Tips On Debearding Mussels
Debearding mussels is almost always mentioned in any article about cooking mussels. While leaving the beards on may not necessarily be harmful, they are inedible and would generally be unattractive at the dinner table.
Debearding mussels is not terribly complicated. In most instances one can simply yank them off, although the beard fibers themselves are incredibly strong. In some instances a pair of pliers may have to be used to remove the beards. No matter how hard you pull, the fibers themselves will not usually break but simply become unattached from the shell of the mussel.
Chefs, cooks, and homemakers aren't the only ones interested in debearding mussels. Scientists are as well. Sometimes nature does things better than we do in spite of our many technological advances. Barnacles produce a cement that holds them to a surface that is stronger than any cement humans have developed. Mussel beards aren't necessarily stronger than anything man has produced, and certainly are not as strong as piano wire for instance, but the fibers have some amazing properties nevertheless.
Strong And Flexible - The beards serve to attach the mussel to a rock, piling, or whatever, and keep the mussel there in spite of strong currents or crashing waves. The beards, consisting of a combination of collagen (we have collagen our bodies) and iron, are not only hard and strong, but flexible as well. There are like a piano wire that stretches when pulled. This stretching capability makes the beard fibers much less likely to break in two when yanked. When a wave crashes against a piling housing a number of muscles, the shells, instead of being knocked away, simply are moved slightly as the beard stretches, and then return to their original position.
In any event, scientists are looking into how to replicate the fibers in these mussel beards. If synthesized, the resulting product could be used for anything from mountain climbing ropes to bullet-proof vests.
For most of us though, we simply want to debeard the mussels before tossing them into the water for cooking, and then discard the beards without a thought as to what wonderful inventions we could make if we understood their physical properties.
If you purchase mussels that come from a commercial farm, they probably won't have beards that need to be removed, but if you purchase wild mussels they usually have to be debearded. Debearding mussels, the wild ones, usually isn't done by a fishmonger, simply because debearding will sometimes kill the mussel, and no one wants to purchase, nor should they purchase, dead mussels.
Cooking (Debearded) Mussels - Needless to say, one should always purchase mussels that are alive (or have been cooked and then frozen). Mussels can be steamed, fried, baked, boiled, grilled, or broiled. No matter which way you choose, once their shell opens they're done and ready to eat. If the shell is open and won't close before you cook the mussel, it's dead and should be discarded. If it doesn't open while cooking, it’s either dead or a "sand" mussel, and also should be discarded. Mussels are commonly eaten out of the shell as either an appetizer or a main course (the larger New Zealand mussels are the preference of people wanting a larger piece of finger food), and also are combined with other seafood and shellfish in soups and chowders. Mussels can and are used in pasta dishes, and even in seafood omelets. Cooked mussels and fine white wines seem to be made for each other.
The next time you purchase some fresh mussels for cooking, and you get around to debearding them, give the beard a closer look. You'll come away with a better understanding as to what an engineering marvel those tiny fibers really are.