It took me 18 years of working in professional kitchens to figure out how to cook mushrooms.
There are as many ways to saute mushrooms as there are cooks. And it didn't take long for me to learn that a chef's grace and style is most clearly evinced in his or her treatment of mushrooms, from the common button to the sought-after morel.
But every technique for cooking mushrooms, whether simple or complicated, has the same objective: to coax the excess moisture from the mushroom, thereby concentrating its earthy flavor and accentuating its firm, chewy texture.
After nearly two decades of fussing with fungi, I have come to believe that the particular approach should have less to do with the cook and more to do with the type of mushroom.
When I enrolled in cooking school, we did mushrooms one way. We quartered common white buttons, sauteed them in butter then finished them in the oven. End of lesson.
In my first job out of school, I cooked my way through cases of then-exotic wild mushrooms, such as fresh shiitakes with their caps just opening and bits of bark clinging to their feet, golden leggy chanterelles, huge clumps of springy oysters and, on occasion, black trumpets and morels. They were all treated basically the same. I would sweat garlic and shallots in butter in a wide shallow pan over medium-high flame until they sizzled, then add handfuls of mushrooms in order from toughest to most tender and saute until each mushroom was silky yet slightly al dente.
When portobellos became trendy, I learned that roasting intensified their flavor and texture in a way that sauteing could not. I would slip slivers of garlic into the dense, meaty cap, drizzle it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, season them with salt, pepper and thinly sliced basil and roast them at 350 degrees for half an hour. They became a virtual steak for vegetarians!
But it was Madeleine Kamman who took me to an entirely different level of mushroom cookery. At the School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley, she would take tender mushrooms such as button, shiitake, cremini and oyster and cook them with a little butter or oil over low heat for a long time to evaporate their natural moisture without rendering the mushroom tough. That was no surprise. But then she did something I hadn't encountered. Tougher, woodier mushrooms such as chanterelle, matsutake, lobster and royal trumpets she would lightly brown in a little butter or oil with a few cloves of garlic to embellish the roasted flavor. Then she transferred them to a 325-degree oven for half an hour. The mushrooms shrunk to almost half their size but doubled in flavor. (If the mushrooms became too dry, as they did occasionally, we would replenish the moisture with a little chicken stock. Surprisingly, they regained their fleshy texture.)
Since then, I've made a few discoveries of my own. Mushrooms can be roasted way in advance of serving, set aside at room temperature and then tossed into soups, stews and vegetable stir-fries at the last minute. And when it comes to imparting additional flavors, mushrooms are sponges. I prefer basil for shiitakes, rosemary for chanterelles and the current rage in California, a pinch of sugar and a dash of soy sauce for roast portobellos.
Sauteed Shiitake Mushrooms
2 to 4 servings
Thin-capped mushrooms that cook quickly, such as shiitakes, need only a brief saute to maximize their flavor. These make a great garnish for grilled salmon or beef. Other mushrooms to cook this way: button, cremini, oysters, hen-of-the-woods, black trumpet.
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps sliced on the diagonal
12 leaves fresh basil, rolled into a tight cigarette shape and thinly sliced into chiffonade
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the butter, oil and garlic until the butter has completely melted. Add the mushrooms and cook, tossing or stirring the mushrooms frequently, until the shiitakes begin to wilt, glisten and contract in size as they throw off moisture, about 10 minutes.
Add the basil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 4): 184 calories, 2 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 49 mg cholesterol, 12 gm saturated fat, 75 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Roast Portobello Mushrooms
Roast portobellos take on a chewy, meaty texture when roasted. If you want to taste umami, the fifth flavor that is characteristic of Japanese cooking, then try the version with soy sauce and sugar. Otherwise, substitute olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the soy sauce and sugar.
1 pound portobello mushrooms, stems removed
15 leaves fresh basil, rolled into a tight cigarette shape and thinly sliced into chiffonade
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
Place the mushrooms on the sheet, cap side down and gill side up. Sprinkle the mushrooms with the basil, pepper, garlic and, if desired, soy sauce and sugar.
Roast the mushrooms for 30 to 45 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly or to room temperature before serving.
Slice thickly or serve whole.
Per serving: 36 calories, 4 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 5 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Pan-Roasted Chanterelle Mushrooms
2 to 4 servings
Chanterelles that are sauteed and then roasted will shrink in size by half but double in flavor. (If the mushrooms become too dry during roasting, replenish the moisture with a little chicken stock.) Serve with roast meat or as a filling for an omelet with goat cheese.
Other mushrooms to cook this way: royal trumpet, matsutake and lobster mushrooms.
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 pound chanterelle mushrooms, tough stems trimmed, caps halved or quartered if large
1 to 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place a heavy ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Add the butter and oil. Once the butter begins to sizzle, add the garlic and heat for 30 seconds. Add all the mushrooms and toss to coat with fat. Now let the mushrooms cook, without stirring, allowing the mushrooms to brown slightly, for 2 minutes.
Turn the mushrooms and cook, without stirring, for 2 minutes. Repeat again.
Add the rosemary sprigs then slide the pan into the oven.
Roast the mushrooms, tossing occasionally, for 20 minutes When the mushrooms begin to shrink and take on some golden brown color, they are done.
Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper. Remove and discard the sprig of rosemary and the garlic.
Per serving: 134 calories, 2 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 73 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Brian Patterson teaches at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda and Gaithersburg and is office manager and executive chef for the American Medical Association. He last wrote for Food about lettuce leaf rolls.