The wide, wonderful world of mushrooms: A flavor-focused guide
By Becky Selengut, guest contributor
Stroll through the mushroom section of the produce department and it’s obvious, from the Star Trek Tribble-looking lion’s mane to the gregarious, apricot-colored chanterelle, that the days when people felt fancy reaching for both the white AND brown button mushrooms are firmly in our culinary rear view mirror.
And yet, most of the new fungal friends sharing real estate with the familiar button (aka cremini) mushroom are sorely misunderstood. “What is that?” one wonders, holding up a large King Trumpet mushroom, more robust stem than cap. “How does one cook with this?” poking tentatively at a large, electric orange mushroom called “Lobster.”
These mushrooms have vastly different personalities, no different than your friends: Some are dark and moody, while others are cheerful and fruity. While all mushrooms contribute a savory, umami-rich addition to your cooking, just as you wouldn’t substitute a zucchini when you need a cucumber, it’s helpful to think of these beyond-button mushrooms in flavor categories. If you need a maitake but don’t see any, look to another mushroom in the same flavor category. Fall is a prime season to seek out fresh mushrooms, so let’s get to know your new best buddies:
So named because they look somewhat like shucked oysters, the connection extends to a subtle ocean brine flavor note. With tender caps and firm stems, oyster mushrooms smell like the love child of almond, anise, cucumber and white pepper. They pair beautifully with cream-based dishes, nuts, stir-fries, steak and fish dishes. Make sure they are plump with no dried-out edges. They should smell fresh and feel moist. To prepare, simply trim the base a bit and keep in mind that the stems will be just slightly tougher than the caps, though many enjoy the slightly chewy texture.
As a member of the oyster mushroom family, expect a similar flavor profile. However, their appearance and texture is so wildly different from the other oyster mushrooms, they are worth considering separately. With their outsized stems and modest caps, the texture is firm and similar to an eggplant. Typically, these are very clean, being cultivated (grown indoors rather than foraged), so just trim a sliver off the bottom of the stem, with no other cleaning necessary. King trumpets broil up beautifully or can be seared like a steak or scallop in a cast-iron skillet. Sprinkled with smoked salt, sliced thin and roasted or fried, they are also satisfyingly rich. Cut the stem into scallop-like discs and sear, basting them with a flavorful oil or butter. You’ll be amazed at how similar in flavor and texture they are to an actual scallop.
The lobster mushroom is not one but two different entities sharing the same home. The first (the host) is typically Russula brevipes, a meaty but flavorless mushroom. The second is a parasitic fungus called Hypomyces lactifluorum, spreading itself all over the host, transforming it in color (red) and flavor (seafood-like). Some lobster mushrooms can be peppery or slightly bitter. Prized for their texture, they are dense, snappy and chewy, with an unusual aroma that makes one think of tomatoes and corn chips. Ideal lobster mushrooms are firm, with no dark spots or squishiness. Trim off any small brown or dark reddish spots, use a toothbrush to get at the dirt in the grooves and wash if necessary. They readily absorb the flavors of foods you cook them with, so capitalize on that by adding other ingredients while they are cooking. Fabulous when braised due to their meaty density, lobsters stand up well to long cooking. Unlike most other mushrooms, they barely kick off any liquid when you cook them. Pair them with seafood, add to chowders, stews, risotto and paella.
Cultivated lion’s mane mushrooms are not your typical-looking cap and stem mushroom. They have hanging teeth-like protrusions that would make Cousin Itt from the Addams Family jealous. Look for mostly white specimens; if they are yellow or light brown, they are older (and sometimes bitter). Lion’s mane mushrooms are like sponges. You literally need to squeeze them out before using them to get rid of excess water, but no other cleaning or prep is required beyond a quick trim of the stem and tearing them into bite-sized pieces. They are crab-like in texture and flavor and pair well with seafood, butter, ginger and apples.
The atypical gills on chanterelles run from mid-stem to stern, like lined stockings drawing your eye up to their pretty, ruffled hemline. When raw they smell slightly sweet, nearly fruity. When cooked, the intoxicating aromas of maple, forest and popcorn hit the nose, almost as if someone were cooking pancakes in a dense stand of fir trees. Avoid ones that have dried-out edges and any that are moldy, have dark brown patches or edges, or are completely saturated with water. As a wild mushroom, they may be anywhere from clean to extremely dirty and covered with pine needles. Wash if necessary. With their faint sweetness, chanterelles pair well with late summer corn, tomatoes, bacon, onions, eggs, sour cream or crème fraîche, apples, pears, huckleberries and basil. Due to their more subtle character, they are best cooked with ingredients that won’t overtake their flavor.
While folks are fawning all over the chanterelle, consider saving some adoration for the mushroom that’s too cute to mess with pedestrian gills. Hedgehogs have comical fungi-quill equivalents (called teeth) where gills would normally be. Hedgehogs can be tangy, spicy, peppery and slightly bitter when older and larger. Their texture is firm and if handled too aggressively, they can crumble like a day-old scone. Check those teeth—make sure they are dry and not sticking together. The cap edges should be intact, not torn. Hedgehogs add great flavor to stews, soups and curries. They are fantastic when pickled or smoked.
Shiitakes are slightly smoky, assertive and earthy, with a chewy, meaty, buttery texture, and black pepper and wet wood aroma. Choose plump, firm and clean ones (most sold in markets are cultivated and clean), and pass by any that are slimy, wrinkled or clearly dried out. The cap should be curled under; if it starts to flop outward, it’s past its prime. To prep, pop off the tougher stems and use in stocks or discard. A damp cloth can be used to wipe off any obvious dirt. Though they are often associated with Asian cuisine and ingredients such as soy sauce, sesame oil, rice, and miso, there is no reason why shiitakes can’t be used in other cuisines. They are quite dense, so make sure you cook until they are soft enough for your liking. Whether you slice them thin or thick or leave them whole, they retain their shape very well. Shiitakes really shine when you simmer them in a flavorful liquid.
Hold this information for a few months (or use dried mushrooms, see “Dried Options” below): Wild morels pop up in the spring, and they naturally pair well with other harbingers of the season. They love green things like peas, asparagus or artichokes, and are splendid in cream sauces, with pasta or eggs. If they are slightly dry around the edges, they will still cook up well and in some ways are preferable to morels that might be overly wet, with soft spots. Many times fresh morels will be a bit sandy but otherwise free of dirt, debris or extra, um, “protein.” All morels need a little trim at the stem line. If you are lucky enough to get a batch that doesn’t seem sandy or dirty at all, trim the very end, slice one into rings, sauté it up for a few minutes and taste it: no sand? no grit? You most likely have a batch of ready-to-go morels, so save yourself some time by skipping the morel bath. Not so lucky? Wash them as described (see “Cleaning” below). Raw morels are mildly poisonous. Make sure to cook them until they are tender and cooked through.
Maitake means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese, and is also known as hen-of-the-woods for its resemblance to a chicken shaking its tail feathers. Make sure there is no drying or shredding at the edges. Cultivated maitake will be clean and you will find them sometimes in specially designed breathable plastic bags. Simply slice the woodier/tougher parts off the stem where the cap clusters converge. They are pretty powerful in flavor, strongly nutty and earthy, with a crunchy, resilient, firm texture. They have a mild woodsy, fermented aroma, not unlike beer. Being bold in flavor and texture, they can hold up to big ingredients and assertive cooking techniques. Think spice and butter, grilling and smoking.
Portobellos are overgrown brown cremini mushrooms with a fascinating history. Italian immigrant mushroom farmers in the 1980s rebranded overgrown cremini mushrooms (too big to sell as a button mushroom) as a fancy Italian gourmet mushroom, giving them the slightly nonsensical name portobello (pretty door) and charging more money for them. Today, brown button mushrooms are being rebranded as “baby bellas,” thanks to the popularity of the overgrown version. Make sure the ones you buy are firm and dry, not wet or slimy. As with button mushrooms, portobellos are extremely versatile and more flavorful than chefs give them credit for. Best grilled or roasted in thick slices, they are fantastic tucked between bread in all kinds of sandwiches. When cooking expect them to release a lot of water.
The Funghi 411
If a mushroom were murdered, the plastic bag would be considered the deadly weapon. Mushrooms really need to breathe, so use those brown paper bags stored right near the mushroom section, then keep them in your refrigerator (but not in the humid crisper drawer).
Most cultivated mushrooms don’t need to be washed; simply brush or knock off visible dirt, trim the stem and go. Wild mushrooms, especially lobster, morels and chanterelles, can get quite dirty. To wash them, fill two large bowls with water. Plunge the dirty mushrooms into the first bowl and swish around with your hands. Scoop them up and out of the first bowl into the rinse bowl. Once rinsed, scoop them onto an absorbent towel. Dry them well.
Taking the time to brown mushrooms is one of the best things you can do to increase the flavor they bring to the party. Use plenty of heat and leave room between the mushrooms. Overcrowding the pan and using low heat leads to soggy, waterlogged mushrooms. If you are cooking more than a pan-full, switch the cooking to the oven. Toss them with oil and salt on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast at 400 to 425 degrees Fahrenheit until browned.
Dried mushrooms are a pantry essential, especially porcini, morel, lobster and shiitake, which pack a punch of flavor. A French press is an ideal rehydration tool. Boil water, pour over the mushrooms and use the plunger to keep the mushrooms from bobbing on the top, half in, half out. Consider doing this process twice for all wild dried mushrooms, as they can be gritty or dirty. Make sure you lift the mushrooms out of the water with a slotted spoon and don’t pour the gritty liquid back over the mushrooms. Bonus: the flavorful rehydration liquid, once carefully strained through cheesecloth to get rid of any grit, makes for an intensely flavored mushroom “stock” that you can use in soups, sauces or to deglaze sautés. Freeze it and use it another time; you’ll be happy you squirreled away this black liquid gold. Once rehydrated, 2 ounces of dried mushrooms are the equivalent of 1 pound of fresh mushrooms.
Becky Selengut is a chef and the Seattle-based author of “Shroom: Mind-Bendingly Good Recipes for Wild and Cultivated Mushrooms” (Andrews McMeel, 2014).
Interested in cooking with mushrooms? Join chef Darin Gagner for a PCC cooking class on “Celebrating Mushrooms,” registration online here.
Want to learn more about wild mushrooms? Join Angela Shen, founder of Savor the Wild Tours, for a hands-on journey through the state’s culinary funghi wonders. Register online here. Watch our Instagram feed @pccmarkets Oct. 15 for a chance to win a “Savor the Wild” experience.
Celebrate prime mushroom season with PCC in October. Highlights include 20% off all mushrooms in the produce department from Oct. 11-17 and $2 off all mushroom side dishes in the deli from Oct. 18-24.
The Seattle region is home to the Puget Sound Mycological Society, one of the largest mycological societies in the country, which shares knowledge about mushrooms through meetings, classes, workshops and field trips. Its annual fall Wild Mushroom Show is one of the largest mushroom exhibits in the U.S. Information is online at psms.org.