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Mushrooms 101 (Article)
Mushroom Duxelles (Recipe)

Cross References:
Main Category:  Fruits & Vegetables
Primary Ingredient:  Vegetable


Cooking With Mushrooms

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A Way to Add Flavor or Eaten on Their Own

Mushrooms have always been intimidating to me.  Maybe it's because of their hallucinogenic rock and roll legacy, or the chance that if chosen without skill, a wild one can kill you.  Mostly I think it's due to their sculptural, fragile appearance and the knowledge that they've been grown so close to the ground, sometimes in the rot of trees and other plants.   Not quite the romance of snipping an apple off a branch.

But mushrooms are one of our most flavorful and versatile foods.  They can be an accent, an addition, a flavoring, or the main event.  Large, meaty portobellos can be grilled to replace a steak.  A small handful of pricey dried porcini can be brought back to life with warm water to add rich, deep flavor to a stew or pot roast.  White, crisp, common button mushrooms can be sliced and eaten raw in salads, or diced fine to become the basis of a sophisticated and rich duxelles to flavor parchment-cooked fish.  A sauté of shiitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms can become a complement to a pasta or risotto or a quickly cooked veal scallopine.

Although I associate mushrooms with the fall, in fact they are a year-round food.  At least the cultivated varieties are, most of which are grown in nearby Pennsylvania.  Wild mushrooms are gathered during the more temperate months, especially the spring and the fall, and should be cooked before eating.

Techniques for Handling, Cleaning and Cooking

We've added a basic mushroom primer to our Advice & Ideas section at The City Cook but here are a few extra tips that can help you cook them more successfully.

  • Clean mushrooms carefully.  Usually a damp paper towel is all you need to brush off any dirt.  While some chefs intone to never wash a mushroom, it's actually perfectly fine to take a soft brush and some running cool water to any mushroom that's particularly dirty.  Just dry them immediately and don't immerse them in water (they are spongy and will absorb from a soaking).  
  • Cut mushrooms just before you plan to serve or cook with them.  Like potatoes and artichokes, mushrooms are prone to turning brown if cut surfaces are exposed to the air.  If you must cut them in advance, a little lemon juice can help delay any discoloration. 
  • Because mushrooms contain between 80 and 90 percent water, they give off lots of moisture when cooked.  If you want to brown mushrooms to give them a golden surface, you need to apply heat before they become limp.  To do this, start sliced mushrooms in a hot pan and don't add any other ingredients (aside from perhaps a little oil) until they begin to brown.  In particular do not add salt because this will only accelerate the moisture production (salt mushrooms after they've begun to throw off moisture).
  • Do you ever notice that when you cook mushrooms, first they get all liquidy, and then in a few minutes return to a drier condition?  This is not due to evaporation.  Instead, when you cook mushrooms, they first throw off moisture and then re-absorb it.  So be patient and let them run their course, letting them return to a less liquid state before proceeding with your recipe.  But recognize that any flavorings you add to the mushrooms while they're in their wettest state will return to the mushrooms with more concentration.  So be light-handed with salt and spices at this point in the cooking process.
  • Herbs and spices that flatter the flavor of mushrooms include garlic, red pepper, tarragon, parsley, ginger, and thyme.  Other ingredients that work well with mushrooms include cream, butter, walnuts, goat cheese, crabmeat, beef, and white wine.

Savory Versatility

If you do a search for mushrooms on any of the major recipe web sites (Epicurious, Food & Wine, Martha, Food TV), literally hundreds of recipes will result.  Here are some of my favorite ways to cook with mushrooms.

  • Duxelles.  A fine mince of button mushrooms cooked down to an intense, rich concentrated flavor, with shallots, butter, and sometimes heavy cream.  Used to flavor sauces, as a bed for steamed fish, added to an omelet, or any other dish that would gain from spoonfuls of mushroom flavor.  See our recipe.
  • Soups.  From a classic and hearty mushroom barley, to a piquant Italian mushroom tomato, to an elegant cream of mushroom soup.
  • Marinated with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil and served at room temperature as part of an antipasto.
  • Pastas.  A simple sauté of mixed mushrooms and garlic tossed with a favorite pasta or layered with béchamel sauce and pasta sheets for a meatless lasagna.
  • Stuffed mushrooms as an hors d'oeuvre or alongside salad greens as a first course.
  • Veal Marsala.  A classic combination of veal scallopini, mushrooms, Marsala wine, and veal demiglace.
  • Risotto.  Started with dried porcini and their broth, and finished with sliced and sautéed shiitake mushrooms.
  • Mushroom bread pudding as a savory side to a roast chicken.
  • Raw in salads.  For example, with shaved fennel and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or paper thin slices of baby zucchini, or with fresh cherry tomatoes in a couscous or farro salad.
  • In a sauce to accompany veal or chicken cutlets, with prunes to go with a pork roast, or in burritos with black beans.
  • Cooked with a little olive oil, lemon juice and fresh parsley as a crostini topping on grilled bread.
  • As the filling for a savory mushroom streudel.

Some of our Greenmarkets, including Union Square on Saturdays, host local mushroom farmers.  In addition to their baskets of white, pristine button mushrooms, they offer exotic cultivated and wild varieties.  Every week is a surprise so visit early to see what they have brought.

If you've never cooked with mushrooms, perhaps this is the fall to try.  And if you've been a white mushroom conservative, maybe it's time for some diversity and going a little wild.

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