My Evolving Relationship with Mushrooms
A guide for cooking mushrooms, my cover version of Cream of Mushroom Soup, and my nourishing Roasted Mushroom Risotto
I’m an enthusiastic supporter of all things mushroom, except the cooking part of the relationship – that’s still evolving.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the shapes, colors, aromas and behavior of mushrooms. I love how some mushrooms form a literal underground symbiosis with living trees – a strategy in which the mushroom passes nourishing minerals from the soil to the tree in exchange for equally nutritious sugars the tree gives to the mushroom. Other mushrooms thrive from the decaying remains of dead plants and trees…a reminder that nothing goes to waste in nature – and everything is interconnected.
Sometimes I feel I’ve entered a fantasy wonderland when I come across a mushroom hotspot. I could hang out in that zone for hours if I happened to have my camera and macro lens with me. I notice something different in every step I take. Life sprouting from the earth, life reaching full maturity, old life now in decay, mushrooms resembling underwater coral, tiny mushrooms glowing in the darkness, and toadstools waiting for Alice to appear.
Mushrooms excite me…until I get them in the kitchen.
Understanding Mushrooms in the Kitchen
Mushrooms are widely considered the new superfood. They have favorable health benefits. They have textures and flavors that can replace meat. They are the new darling of the plant-based world…except they are not plants.
Mushrooms are closer to yeast and mold than plants. They have unique qualities that affect how they taste and feel in our mouths. Mushrooms are prized for their rich, slightly meaty flavor, bringing intensity to a dish. They are filled with glutamic acid, making them a concentrated source of natural MSG – a taste enhancer.
These are terrific properties for any food – especially for foods that are often used to replace something meaty. But if you get the cooking part wrong, the texture becomes slimy and chewy – a culinary fail on two levels
Mushrooms can be cooked in many ways. The goal is to develop flavor by cooking out some of their water and concentrating their proteins, sugars, and aromas.
Some say mushrooms should always be cooked using high heat and lots of fat. I have to disagree.
High-heat cooking eliminates the water quickly. Slow cooking with lower heat allows enzymes to work their magic and create more robust flavors – the main reason dried mushrooms taste more intensive than fresh ones. Fat does add flavor. But fat also burns quickly at high temperatures and creates slippery greasiness at lower temperatures.
Salt is the other part of the equation that causes problems. Adding salt to mushrooms promotes water loss. Mushrooms are 80-90% water, so adding the salt early only causes a flood of mushroom liquid…and lots of steam. That steam transforms the surface texture of the cooked mushroom from firm to soft – add fat to the equation, and you get slippery sliminess in most cases.
Here’s a rundown of the various cooking methods I use for mushrooms:
Roasting: This is one of my favorite ways to cook mushrooms. Preparation is simple, and the process only takes about 25 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 225°C (425°F).
Portion the mushrooms into large pieces by cutting or tearing them and placing them in a bowl.
Coat with extra virgin olive oil and place on a baking sheet lined with baking paper.
Add other flavoring agents like herbs, onions or garlic. Lightly salt the mushrooms.
Roast in the hot oven for 15-20 minutes
Sauté: This is the most common method in most cookbooks. It’s also the method that often leads to slimy and slippery textures.
Heat a large pan over medium heat until it is hot – a drop of water in the pan should resemble a mercury ball running around instead of immediately evaporating.
Portion the mushrooms into large pieces by cutting or tearing them and placing them in a bowl. Coat them with extra virgin olive oil.
Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the mushrooms, taking care to avoid overcrowding – work in stages if necessary.
Allow the mushrooms to cook for 1-2 minutes before moving them. Too much movement cools the pan, and the mushrooms won’t have a crispy exterior. Toss the mushrooms, season lightly with salt and add 1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Cook another 2-3 minutes until the mushrooms have a slightly crisp exterior while maintaining a plump interior.
Pressing: This is a modern method of cooking mushrooms. It works best with large pieces of mushrooms that press into a wide structure – sort of like a steak. This method creates a fair amount of smoke in the kitchen, so open the windows, turn up the fan, and ensure the smoke detector won’t become a screaming problem.
Heat a cast iron pan or grill pan over medium heat. It should become quite hot.
Portion the mushrooms into large pieces by cutting or tearing them and placing them in a bowl. Coat them lightly with extra virgin olive oil.
Work in batches and place just enough mushrooms in the hot pan to create a single layer.
Place a heavy pot directly on the mushrooms as they cook, making sure the pot is pressing all of the mushrooms – I use my Le Creuset pot for this task.
Turn the mushrooms after 1-2 minutes, and continue cooking for 2 minutes.
Season the mushrooms after pressing and cooking.
Steam Frying: This is an excellent method for those who cook with little or no fat.
Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat.
Portion the mushrooms into small pieces by cutting or tearing them and placing them in a bowl.
Season the mushrooms lightly with salt, then add the mushrooms to the hot pan. Turn the heat to medium-high and avoid moving the mushrooms around the pan. Allow the natural waters to come out of the mushrooms. Keep the heat high to evaporate the water as quickly as possible.
Add optional extra virgin olive oil once the mushrooms have cooked.
Ultra Slow Roasting: This method can completely dry mushrooms or partially dry them for use in a recipe. Slow-roasting creates remarkably tasty mushrooms.
Preheat the oven to the lowest setting – usually 75°C (170°F).
Thinly slice or tear the mushrooms and place them on a baking sheet lined with baking paper in a single layer.
Cook in the oven, turning them occasionally to encourage even cooking for 1+ hours. Thoroughly drying the mushrooms takes an hour or two longer – they eventually resemble crackers.
The texture thing is significant when it comes to appreciating the goodness mushrooms can bring to a dish. Most people find that roasting works best to create consistent textures and deep flavors.
One final point… Cookbook authors often advise against washing mushrooms to prevent soggy textures and diluted flavors. I disagree. Mushrooms are already mostly water; a rinse under water to remove fox excrement or dirt will not cause any problems. They should be cooked soon after washing, however, to prevent possible discoloration.
Cream of Roasted Mushroom Soup
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