Ah, mushrooms. Not quite animal, vegetable or mineral, but something kind of in between: A fungus, meaning they’re forever doomed to dad jokes (“What a fun-guy!” “There’s a fungus among us!”).
They’re also one of the more divisive foods out there.
It can be a texture thing. An aroma thing. Or a thing about how some mushrooms thrive on decaying or dead stuff. (Pretty much anything you buy is cultivated by growers in controlled settings).
The biggest hang-up, foodwise? “If somebody has a history of eating them badly prepared, they’re going to blame it on the ingredient,” says journalist Eugenia Bone, author of “Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms.” “No ingredient has suffered more from that than the mushroom.”
To avoid that sad situation, here are three helpful tips for cooking mushrooms well — which just might help make a few converts.
Expand your reach. When you cook with more exotic varieties, “It adds a whole lot more flavor,” says David King, the proprietor of King Mushrooms who can be found selling a gorgeous array of fungi at Washington-area farmers markets. There are many cool-looking and fanciful named varieties out there — King counts lion’s mane, pioppini and hen of the woods among his supply — but even if you can’t get your hands on those, you can still upgrade your mushrooms without going anywhere other than your neighborhood grocery store.
Take the shiitake, for example, which is commonly available these days and imparts a smoky, earthy flavor. “It’s a really good one to start with if you’re looking for something that’s a step up from a button mushroom,” King says. Oyster mushrooms are another option you might spot at the supermarket, as is portobello, which is basically a grown-up button mushroom that was allowed to grow longer.
In “The Mushroom Lover’s Mushroom Cookbook,” Amy Farges suggests becoming familiar with new varieties by trying them one at a time and substituting them for white mushrooms in some of your favorite recipes.
Think about how you want to use them. Examine and read up on whatever variety you buy. Meaty, dense types, such as shiitake, portobello and royal trumpets, will hold up very well to heat, Bone says. You need to take care and use less heat with more delicate types, such as enoki, oyster and maitake.
Farges says meaty, firm mushrooms are great for grilling and roasting. Medium and fairly firm (porcini, chanterelle) are still a little juicy and can hold their shape in soups sautes and stews. She and Bone both recommend saving delicate varieties for a quick saute.
The important thing to keep in mind is that mushrooms are mostly water. In most preparations, you want to drive off that water to concentrate their flavors and avoid watering down a dish. Sauteing works for that purpose, and so does roasting. Avoid crowding them in a pan or skillet, because that will prevent the water from evaporating, causing the mushrooms to steam.
If you plan to eat mushrooms raw, pay close attention, because not all varieties, including morels, should be eaten uncooked, Bone says.
Make them shine. What you don’t want to do with mushrooms is lose their unique texture and umami flavor in a dish where they’re mixed among a bunch of vegetables or overpowered by competing flavors. “They’re best when they’re the star,” Bone says. Thyme, eggs, cream and garlic are all complementary ingredients.
Bone says it’s often helpful to treat mushrooms as you would meat, in terms of cooking, whether it’s grilling, roasting or in stews. “They have this protein in them that makes them kind of like meat,” she says. “They’re closer to us on the tree of life than they are to plants.”
One of the best, easiest ways to appreciate mushrooms is to simply roast them, and don’t be shy about letting them brown. “I really like my mushrooms a little crispy on the edges,” King says. He likes to slice a variety and toss them on a sheet pan with olive oil.
Roasted and sauteed mushrooms, especially when cooked with garlic and herbs, make a simple but substantial topping for toast, pasta or risotto. They can even stand alone as a side.
Bone also likes roasting mushrooms until they’re caramelized, but she takes that to the next level by mixing them with garlic, thyme, olive oil, lemon peel, vinegar and pepper. She then stores the preserved mix in a sterilized jar to use in a variety of dishes throughout the week. She also recommends trying duxelles, which sounds fancy but is just a mix of finely chopped mushrooms with shallots and herbs. Try it on toast, with coddled eggs, or as a stuffing inside meat (a la beef Wellington) or ravioli.
Almost anyone will find it hard to resist stuffed mushrooms, heaped with cheese and bread crumbs or whatever filling you can dream up. Soups and stews are another way to spotlight mushrooms. King sells a very popular Hungarian mushroom soup, making up to a dozen stock pots’ worth a week with a mix of the mushrooms he grows.
Those are just a few ways to expand your appreciation of mushrooms. “They’re very versatile,” King says.
Now, a few recipes from our archives to help you put these tips to use:
Beer-Roasted Mushrooms. Mushrooms are like little sponges when it comes to absorbing flavors, and the beer, garlic and herbs here are especially effective.
Mushroom Flatbreads. This fast, casual treatment is perfect for a weeknight dinner.
Shiitake Crisps. Eat these as a snack, or use them as a crunchy garnish.
Portobellos Stuffed With Caramelized Onions and Manchego. Meet your new party go-to.
Grilled King Oyster Mushroom and Poblano Sandwich. King oyster mushrooms can hold up to both the grill and a fully stuffed sandwich.
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