Steamed Mussels in Tomato Sauce

DinnerMusselSeafood

Fresh mussels steamed in tomato sauce and served over pasta is the ultimate comfort food! Luckily, fresh mussels are readily available these days AND they are easy to prepare.

Photography Credit: Nick Evans

One of my favorite comfort foods is a big bowl of mussels with crusty bread. If you’ve never had mussels before, they are like clams or oysters and have a briny flavor and firm, but creamy texture. Unlike clams or oysters, however, I’ve never eaten mussels raw and prefer them in a rich sauce.

Take this tomato sauce with bacon and wine, for example. This is one of those dishes that you might only think to order in a restaurant, but it’s actually very doable in a home kitchen! Let’s dig in and make some mussels.

How to Cook Mussels in Tomato Sauce - closeup of steaming mussels in cast iron pan

HOW TO SHOP FOR MUSSELS

Fresh mussels are readily available these days, but it’s important to check for freshness. Fresh mussels should be alive; their shells should be closed, or if they are slightly open, they should close if you tap them lightly.

You can always ask your fishmonger where they came from specifically and how long ago they were harvested. The mussels should smell fresh, like the ocean, but not fishy at all.

Mussels in Spicy tomato sauce recipe - closeup of mussel

HOW TO STORE AND CLEAN MUSSELS

Once you buy the mussels, you can keep them on ice in the fridge for a day or two without worry. Generally, I try to buy mussels the same day or the day before I’m planning on cooking them.

The only step you have to do to clean the mussels is to remove the “beard.” This is a tiny, almost furry piece that sticks out of the side of each mussel—it’s how they attach to rocks. It isn’t edible. (You can see it sticking out of the right-hand side of the musse in the photo above.)

Go through each mussel and just pull this off if you see it. It might not be on every single mussel, but it’s a good idea to check. Once you have removed the beards, rinse all the mussels with cold water; to get the mussels very clean, scrub them gently under cold water. Then they are ready to cook!

Mussels in Spicy tomato sauce recipe - overhead shot of spaghetti on plate with mussels on side

MAKING THE TOMATO SAUCE

This hearty tomato sauce has a lot going on, but to cut down on the cooking time, I’d recommend using a jarred marinara sauce rather than starting with canned tomatoes, which would require a longer simmer time to break down.

If you want to make a sauce from scratch, however, by all means go for it. Our basic tomato sauce should work great. You’re going to be adding to it, anyway!

Start the sauce with some bacon in a skillet and the fat will start to melt. Then add the garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, and cook for a minute.

Deglaze your pan with wine (or you can use vegetable or seafood stock) to scrape up any bits stuck to the pan and pour in the marinara. Bring the marinara mixture to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes over low heat.

Once the sauce has simmered, add all your cleaned mussels, cover the skillet, and let them steam for five minutes until they have all opened. Any mussels that haven’t opened after five minutes should be discarded.

Mussels in tomato sauce recipe - plate of spaghetti with mussels on side and fork

WHAT TO SERVE WITH MUSSELS

There are two options for serving these mussels.

  • Appetizer! Serve the sauce and mussels as a hearty appetizer with crusty bread. Use the bread to sop up the delicious sauce and people can scoop out as many mussels as they want. YUM.
  • Dinner! Cook and drain a pound of spaghetti, and add about 3/4 cup (or more) of marinara sauce from the skillet to the spaghetti and stir to combine. Divide the spaghetti among plates and then top with more sauce and mussels. Garnish the spaghetti with fresh parsley. It’s a real treat!

MUSSELS DO NOT MAKE GOOD LEFTOVERS

Mussels, unfortunately, don’t store well once they are cooked. I would plan on eating any leftovers in a day or two by gently reheating the sauce and mussels over low heat on the stovetop with a splash of water.

I wouldn’t freeze the sauce. Cooked frozen mussels are not a thing. Their texture gets mushy and they lose their fresh flavor.

LOVE BIVALVES? HERE ARE MORE RECIPES!

Steamed Mussels in Tomato Sauce Recipe

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 20 minutes
  • Yield: 6 servings

Cleaning mussels isn’t too hard—it just takes a little bit of time. Mussels have a tiny fuzzy thing that hangs out of one side. This is called the “beard” and isn’t edible. Pull it out from each mussel and then rinse the mussels well in cold water.

Ingredients

  • 4 strips bacon, chopped
  • 1/2 small white onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 cup white wine (optional)
  • 3 to 4 cups marinara sauce, store-bought or homemade
  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds mussels, scrubbed, debearded, rinsed and drained

For serving (optional):

  • 1 pound spaghetti, drained, if serving as a main course
  • Crusty bread, if serving as an appetizer
  • Fresh parsley

Method

1 Make the tomato sauce: Add chopped bacon to a large, deep skillet over medium-low heat. Cook bacon until it renders out fat and starts to get crispy, 5 to 6 minutes. Then add onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, and black pepper, and cook until onions soften and become translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Cook for another minute or two to soften the garlic and combine flavors. Then pour in the wine to deglaze the pan—this will release any stuck bits on the pan and help combine flavors. Cook for a minute and then pour in marinara sauce and stir. Bring the mixture to a simmer, turn heat down to low and simmer, partially covered, for 5 minutes.

How to Cook Mussels in Tomato Sauce bacon, onions, and garlic cooking in pan

2 Add the mussels and cook: Remove the lid and add all the mussels. Cover and shake the skillet gently. Cook mussels for 4 to 5 minutes, until they open. Discard any that do not open.

Spaghetti with mussels - mussels in pan of tomato sauce

3 Serve: Serve with crusty bread as an appetizer or over cooked pasta as a main course.

How to Cook Mussels in Tomato Sauce - spaghetti with sauce and mussels on plate

Leftover mussels and sauce: Mussels, like most seafood, don’t keep well for long as leftovers. The sauce and mussels are fine in the fridge for a day or two. Reheat them gently on the stove with a splash of water. I would not freeze this dish.

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Nick Evans

Nick has been writing delicious recipes for the home cook for almost a decade. He lives in Denver, CO and embraces a delicate balance of diaper changing, trail running and beer drinking. His website is Macheesmo and his first book is Love Your Leftovers.

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Mussels in tomato sauce recipe - overhead photo of mussels in cast iron pan with breadSteamed Mussels in Tomato Sauce