Domestic mushrooms are a year-round kitchen staple, and it’s easy to take them for granted because of their ready availability and consistent quality.
Wild mushrooms, or “exotics” as they’re often called, are another case altogether. Strictly seasonal, highly perishable, intensely flavorful, and very expensive, wild mushrooms generally come to market in the autumn through early spring, if they come at all. Selecting Mushrooms
Mushrooms are edible fungi that develop from spores. They grow wild in most parts of the world and there are literally hundreds of varieties, some of them deadly poisonous. Over the past century, commercial growers have done an excellent job in cultivating mushrooms, although more than 90% of those grown domestically belong to one species: Agaricus bisporus. This is the common white button mushroom, which also has a brown variant sold as the cremini in its small form and the portobello in its fully mature state. Shiitake, oyster and enoki mushrooms are also widely grown domesticated varieties. Cultivated mushrooms of the Agaricus bisporus variety are grown on pasteurized compost in temperature-controlled sheds; shiitakes and oyster mushrooms are grown on decomposing logs.
Although domestic mushroom farming has long been highly successful, converting most wild mushrooms to domestic cultivation has proved to be exceptionally challenging. Highly prized wild delicacies such as porcini, chanterelles, morels, hedgehogs and truffles live in a symbiotic relationship with the root system of living trees, and growers have yet been unable to reproduce this environment artificially.
By themselves, mushrooms are a very low-calorie food — a cup of sliced mushrooms has just 15 calories. They’re so delicious prepared with butter and other rich ingredients, however, that the key to keeping mushroom dishes healthy lies more in the sauce than in the mushroom!
How to select and store mushrooms
Choose mushrooms with firm, spongy caps that show no signs of damage or moisture. Wrinkled or shriveled caps and stems are a sign that the mushrooms are well past their prime. When possible, choose whole mushrooms over sliced; they will likely be fresher and will last longer if you can’t use them immediately.
Mushrooms are predominantly water, which is where most of their distinctive flavor resides. Because their outer skin is very thin, mushrooms dry out quickly. Stored properly and left whole, most mushrooms will remain fresh for up to a week. Refrigerate your mushrooms, unwashed, in a paper bag with a few holes poked in it for ventilation, or simply spread them in a single layer and cover with a barely damp paper towel. Check them periodically to ensure that no moisture collects on the mushrooms, as this will lead to spotting and rot.
Tips for using mushrooms
Preparing mushrooms is straightforward, no matter the variety. To clean mushrooms, wipe them with damp paper towels or brush them lightly with a small wet brush (a toothbrush works well). Avoid submerging mushrooms in water (except morels), because they absorb water like a sponge and become mushy. If your mushrooms are very dirty, rinse them quickly under cold running water and dry thoroughly before use. The trick to concentrating mushroom flavor is to cook them without steaming, so it’s important to start with dry mushrooms.
Trim away the hardened base of the stems and discard. Shiitake stems are woody and should be removed entirely. Save the stems and trimmings for use in stocks or soups (they can be frozen). White and brown button mushrooms can be eaten raw or cooked; the white variety is prone to discoloration when cut, so leave them whole until just before cooking. If you’re using portobellos (also variously called portobellas, portabellos or portabellas), remove the dark gills on the underside of the cap with a spoon, as the gills will discolor the dish. Although enoki and oyster mushrooms can be eaten raw, their best flavor emerges when they’re briefly sautéed. Wild mushrooms need to be completely cooked before eating.
If you’re using dried mushrooms, reconstitute them by soaking in hot water until pliable. The soaking liquid will be infused with flavor, so be sure to add it to your recipe or freeze it for later use — but be sure to discard any sediment or residue left at the bottom of the bowl.
To cook your mushrooms, start with a very hot pan. Once the pan is hot, add an oil (or a combination of oil and butter) that can withstand high temperatures, then add the mushrooms. Cook over high or medium-high heat without stirring for the first 3 or 4 minutes; this allows them to brown and begin to get crusty. Once they start to give off moisture, sprinkle with a bit of salt, and flip. Continue cooking the mushrooms until they’ve caramelized slightly. Then add a knob of butter, a few drops of Cognac or sherry vinegar, fresh herbs, garlic or shallots in the final minutes to finish off a heavenly dish. Enjoy!
Why choose organic mushrooms?
Choose organic whenever you can to help keep the residues of conventional agricultural pesticides and fertilizers out of your food. Organic produce is grown without toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, using sustainable farming methods that protect the environment and help keep pesticides out of our soil, air, water and food supply. Organic food is the healthiest choice for people and the planet — and we think it tastes better, too!