Let us dive straight into some mushroom basics. We can wax poetic after.
Choosing fresh mushrooms– Look for smooth, unblemished caps; wet, slick or sticky is a sign of decomposition and should be avoided at all costs. Stalks should be firmly attached. For mushrooms with a round cap, such as crimini, porcini and white button, turn the mushroom over. If the mushrooms are small (young), the cap should meet the stem, with little-to-no gills showing. Larger mushrooms should not have brittle edges and the gills should not be mushy. All mushrooms should feel firm and a bit heavy for their size. They should smell of the earth, a touch musty, but never dank, damp or moldy.
If you plan on cooking them whole, choose mushrooms of roughly the same size. This assures even cooking. If slicing, dicing, pureeing, etc, size does not matter as much.
Prepping fresh mushrooms- Let us begin by dispelling a great myth: if your rinse your mushrooms in water, they do not soak up the water. In fact, they are mostly water (up to 90%), encapsulated by cell walls of chitin. Does that word sound familiar? You may have heard it way back in high school biology. It is the same stuff that makes up the shells of lobsters, crabs, shrimp, and insects. Maybe you have never eaten insects, but you probably have a pretty good idea how impermeable a lobster’s shell is. So rinse and brush the debris off, then dry them well with a towel. The reason for drying is twofold: although they are mostly water inside, when the outside remains wet, they deteriorate rapidly. The second reason is wet food does not brown, or caramelize, when cooked. So, rinse, brush off and dry.
Next, we slice them. Many cookbooks call for thinly sliced. This is the way to go if you are eating them raw. Otherwise, ignore the cookbook and slice them thick, about 3/8 inch. Here is the reason why: the chitin that makes up the cell walls collapses under heat. A great deal of the water evaporates, the flavors concentrate, the sugars caramelizeand the mushrooms shrink. So a thicker slice equals a greater concentration of flavors and ameatier piece to bite into. When eating mushrooms raw, a thinner slice means you have broken down the cell walls manually, without heat, allowing the flavors within each cell to emerge.
Cooking the mushrooms- If you want intense mushroom flavor, heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add a tablespoon or so of extra virgin olive oil. Watch the surface of the oil. When you see little ripples on the surface, and wisps of smoke just begin to appear, place your mushrooms in a single layer in the pan. Do not overcrowd them. Leave a bit of space between each one; otherwise they steam in their own juices. Do not poke them or shake the pan. The only thing you need to do is adjust the flame, as needed, to maintain a low sizzle. Smell them as they cook…as the amino acids convert to sugars, a rich meaty aroma will begin to fill your kitchen. The bottoms begin to brown. Left the edge of one and look at the color. The optimal color is burnt-orange with brown edges. As a matter of fact, this shade of orange-brown is desired for the browning of most foods. When your see this, gently turn them over with tongs or the edge of a spatula. Once again, leave space in-between and leave them alone.
Cook in batches to avoid overcrowding. Allow them caramelize. When they are burnt-orange on both sides, sprinkle them with sea or kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper. Remove the pan from the heat. Take a single pat of cold butter, and stir it around with the mushrooms. As it slowly melts, it will emulsify and thicken any juices left in the pan, creating a light sauce, while enriching the dish without making it overly buttery.
That is your basic technique for caramelizing, or browning, mushrooms. Once you have mastered this simple procedure, use it as a building block…a foundation.
– A teaspoon of chopped, fresh rosemary or thyme leaves, added when you turn the mushrooms over, provides a piney, warm touch. Right before your introduce the butter, squeeze the juice of a quarter lemon into the pan, then proceed with the butter. This addition of acid brightens the flavor in the dish.
(This is a wonderful trick for many recipes that seem to be lacking “something”, especially very savory dishes. Start with a single drop or two, stir, taste and add more as needed. The acid sharpens the individual flavors within the whole.)
– Substitute butter for olive oil. Melt over medium-low heat, and then add a ¼ cup of chopped shallots or onion. Sprinkle with sea or kosher salt and stir well. The idea here is to sweat them, not brown them. The salt will help to draw the moisture out and prevent them from caramelizing. This result is mildly, sweet flavors, as opposed to intense flavors. Remove from the pan and set aside. Proceed with the master recipe above. Remember, your mushrooms are rich and meaty, so balance comes from the sweetness of the shallots or onions. If you add the herbs and lemon juice, as well, the dish will have great complexity.
We will be revisiting mushrooms again and again. They sit atop the food echelon in my culinary universe, and I utilize them as often as possible.
Next up, we will talk about the basics of dried mushrooms, including rehydrating and cooking them, not rehydrating and cooking with them, and dehydrating them at home. After that, we will dig into more complex recipes and techniques, such as Truffle-Mushroom Mousse, and my specialty: Mushroom “Fettuccini”, a creamy, multi-mushroom pasta dish, finished with truffles and Parmagiano Reggiano, yet it contains no actual pasta.
This is when cooking gets really fun.
Challenge your taste buds every day.