Mussels in White Wine Sauce
One of my favorite seafoods is Mussels. They have just about everything going for them – they are delicious to start with. That is an absolute necessity. But they are also super easy to cook, remarkably healthy, and relatively inexpensive (as far as seafoods go).
Growing up on the Atlantic coast in New England, they were everywhere. Every piling to every pier was crusted with mussels. The rocks along the waterlines were thick with them. And if a boat sat too long without moving – the mussels and the barnacles would fight to see who could fill the space quickest.
But as a child, never did I consider them food. Mussels were an annoyance, not a food. In my home, if we had shellfish it was clams. I still eat clams occasionally, but what I really prefer is mussels, which are no longer an annoyance.
It was the Elegant Baker who introduced me to mussels as a food. Many years ago, she asked me if I liked them and I confessed I’d never tried them. So she made me a batch. Delightful! The way she made them that first time is still my go to favorite. Sure, I enjoy them other ways like with chorizo and in a nice Linguini con Cozze e Vongole (which mixes mussels and clams). Be we keep returning to her version.
Her first recipe of mussels in white wine sauce was so simple in its elegance. The mussels, some shallots, garlic fresh thyme and white wine. Five ingredients. 10 minutes to cook. Something so good from so simple.
I wasn’t yet a chef when I first met the Elegant Baker. In the years since then I’ve come to learn that she was making a version of Moules Marinières, a classic French dish. Now I add a bit of parsley for garnish, but the basic recipe is still the same.
Mussels are quite popular in the European Mediterranean. Spain, France and Italy account for two thirds of all mussel production and nearly eighty percent of consumption in Europe Not only that, some of the earliest techniques for mussel farming were developed in France all the way back in the 13th century. It is no surprise that a dish so easy to make is popular among the locals.
Although cooking mussels is easy, there are a few things you should know before you start. First is when is the best time to eat mussels? There is an old saw that mussels are best in a month that has an “R” in its name. No – that’s not a pirate joke. It’s a reflection that mussels are best when the water is cooler. So avoid mussels in the hottest months of the year -June, July and August. (Of course in the souther hemisphere the months are different but the concept is the same)
How about how to buy mussels? Most mussels that you buy will be farm raised. Farm raising mussels is highly sustainable, and actually has benefits to the surrounding waters (unlike other aquaculture, which can be harmful to its environment) Farm raised mussels also create a more consistent quality mussel. When purchasing, you want them to be closed, and not smell very fishy. Sometimes, the mussel will have a ‘beard’ (like below). Just tug firmly to remove the beard – its not for eating.
Mussels in White Wine Sauce Safety
When making Mussels in White Wine Sauce, there are a few key safety things to know too. It is important that the mussels is still alive before you cook them. If they are dead before cooking, there is a strong likelihood they’ve given off a toxin that can make you ill (not fun – I assure you)
The good news is that it is easy to tell a live from a dead mussel. If the shell is opened before cooking – it’s likely dead. Tap it gently on the countertop and wait about 30’seconds. If it closes back up – your good to go. If it doesn’t – toss it out. It’s no good.
In the photos below, you can see two mussels from my batch that were open when I brought them home. After taking a ‘before’ photo, I gently tapped each of them against the counter top and waited about 30 seconds. As you can see in the ‘after’ photo, the mussel on the top remained open, and had to go. The one on the bottom closed up, and ended up in our meal.
In my experience you’ll usually get one or two “baddies” in a pound. Just discard them. Better safe than sorry.
The last safety “tip” is after you cook them – only eat the ones that open up. If it doesn’t open, it was probably dead before you cooked it so again better safe than sorry.
Cooking Mussels in White Wine Sauce
Let’s consider the right wine to use. Many recipes call for “dry” white wines. Good choices include a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio. Personally I don’t care for Pinot Grigio, so I tend towards the Sauvignon Blanc. And ultimately that is the point – use a wine you like and like to drink. Because whatever wine you use will become the predominant flavor of your broth. of wine to use.
So with all that covered, let’s get down to cooking. This dish is so simple. It also goes quick so have all your ingredients ready and handy. Start with a skillet large enough to hold all the mussels (or a large pot if your making a really big batch). You also need to be sure you have a lid to cover the pan with.
Set the skillet over medium high heat and add the olive oil. Let the olive oil just begin to shimmer and add the chopped shallots. Stir to keep them from burning and after about 30 seconds, add the garlic and continue to stir.
Add the thyme sprigs and let just become fragrant. Moving quickly, add all the mussels and give the pan a gentle shake to even then out. Then add 1 cup of the white wine of your choice. Cover the pan and turn the heat up to medium high. Let the wine come to a simmer and cook the mussels for about 3 minutes.
After three minutes carefully lift the lid check on the mussels. They should all be wide open now and the meat inside should be easily visible. If that’s what you got – your done. Remove from heat. If not cover and cook an extra 30 seconds to a minute.
Some recipes call for you to remove the mussels from the broth and keep warm while you finish the sauce. Finish means adding butter and flour to create more of a thickened sauce. I just don’t find that necessary. I’ve done it, and it is delicious, but to me it adds unnecessary steps and the improvement isn’t great enough to be worth it. A reasonable ‘compromise” is to whisk about a tablespoon of cold butter into the broth for a bit of thickening and richness.
To eat the mussels has the potential to be messy. Be sure to have a bowl handy for the empty shells and keep some napkins handy. You can use a fork to pull the mussels out of the shells, or even your fingers. I use the top of the mussel as a sort of spoon to scoop the mussel from the lower half of the its shell.
My favorite way to serve Mussels in White Wine Sauce is in a bowl with a sprinkle of parsley. Be sure to pour some of the broth over them as well. And you can’t forget a nice crusty baguette to sop up that delicious broth.
Mussels in White Wine Sauce
- 2 TBS extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
- 3 cloves garlic roughly chopped
- 1 shallot roughly chopped
- 2 lbs mussels scrubbed and debeared
- 6 – 8 oz white wine Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio
- 3 -4 sprigs fresh thyme
- fresh ground black pepper to taste
- 2 TBS fresh parsley rough chopped
- 4 – 6 thick slices, baguette or country style bread toasted
- Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat
- Add shallot and saute until beginning to turn translucent
- Add garlic, stirring until fragrant. About 1 minute
- Add mussels and thyme sprigs directly to the hot pan
- Add white wine and bring to a simmer. Season with pepper
- Cover and cook until mussels are open, about 3 minutes
- Add a quick drizzle of olive oil, and top with parsley
- Discard any mussels that don't open
- Scoop mussels into serving bowls, garnish with parsley, and pour over about half of the white wine broth
- Serve with toasted baguette