Thursday, May 22, 2008

It's ok to wash your mushrooms

Dear Matthew*,

Thank you for bringing me out of the mushroom dark ages and dispelling the myth that getting mushrooms wet is a no-no. I am a liberated woman now. No more wiping, no more brushing, no more scrubbing to get those pesky little pieces of dirt of my fungi!

I have to say that I was a bit skeptical at first. After a little googling, I found out about Alton Brown's experiment of soaking mushrooms in water and weighting them afterwards to find out that they only absorbed a trivial amount of water. But I had two problems with this experiment. Alton only used button mushrooms and I was wondering whether his conclusions would still hold for other types of mushrooms. After 10 minutes of soaking, 4 oz of mushrooms absorbed around 1 teaspoon of water. This sounds trivial, but I wouldn't consider putting 1 teaspoons of water on my steak if I wanted it to brown, so why would I allow any moisture touch my mushrooms.Since the sweat-and-sauté method resulted in a large release of mushroom juices, an extra teaspoon of absorbed water won't make a dent. But what about roasting? The whole objective there is to get mushrooms nicely crisp around the edges. Will that work with damp mushrooms?

There was only one way to find out. I bought some portabellas and oysters today and split them into two batches. I washed and thoroughly dried the first batch and brushed the dirt off the second batch with my usual toothbrush method. Portabellas got almost completely back to their pre-wash condition once I was done drying them. But the oysters got pretty soaked. They are very delicate and some water got stuck between their gills, which made complete drying almost impossible.

I placed the mushrooms on a large cookie sheet side by side. Drizzled with oil and sprinkle with salt, then roasted at 425F. The only difference between washed ones and brushed ones was the cooking time. The washed mushrooms took a few extra minutes to get nice and crisp, but final result was identical between the two batches.

The pile on the right was washed and pile on the left was not washed. Why are the washed ones even crisper than the unwashed? I put them in the oven for a few extra minutes and forgot to set the timer ;)

How did they get crispy if they absorbed extra water? I'll side with Matthew's theory:
What I'm visualizing happening is: as soon as the mushroom warms up, it's going to release tons of water. The surface browns after the water is evaporated. So the surface is going to get temporarily slimy in the oven anyway.
My Mom is probably laughing reading this post. I am sure she'll say, "I told you so :)" In Russia, mushrooms are always washed, and she's been giving me funny looks when watching me attempt to clean them without water. So, kids, listen to your Moms (unless they tell you to wash chicken ;)


* Matthew Amster-Burton is a great food writer. Check out his Unexplained Bacon column on Culinate and his blog.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Technique of the Week: How to cook mushrooms

When you teach cooking classes, people often assume you went to culinary school. I start my reply with "I went to CIA..." This usually follows by respectful head nodding and some level of awe. "For a week," I add. This follows by a raised eyebrow and confusion. To add insult to injury I explain, "that's not where I learned to cook, and to tell you the truth, it was somewhat of a waste of time."

I did a week long boot camp program at CIA couple of years ago. I realize that they couldn't teach us everything in one week, but I found the traditional approach to culinary education somewhat disappointing. I know, I know. How dare I say such things about the holy of the holies. But hear me out. Culinary schools structure their programs around "how to cook" not "what to cook." So we had a class on sautéing, a class on grilling, a class on roasting, a class on poaching/steaming, a class on braising, etc. The problem is it all depends on what you are sautéing, grilling, poaching, and braising. In other words, sautéing fish is a whole different story than sautéing asparagus. What seems to be much more important to me is understanding the composition and character of the ingredient you are working with. That's what drives your cooking method, heat intensity, etc. That's why the classes I offer are on Fish, Meat, and Vegetables, not Sautéing, Roasting, and Braising.

I have written about many ingredients and their personalities on my blog before: fish of all sorts, different cuts of beef, asparagus, swiss chard, leeks. But it recently occurred to me that I have never talked about one of my favorite ingredients: mushrooms.

Here are a few things that are handy to know about mushrooms before you cook them.
  • Mushrooms don't taste good raw. I have no idea why raw mushrooms are offered in salad bars. They really need to be cooked.
  • Mushrooms are porous and soak up water and oil like sponges. This means that it's best not to wash them. Just brush the dirt off with a paper towel or a brush. I use a soft toothbrush that I get from my dentist when I go for check ups. I ask for two: one for me and one for the mushrooms.
    May 22, 2008 correction: Oops, I was wrong on this one. Apparently, it's perfectly fine to wash mushrooms as long as you dry them thoroughly on paper towels before cooking. How much water they'll absorb depends on the mushroom, but it's a very small amount. They'll cook just fine if washed and dried, and will even get crispy, but it might take a few minutes longer than for unwashed mushrooms. Here are the details of my mushroom washing experiment.
  • Mushrooms are mostly made out of water. Most of this water needs to evaporate in order for them to taste good.
  • Mushrooms don't have the sweetness or acidity naturally present in most vegetables. This makes their flavor profile more like meats than vegetables. Just like meats their flavor comes into focus when the outside is browned well.
Here are my favorite two ways to cook mushrooms.

Julia's mushrooms

That's what I call them because I adopted this recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This is a combination cooking method of sweating and sautéing. The mushrooms are cooked in a skillet, first covered, then uncovered. Covering the skillet helps them release their juices, which then evaporate once the skillet is uncovered, and form a very intense mushroom-y glaze. A squirt of lemon and a little port or Madeira give these mushrooms a bit of acidity and sweetness making the final result more rounded in flavor. A splash of red or white wine can also work if you don't have port or Madeira.

Type of mushroom to use: button, portabella, cremini

3 Tbsp olive oil, butter, or a combination of both
1 Lb sliced mushrooms
1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1/2 tsp table salt)
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp Madeira, port, or red/white wine (optional)
  1. Set a heavy-bottomed large skillet oven medium heat. Add the oil and wait for it to heat up. Add the mushrooms, salt, lemon juice, and wine. Stir, cover skillet, and cook for 8 minutes or until the mushrooms release their juices.
  2. Uncover. Raise heat and boil until liquid is completely evaporated.
  3. Turn down the heat to medium, and cook stirring occasionally until mushrooms are nicely browned. Taste and add more salt if necessary.
Roasted mushrooms

Roasted mushrooms are excellent for tossing with pasta or risotto.

Type of mushrooms: This method is great for fragile mushrooms such as oysters, chanterelles, or shiitake since it allows them to keep their shape. Portabellas are also a good choice. They can be roasted whole and sliced after cooking.

1 Lb mushrooms
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or 1/2 tsp table salt)
Freshly ground pepper to taste
  1. Set the rack in the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 425F.
  2. If using portabellas, leave them whole and remove the stems. Oysters, chanterelles, or shiitake can be left whole if they are small or cut into large chunks if they are large.
  3. In a large rimmed baking sheet (17"x 11" or just big enough to hold the mushrooms in one layer) toss the mushrooms with oil, salt, and pepper. Distribute them evenly on the sheet. If roasting portabellas, drizzle them on both sizes with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and place them on the baking sheet gills-side up.
  4. Roast mushrooms in the bottom third of the oven until nicely browned. The fragile mushrooms will become crispy around the edges and are done in 12-18 minutes. Portabellas will become browned on the bottom and are done in 20-30 minutes.

Friday, May 9, 2008

A few tips on galettes

This Saturday, I am teaching a tart class. I only started offering it this year, and it quickly became one of my favorites. As you might have figured out from my previous posts, I simply adore tarts. But the ones that bring me the greatest joy are galettes -- free-form bundles of brittle crust swaddling the juicy fruits and berries. Here is an apricot cherry one that just came out of my oven.

The reason I decided to tell you about it, besides the fact that it's an awesome combination of sweet and tart, is a little trick I surreptitiously learned this morning. Since I was bringing this tart to my daughter's daycare, I thought it might be good to bring it in a disposable dish. I found a disposable aluminum pie plate in my pantry and baked the galette in it (instead of on a parchment lined cookie sheet as I usually do). Well, guess what -- that disposable pie plate made it not only easy to transport, but easy to shape, and it put all those worries about the juices escaping from the crust to rest. Once you master pâte brisée (pie and tart dough), you won't have to worry about the crust leaking and getting soggy, but a little safety net never hurts.

Here are some tips on shaping a galette that will serve 4-6.
  1. Make pâte brisée a day before serving to give it sufficient time to chill.
  2. You'll need 1/4 of the dough batch for one 8 inch galette (so divide it accordingly when making the dough). Freeze the rest to use some other time.
  3. At least 20 minutes before baking, place a rack in the lowest position of the oven and place a baking stone on it (if you don't have a baking stone, use a heavy duty baking sheet). Place another rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425F.
  4. After rolling out the dough 1/8 inch thick, go around the edges with a rolling pin to make them really thin, then un-stick them from the work surface with a pastry scraper.
  5. Fit the dough into an 8 inch disposable pie pan (you can also put it on a parchment lined rimmed baking sheet). You should have about 1 inch overhang. If it's bigger than 1.5 inches, trim it.
  6. Chill the dough for 10 minutes while preparing fruit for the filling. I used 6 apricots, halved, and 8 pitted cherries.
  7. Sprinkle the bottom of the dough with 2 Tbsp sugar, arrange the fruit on top, drizzle it with a little honey (1-2 tsp), and sprinkle with another few teaspoons of sugar. Fold in the edges and pinch where they come together. Brush the folded edges with melted butter and sprinkle with 2-3 tsp sugar. Work quickly once you start filling the tart and get it in the oven as soon as possible not to let the fruit to start leaking.
  8. Bake in the bottom of the oven (on the stone) for 20 minutes. This will ensure the bottom browns quickly and won't get soggy. Move the tart to the top rack rotating it front to back, reduce the temp to 375F, and continue to bake until the fruit and dough are nicely browned, 15-20 minutes.
  9. Cool at least 30 minutes before serving. Can be made earlier in the day and rewarmed or served cool.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Fig Anise Bread 1.0 notes

After finally producing a decent basic hearth bread, I decided to venture into the forbidden territory of baking improvisation. My goal was to try to recreate fig anise bread from Sel de la Terre in Boston.

Warning: These are just notes to myself so that I remember what to do next time. No story or recipe this time. Sorry.

I used Jason's basic hearth bread 2.1 with the following modifications:
  • Trimmed and halved 9 oz (255 g) California figs. Soaked in 1 cup hot water for 30 minutes, stirring once. Drained and squeezed and used this fig infused liquid as part of the water for the dough. I had to add more water to give me 1 3/4 cup necessary.
  • Added 2 tsp anise seed to dry ingredients before adding liquid and making dough. Proceeded to make the dough and knead as usual. When the dough was thoroughly kneaded, I added the figs (folded them into several business letter turns). This was a little tricky because they were big and kept falling out, but finally I got them all smooshed in.
  • Rises were on the long side.
    • 3 hrs at room temp, plus overnight in fridge for the first rise
    • Fridge overnight, plus 3 hours at room temp for the second rise
    • Proofed for 3 hours because I was worried it was having a hard time rising with all those figs. Jason thought such long rises and proofs were not necessary and next time I'll try something more reasonable.
  • I messed up the baking temp slightly. Preheated the oven to 450F and only after I put in the bread, I realized it should have been 475F, so I turned it up. After 12 minutes, reduced to 400F, opened the door to let out steam, and baked another 22 minutes. Internal temp was 205F.
This is going to sound strange, but we loved this bread on the second day and thought it was just ok on the first day. The amount of figs was very substantial, which was yummy, but next time I could reduce it a bit to make figs easier to incorporate. Anise was subtle and not overpowering. Could try going a little higher next time, but I liked it this time just fine.

The main problem was the crust. It came out too dark and tasted slightly burnt, but was still soft and not crispy. There was also a slightly bitter aftertaste, which we assumed was due to the burnt crust. Surprisingly, this bitter aftertaste was not present in the loaf that we cut on the second day even though it looked just as dark (if not darker than the first). It also got a little more crusty than the first (maybe because it sat longer?). The second loaf was really outstanding, particularly with butter.

Ideas for next time:
Next time I should try starting at 450F for 12 minutes and then reducing to 375F until the bread is at 200F, then let it sit in a turned off oven with door ajar for 5-10 minutes. Rose says it helps it develop a crust. I tried it with Jason's regular recipe and it came out almost too crusty (though it might have been high baking temperature). I didn't do it this time, but it's definitely worth a shot.