Often Mysterious, Sometimes Magic, Always Delicious
Sources: Field Guide to Produce by Aliza Green, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, The Mushroom Council, How to Pick a Peach by Russ Parsons
Mushrooms are a mysterious and wonderful food that are grown, gathered and eaten around the world. Some associate these fungi with magical qualities, perhaps because some live off the rot and decay of other living things, like tree trunks. They can grow on logs, have no roots, can be deadly poisonous, and exquisitely flavorful. Because we eat mushrooms that are cultivated or else carefully picked wild, we don't have to worry about the poisonous ones. Our markets often offer a dozen or so varieties, most of which can be eaten raw or cooked.
When are mushrooms in season?
It depends on the variety. Cultivated mushrooms are grown indoors and are available year-round, but wild mushrooms vary by location and by variety. For example, porcini are available in the spring and fall, wild morels are in season in early spring, and chanterelles from spring through fall.
Where are they grown?
Cultivated mushrooms are grown on mushroom farms particularly in southeastern Pennsylvania, but also in New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, and California, Wild mushrooms grow in different locations around the world; in the U.S., many are found in the Pacific northwest as well as the Midwest where wild morels flourish.
What are the most popular types of mushrooms?
- Chanterelle: Although usually golden or whitish-gray, this variety can also have caps that range from red to black. Its skin can be smooth or wrinkled, its flesh is soft, and it has a delicate fragrance and flavor.
- Crimini: Similar to whites but with a tan cap and deeper flavor.
- Enoki: With tiny caps and grown in fragile clusters, these are a cultivated Japanese variety used in salads or as a garnish.
- Morels: With a distinctive honey-comb cap, morels have a rich flavor and fragrance. Wild morels are valued for having more flavor than the available-year-round cultivated variety.
- Oyster: With fluted caps and a delicate, mild flavor, oysters often have a large (3") cap and tough, unedible stems.
- Porcini (also called Cèpes): Meaty and rich, porcini are wild mushrooms that can be eaten cooked or raw. Porcini are also sold dried, which concentrates their flavor; dried porcini are resuscitated with warm water or stock before cooking.
- Portobello: With the largest caps of any cultivated mushrooms, portobellos are mature crimini mushrooms. Its firm flesh can stand up to different kinds of cooking, has a rich flavor, and is sometimes used in recipes in place of meat. Portobellos have large gills which can easily stain so you may want to cut them off before starting to cook with them. In his wonderful book, How to Pick a Peach, author Russ Parsons explains how this once unpopular mushroom was repackaged by a clever marketing person who invented the Italian-sounding name "Portobello" (there's some dispute as to its spelling) to help promote a mushroom that was often discarded as over-grown and thus, unappealing.
- Shiitakes: Popular in Asian cooking, shiitakes have an umbrella-shaped cap, tan gills, and chewy texture when cooked. The stems should be removed before cooking because they are very woody.
- White: The familiar, common button mushroom used both cooked and raw. The flavor intensifies when cooked and the mushrooms come in sizes from very small to large enough to stuff.
What should I look for when buying mushrooms? Is ripeness a factor?
Look for firm, unblemished flesh and avoid any that look shriveled or marred. Select their size depending upon how you're going to cook or serve them. For example, buy large white mushrooms if you're going to stuff them with crabmeat but choose tiny whites if you're going to quarter them to add to a coq au vin. Ripeness is not a factor. When a market sells mushrooms, they're ready to buy, cook and eat.
How do I clean mushrooms?
Whether wild or cultivated, because mushrooms grow close to the ground, they usually have some amount of dirt on them. The best way to clean most is with a damp paper towel; just brush off any dirt. Contrary to common wisdom that mushrooms should never be washed with water, I've found that is simply not the case (although soaking them is not a good idea as they're like little sponges). It's perfectly fine -- sometimes highly advisable -- to lightly rinse mushrooms in cool water, using a soft brush if they're very dirty (soft-bristled little brushes in the shape of mushrooms are sold just for this purpose), and immediately pat dry with a paper towel.
How do I store mushrooms?
Try to buy mushrooms within a few days of eating or cooking them. Store them in your refrigerator in a paper bag or wrapped in a paper towel so that moisture will be absorbed. Stored this way, most mushrooms will last 5 to 7 days, but the longer you store them, the more spongy they may become. Don't slice them until you're ready to use them and they'll last longer.
What's the nutritional info on mushrooms?
The nutrients vary with the species, but mushrooms are not a super-food by any means. They contain fiber and some vitamins, including niacin, vitamin C, and some minerals including iron and selenium. Very low in calories, 1-cup of sliced raw white mushrooms has about 15 calories, no fat, 2 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.
Is there any truth to those stories about magic mushrooms?
No matter where anyone else's magical mystery tour may have taken them, the only hallucinations I've ever had over a fungi was for the seduction known as a white truffle.