Deliciously sweet mussels add a touch of elegance to paella, ceviche and pasta dishes with fresh herbs. They’re also perfect as a stand-alone dish served up in their own steamed juice.

So don’t be intimidated by the bearded bivalves. You may think it will take a lot of work to get them to the dinner table, but fishmongers say mussels are easy to clean if you know how.

Related: How to Choose Safe, Sustainable Fish

Here’s how to safely store and clean these sea treats, according to two North Carolina seafood experts and The Food Network.

Refrigerate mussels in a bowl with a damp towel on top to allow air flow. This will keep the mussels moist until they’re cooked.

Remove the beard. Mussels have what appears to be a beard, a membrane consisting of coarse, hair-like threads intertwined along the shell’s rim where the two halves come together. The bivalves use their beards to latch onto underwater surfaces so they don’t drift.

To remove it, start pulling at one end and tug firmly in short movements, moving downward along the shell if necessary. “That little beard is kind of ugly, but it’s harmless and comes off easy,” says Bradley Midgett, manager of O'Neal's Sea Harvest in Wanchese, North Carolina. “You just don’t want to eat it. Give it a tug on one end and it should pull right off, usually in one piece.”

Check for dead mussels . You can get very sick if you eat a dead mussel, Midget cautions. If mussels are live, their shells will gape open. To be sure, tap the shells a few times with another mussel. Live ones will slowly close their shells. If nothing happens, discard the mussel.

“Mussels won’t close up on you by themselves like clams,” Midgett says. “When clams die, 99 percent of the time they’re closed. If mussels are alive when you tap on then, they will close back up. That’s what you want to see.”

Rub each shell to remove silt, seaweed and mud . You can use a knife to scrape the shells clean, but rubbing them together under running water may be enough.

Place the mussels in a colander, then rinse and scrub under cold running water.

Soak the mussels for 20 to 30 minutes in a bowl of cold water and a teaspoon of ground sea salt to remove any remaining impurities, Midgett advises.

Drain and use. “When you’re ready to cook, just drain the mussels in a colander and you’re good to go,” Midgett says. Steaming is the usual route for cooking them. “They’re ready to eat when most of them pop open under the heat.” Chefs disagree on this, but some safety experts advise discarding any mussels that don't open up during cooking.

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Getting steamy

Steaming is the classic technique for cooking mussels, according to Sandra Austin, who has run the Austin Fish Company in Nags Head, North Carolina, for 55 years. “Put them in a low-country boil and drain after about 10 minutes,” she says. “Then you can eat them with a little fork right out of the shell or arrange them on a plate of spaghetti with a little sauce.”

And these days, the mussels on the spaghetti she cooks are more likely to have been frozen. “The frozen ones are about all we sell around here,” says Austin. “They come out of Long Island, so with delivery, it’s hard to get live ones so much anymore.”

Steve Evans, MA, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience in daily news, investigative, health and business journalism. Among other jobs, he has served as managing editor of the Central Virginia Newspaper Group, as a senior writer for SNL Financial and as a staff writer for The Progress Index and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.