the mussels are alive by squeezing any open shells to see if they close on their own. Any mussels that remain open are dead and should be discarded. Then, place the scrubbed mussels in a large bowl covered with cold water. Add a few tablespoons of flour, and allow the mussels to soak in the starchy bath.

After 30 minutes, any residual sand inside the mussels will be released, sinking to the bowl's bottom. Rinse the cleaned mussels with fresh water, and you're ready to cook them.

Tips for purchasing mussels

Like other fish, mussels should smell like the ocean, have an intact shell, and be wet. Avoid purchasing anything that smells fishy. It can be tricky to figure out how many pounds of mussels to purchase since most of the weight is derived from the shell, which is inedible. Depending on the recipe, a 2-pound bag of P.E.I. mussels can fill a stock pot but only deliver enough food to feed two to four people. 

The more commonly sold black mussel yields less meat than the other green variety. They contain about 4 ounces of meat in one pound. You can expect roughly 20% of the total weight to be meat in black mussels, whereas it's closer to 50% for green mussels. For a main course, purchase 1 to 1.5 pounds of mussels in the shell per person you're feeding. Cut that number in half for appetizers and starters.

Most mussels sold are farm-raised, but some fishmongers will offer wild-caught. Both fresh options are better than frozen, but farm-raised tend to be easier to clean. These mussels are attached to a rope submerged in the ocean, unlike wild mussels, which grow on the bottom of the sea or on rocks where they collect a lot of sand. In addition, farm-raised mussels spend time in a tank before heading to the market, so they already spit out most of their grit. Farm-raised mussels still require some cleaning and rinsing, but you can expect less debris, which cuts down on prep time. 

Preparing mussels to enjoy at home

Once home, mussels can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days. Remove all packaging so they can breathe, and place the mussels in a colander in a large bowl to catch drips on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Loosely cover the shellfish with a damp towel to keep them moist. 

There are many ways to prepare mussels for dinner, using different liquids and herbs. Steaming them on the stovetop quickly delivers a delicious meal in less than 20 minutes. To do so, saute aromatics like garlic, fennel, and onion in a large stock pot, and add seasonings like paprika, curries, or chili flakes to taste. You'll also want to use a flavorful liquid like wine, beer, or stock for building the broth. Once boiling, place a lid on the pot to trap the steam and cook until the shells open, roughly five minutes. 

It's important to give the mussels a good stir to distribute the liquid and seasonings and to check that they have opened; if not, return the lid and steam them for another minute or two. But just be sure to avoid overcooking the mussels, as they will get hard and chewy. Also, discard any mussels that failed to open. When you're ready to serve, do so with lots of crusty bread to sop up the delicious broth.