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advice about eating mussels

henri cat Aug 8, 2008 10:07 AM

When I lived in Maine, I was told that you shouldn't eat mussels that don't open when they are cooked, because that indicates that the mussel was dead before it was cooked. My husband disregards this rule, and so far he is still alive. Is this just an old wive's tale or is there good reason to avoid unopened mussels?

  1. j
    John Francis Feb 26, 2013 09:23 AM

    It depends on how long the mussel has been dead and which bacteria have made the corpse their home and food supply. I'd rather not find out.

    1. jrvedivici Feb 26, 2013 05:42 AM

      This entire thread is kind of silly to me. Obviously there are "old wives tales" in the world then there are things that are based in some form of reality.

      From the couple of dozen responses there isn't one person that is ever claiming to have gotten sick from eating only opened muscles, correct? Yes, there are a few claiming to eat or have eaten unopened muscles and have been fine, however in 99% of cases where people get sick it's from eating non-open ones.

      Like anything there are several mitigating factors but primarily in my opinion it's the length they have been dead prior to cooking. Also, people might be considering not open one's which do not open widely and still need to be pried open with a fork to get to the meat. If the shell is cracked open at all....if the seal is broken that is considered "open" it doesn't have to be wide open as we are more trained to associate with being properly cooked.

      Bottom line to me is simply this.......there are thousands of people who have been struck by lightening and are here to tell the tale about it. Does that mean I'm going to walk through a thunderstorm holding an open umbrella.......NO!

      1. b
        bobzta Feb 25, 2013 06:41 PM

        i think the dead part depends on how long theyve been dead...obviously ya wouldnt want to eat em if theyd been dead for days or weeks, luckily the shop bought ones are usually only a day traveling away from the boats that caught them but the bigger question is why eat one of natures filtering devices, Im sure too much shell fish in the diet could give you some kind of illness or upset stomach personally I enjoy those small bite sized mussels sprinkled on top of scrambled eggs its bewdiful!! :)

        1. s
          SeafoodHK May 9, 2012 12:21 AM

          As a seafood importer that has been importing a ton of live mussels a week for the last 18 years I can tell you the old adage of not eating cooked mussels that do not open is bunk. It's simply not true. Here are a couple links to Australian articles recently published:



          2 Replies
          1. re: SeafoodHK
            JuniorBalloon May 9, 2012 08:47 AM

            The study in the ABC article is from 2002 and apparently has never been repeated or peer reviewed. Do you have any other links?


            1. re: JuniorBalloon
              SeafoodHK May 9, 2012 04:41 PM

              I don't know about studies as such but if you Google the subject you'll find plenty of people I'm much more concerned about oysters. Even some closed oysters can be dodgy. I've spit plenty of those out.


              FYI - Mussels can definitely make you sick. If you cook mussels which are already dead they will make you sick.......and they'll be open.

          2. l
            Lister of Smeg Feb 9, 2010 05:53 PM

            The myth seems to have been started by the English food writer, Jane Grigson in her 1973 publication, Fish Book. The exact quote is: "Throw away any mussels that refuse to open."

            Nick Ruello is a mussel expert and fisheries biologist and he was commissioned to write a report for Seafood Services Australia, on the rather specific topic of adding value to mussels. Along the way, he cooked and ate over 30 batches of mussels, of various sizes, ranging from 21 to 111 mussels.

            Nick Ruello found he found that some 11.5 per cent of mussels remained closed after a so-called "normal" cooking time. When he forced them open with a knife, every single one was both adequately cooked and safe to eat.


            3 Replies
            1. re: Lister of Smeg
              Barf Jul 1, 2010 03:05 AM

              Lister of Smeg, there is a different take on some of that. To begin with there is a saying the British have that goes back way before 1973, maybe centuries: "Never cook a mussel that is open or eat one that is closed". Of course I was told this after I thought I would surely perish at Heathrow airport. The doctor asked what I had eaten and I told him about the mussels the night before. When he saked if I ate any closed ones I told him I did because they are always the plumpest and he said: "all dead things tend to swell up, don't they?"

              As for not cooking the open ones, that may not always be the case. I was buying mussels at Pike Place in Seattle and when I kept refusing the open ones the vendor showed me a trick. He used one mussel to peck on the side of an open one and the open one closed. Thus, it was alive and could be bought and cooked. Had it not closed he said he would have thrown it away.

              I've never again been sick from mussels by following the rule and the advise. But, no matter how good the restaurant or my hostess, I never eat mussels served on the half shell because I can't apply either the rule or the trick.

              1. re: Barf
                sammyseal Nov 5, 2010 05:37 AM

                I have just had the worst time ever,had mussles on wednesday 3rd november asa treat as ive been getting over a kidney infection,by 3am thursday was in agony,so assumed enfection was back.Once at hospital was so sick,never in my life have i been so bad,this went on for hours.In the end the doctor said although i still hada kiney infection this wasnt the problem,he ran a test on my sick yuk,to find it was from eating bad mussles,So after that exsperiance,and i tell you i still feal sick now,i wont risk ordering mussles,i will just cook them at home.

                1. re: Barf
                  weezycom Nov 5, 2010 12:40 PM

                  I didn't know about the shell tapping trick. When I buy them in the sack and sitting on ice at the store, many are open a little bit. When I throw them in a pan of tap water to clean them, I can hear them snapping shut. At that point, I discard any that didn't close up and clean & cook the rest. However, using this method, about half the mussels dislodge from the shell during cooking (my theory is the freshwater shock causes it and I eat them without worry). Maybe 1-2 don't open at all and I discard them.

              2. p
                phantomdoc May 25, 2009 02:42 PM

                Let's not make this an old/young widows tale. Tell him to throw away any unopened mussels.

                1 Reply
                1. re: phantomdoc
                  Buddernut May 27, 2009 01:42 AM

                  When I order mussels at a restaurant, some of the little guys are loose in the bottom of the serving bowl and for the most part, the shells are wide open, so I assume the mussel got dislodged during the cooking, stirring, seasoning and plating process. But now I wonder about the shells that I've come across that are open about 1/4" and no mussel inside. Could it have been a dead one that fell out after cooking?? How would you ever know if you ate a dead one at a restaurant? I am careful when I cook them myself.....but you never know what you are being served out there in restaurant land.

                2. c
                  Cinnamon May 24, 2009 10:28 AM

                  Adjunct question: Are they definitely dead when they do open? I don't want any surprises and I doubt a living mussel would either.

                  1. o
                    orourkemeister May 24, 2009 06:18 AM

                    I've heard all those stories about not eating mussels that don't open as they might make you sick. Then I started working in hospitality. The rule in the kitchen is, if they don't open when you cook 'em, open 'em with a knife. If they're look all wrinkly and shriveled they're not safe to eat. If however they are juicy and plump (but the shell just didn't open) they are safe to eat. I've lived by that for years and not once have i been sick (or felt even slightly ill).
                    Happy eating folks.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: orourkemeister
                      Zeldog May 26, 2009 07:24 PM

                      I guess unopened but plump means they are "freshly dead" like in The Princess Bride.

                    2. Caroline1 Aug 10, 2008 12:49 PM

                      Apparently your husband loves playing Russian Roulette! The risk is not worth the cost of losing.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Caroline1
                        Passadumkeg May 26, 2009 07:16 AM

                        Henri, triple hubbie's life insurance.

                      2. g
                        gafferx Aug 10, 2008 09:48 AM

                        I've eaten ones that did not open but looked OK. Never had a problem. I'm an aficionado and have gathered and gorged on them on the Maine coast

                        Favorite way to cook is carefully grilled on charcoal to loose as little mussel juice as possible. Dip in olive oil that has had a little salt and cayenne added - And eat

                        1. mschow Aug 10, 2008 09:32 AM

                          Let me must say that I am one of those people who ate a mussel that didn't open. Once. Once is more than enough. I worshiped the porcelain god for 2 days. Cold sweat, the shakes, along with vomiting as well. I was in bed for 4 days, and really did not feel right for almost 2 weeks. I barely ate anything. My daily diet consisted of a can of Campbells chicken noodle soup, water, and some Gatorade. After about 5 days, I was able to add a grilled cheese sandwich to my daily intake.
                          Trust me, if you have ever been sick from mussels, you will remember it. I adore mussels, but did not eat them for 3 years after I got sick. Now I am fanatical about cleaning them properly, and always discard any with broken shells or those that do not open.
                          Worst part about this was though I barely ate anything for 2 weeks, I didn't lose one bloody pound. Really, there is no God, is there?

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: mschow
                            ideabaker Aug 10, 2008 12:37 PM

                            mschow, I feel your pain... being sick like that is no joke, especially when you don't even lose a pound after all that effort! Your post is an extra reason why I will continue to skip the unopened bivalves!

                            1. re: mschow
                              Cinnamon May 24, 2009 10:27 AM

                              ... you mentioned paying homage to the porcelain one. I don't think it can grant weight loss wishes, no matter how close it is to the scale.

                            2. k
                              KTinNYC Aug 8, 2008 10:31 AM

                              Mussels are cheap, why risk getting sick? Maybe your husband has been lucky and hasn't come across a mussel that hasn't been dead for long but the day he does I'll bet he never eats an unopened mussel again.

                              6 Replies
                              1. re: KTinNYC
                                ideabaker Aug 8, 2008 09:22 PM

                                I second KT, I've always heard that the mussel didn't open because it was dead, and if your hubby eats one that has been dead a while, he may be following up his meal with a trip to the hospital!

                                1. re: ideabaker
                                  henri cat Aug 9, 2008 09:41 AM

                                  Thanks for your replies. The hubby has survived and is still fine (more than 24 hours so far since he ate four of the dead ones), but now maybe he will believe me.

                                  1. re: henri cat
                                    goodhealthgourmet Aug 9, 2008 09:45 AM

                                    btw, it's not just mussels. the rule applies to all bivalves.

                                    1. re: henri cat
                                      ideabaker Aug 9, 2008 10:45 PM

                                      Ha ha, you have a strong husband :-). Just read that some of the bivalves don't open because the heat wasn't enough to cook them all the way open (strong bivalves?) so that would be another thing to consider, in terms of bacteria...

                                      1. re: ideabaker
                                        phantomdoc Aug 10, 2008 09:19 AM

                                        That's how i tell they are done. As the bivalves (clams, mussels) open I pluck them from the pan. No open, no eat.

                                    2. re: ideabaker
                                      kchurchill5 May 24, 2009 06:26 AM

                                      I third ... if they don't open they are dead. But he has been lucky. Recently a friend cooked them and he didn't knows about that. He was very sick and ended up in the hospital. He never cooked them before so he just didn't think there was anything wrong.

                                      Don't take chances as KT said, mussels are cheap

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