Cooking With Mushrooms
I’ve met many people in my travels who absolutely abhor eating mushrooms of any kind, and one can certainly understand their aversion since, for many people, their experience is limited to slimy undercooked sliced button mushrooms on an otherwise perfectly fine pizza or grilled but undercooked and slimy portobellos. Indeed, these two ubiquitous mushrooms are varieties of one species, Agaricus bisporus, which has dominated the American market for gourmet mushrooms for well over a hundred years.
There is hope for these people yet, particularly as the variety of mushroom species available at groceries, coops and farmer’s market becomes increasingly diversified, and as we learn more about the various and proper techniques to skilfully prepare these tasty and nutritious foodstuffs. There are dozens of common edible species each with their own unique flavors, textures and cooking styles, and among these, I firmly believe that there is at least one that even the most ardent mushroom hater would enjoy.
There are several compounds in many mushrooms that can enhance the flavor of dishes they are added to. The most common are glutamate, which is the natural flavor-enhancing umami component, and trehalose, which is a unique sugar compound found in many mushrooms imparting a slightly sweet flavor.
The following are a few simple guidelines for turning just about any mushroom species into a wonderful and tasty side dish:
- Start with more than you think you will need. They will cook down to a fraction of their weight when finished.
- Tear, do not cut mushrooms before cooking. Tearing mushrooms preserves the muscle-like fibers and provides a much better texture on cooking. (An exception to this would be if mushrooms are to be included in a dish such as a casserole or soup, where dicing or mincing before browning is preferable.)
- Dry saute. Most mushrooms contain around 90% water. After tearing, put into a dry pan and saute on medium-low to remove most of that water.
- Add oil and cook on medium until done. Be patient and cook those suckers til they are done. Add more oil as necessary. Butter is great, but it has a tendency to burn easily, so add a little olive or canola oil to prevent burning. Use bacon fat for extra flavor points.
- Turn up the heat and saute until browned. The edges will start to get brown and crispy, this is evidence of a chemical reaction in the proteins of the mushrooms called the Maillard reaction. This is the same reaction that occurs when grilling meat that greatly enhances the texture and flavor of the mushrooms. When you think they are done, or slightly overdone, continue to cook a few more minutes. (An exception to this would be the Lion’s Mane (H. erinaceus), which can turn bitter if cooked too long.)
- Add herbs and spices, wine, etc. The last thing you want to do is add your herbs and spices. A bit of Kosher or sea salt and fresh cracked pepper is all you really need. However, thyme goes really well with most mushrooms, which should be added at the very end to prevent burning. Extra flavor points for adding a little white wine, and cooking for a few more minutes until evaporated/absorbed.
Another popular option is to bread and fry certain mushroom species in fat. This is by far the best and most popular way to prepare Morels, but also works well with Lion’s Mane.
- Slice morels in half. Tear Lion’s mane into bite-sized pieces. Depending on the size of the morels, you may want to cut them into smaller pieces, though usually halving them is just fine.
- Bread. Dip halved Morels or Lion’s Mane bits in (non-hoppy) beer or milk, then roll in flour. Tap off excess flour.
- Fry. Pan fry until golden brown, 5-8 minutes.
- Drain and season. Let drain on paper towels, season with Kosher salt. Bonus flavor points for having a lemon wedge on hand to squeeze on your morsels whilst eating!