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.


Anonymous said...

great post, I do have a question: how come you say mushrooms soak up so much water if you also say they are already mostly water?

Helen said...

think of it like a sponge. a damp sponge can still soak up water even if it has some inside it already. Try washing mushrooms with water sometimes and then drying them on paper towels. it's almost impossible to get them really dry after they get wet.

mamster said...

This was an awesome post (that photo of the browned mushroom is making me so hungry, and I just finished dinner), but the sponge thing is a myth. Water makes the surface of mushrooms a little slimy, but this isn't really relevant once you cook them, because you're going to slice them and expose a bunch of dry surface area that will brown easily. Try weighing a bunch of mushrooms, then soaking them with water, then draining and weighing them again. They simply don't absorb water.

Nadira said...

Huh. I've been doing the sweat & saute method for years! I like to do them in half butter half olive oil with sherry, garlic, and parsley (reminds me of escargot... mmm....)

I also like them *very darkly* browned. It reduces the yield pretty significantly, but the flavor gets really intense: almost like pan drippings. If you don't cut the pieces evenly, the smaller ones get crispy, which can be a plus or a minus, depending on your preferences.

It never even occurred to me to try madeira or port. I'll have to try that.

Anonymous said...

I just made the Julia's Mushrooms variation with my lunch today... Yum! So flavorful and perfect texture. This is how I've always wanted my mushrooms to turn out (I used to saute, but felt like something was missing). Thank you, Helen!

Helen said...

Hi Matthew,

Wow -- thanks for opening my eyes to the myth of mushroom non-washing. I had no idea. That's how all professional chefs that I know do it (I mean wipe, not wash), so I never questioned this wisdom. I have googled for the experiment of weighing mushrooms before and after washing and I wonder if this would still hold for all different varieties. I agree that washing button mushrooms is perfectly fine, especially if cooking them the way I suggest. They'll get all soaked in their juices in the first step anyway. But I wonder if washing portabellas or oysters before roasting does not preclude them from browning. I usually roast them whole, cap side down and if the cap gets slimy, I am not sure how well it would brown. Of course, I haven't tried it yet, but now I am tempted to do a side by side roasted mushroom experiment. And what about porcini? Don't they get awfully slimy when wet? Do you have any idea how all these other species react to washing?

Thanks for getting me thinking :)


mamster said...

I had creminis, bread, and cheese for lunch today, inspired by this post.

I'm guessing there will be no difference between washed and wiped mushrooms when you roast, but it's just a guess--an experiment is definitely called for. 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. I could be totally wrong here, though--give it a try.

I wonder if the idea that you shouldn't wash mushrooms came from people who were serving them exactly the way you and I agree they shouldn't be served: raw. Because, yeah, a slimy raw mushroom is even worse than a dry one.

As for other varieties, I don't have enough experience (sadly) with fresh porcinis, but I'm going to try and get some this weekend. My favorite mushroom is the morel, which you absolutely have to soak, because otherwise you will be eating serious dirt.

Gauss said...

I actually love raw mushrooms; the fresher the better.

Kathie Graham said...

I am a real cooking novice, really, but I enjoy reading your posts. You break complicated menu items down into manageable steps. Thanks!! I'm excited about running to the grocery store, buying some fresh mushrooms, and cooking myself a treat today. Thank you :).

Anna said...

I know you are very busy with videos but when you get a momement maybe you can do a recipe for chanterelle zharkoye or send me a link to one. My grandmother used to make it but she's long gone and I cannot seem to find anything decent on the web. Or more like I do find stuff, but then I am not 100% if it works and I do not want to chance it with $20 per lb mushrooms.

Helen said...


I know exactly the dish you are talking about. My grandmother used to make it too and your comment brought back many yummy memories. Unfortunately, I've never made it myself. The chanterelles we have available here are insanely expensive and not very good -- they always look half rotten in all the stores. Maybe that's because no one buys them at such insane price. But I'll see if I can practice on oyster mushrooms to get a feel for the recipe.


Helen said...

Hi Anna,

Here is a recipe for chanterelle stew that I came up with. It's not quite like the one I remember growing up, but still yummy.