Fungi — Great Umami Flavor!

I taught a Thanksgiving cooking class but did a Vegetarian take on it. If you look at many vegetarian dishes, you will see that mushrooms often play a large part in those dishes. I realized that I had never written about mushrooms, probably because they are not one of my favorite foods. I decided it was time to delve into this ingredient and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Mushrooms are a type of Fungus (Perhaps that is why they are not my favorite!). As everyone knows, some are edible while others are toxic. If you are going to forage for wild mushrooms, you need to be thoroughly educated about mushroom types.

They have a rich, almost meaty flavor, making them a great ingredient for more substantial vegetarian dishes. This flavor-boosting ability is due to a high content of free amino acids such as glutamic acid. For a more in-depth explanation of how this can boost umami flavor, see this Cooking Tip. I will first discuss storing, cleaning and cooking. That will be followed by a discussion of the most common types of mushrooms.

After harvest, mushrooms remain metabolically active. This can be slowed by storing them in a refrigerator. They should be loosely wrapped in moisture-absorbing packaging to avoid the accumulation of moisture on the surface, which can lead to spoilage. The recommended methods are to leave them in their original packaging or place them in an open paper bag. Do not store them in a plastic bag.

Mushrooms last 4-7 days in the refrigerator. Some say you can freeze them but they will be mushy when thawed. They freeze better when sautéed first as the cooking process will draw out moisture and concentrate the flavor. After cooling, put them in a freezer-safe container and freeze for up to 9 months. To use, there is no need to thaw but because of the textural changes, they are best used in dishes that are cooked.

As mushrooms grow in dirt, you need to pay special attention to cleaning them. One of those “old kitchen tales” is that you should never wash mushrooms as it will cause them to become soggy and less flavorful. In 2009, on the blog Cooking Issues by the International Culinary Center, they claimed to debunk this myth. They cooked two batches of mushrooms side-by-side. One was washed in water and the other was just brushed off. They note that although the mushrooms do take on water, it all cooks off in the hot pan. More importantly, in a taste test of these mushrooms, the tasters could not tell the difference.

They did notice an interesting event. The brushed-off mushrooms tended to absorb a lot of oil and thus, became greasy. The washed mushrooms did stew a bit until the water was cooked off. However, during this time, they were not absorbing oil. By the time the water was all evaporated, the mushrooms weren’t as porous and so, did not absorb the oil very well. The brushed-off ones started absorbing oil from the moment they were in the pan. In this testing, they cooked the wet mushrooms in a very crowded pan whereas they dry mushrooms were given plenty of room. Even with this, tasters preferred the less greasy mushrooms.

Whichever method of cleaning you use, as with much produce, do not clean them until right before you are going to cook them.

Mushrooms can be used whole, halved, quartered or sliced. Some mushrooms such as shitakes must have their stems removed. The stems of portabellas are also very large and woody. They are normally removed before eating although they can be used to flavor stocks, soups or sauces. For most other varieties, the choice is yours.

As for cooking methods, they can be sautéed, grilled, roasted or even microwaved. The cooking method that develops the most flavor is when they are cooked slowly with dry heat. And, of course, they can certainly be consumed raw.

Types of mushrooms

White button – These are undoubtably the most common mushroom you will see in the markets. They make up about 40% of the mushrooms grown around the world. They are the mildest tasting and can be eaten either raw or cooked. Examples of dishes include soups, salads and pizzas.

Cremini – This is a firm, dark brown variation of the standard white button mushroom. They have a fuller flavor than the white but they can be used interchangeably. Another common name you will see is baby bella as they are a young portabella.

Portabella – These are fully-matured cremini mushrooms. They have very large (4-6 inches) flat caps with fully exposed gills. Because of their dense texture and meaty flavor, they are often used in vegetarian cooking as a meat substitute. Other great uses are grilling and stuffed mushrooms. They are very common in Italian cooking as they give depth to creamy sauces and pastas. As mentioned above, the stems are very woody and are usually removed. The dark gills are typically scraped out and thrown away. Although edible, they do no favors for the appearance of your dish. Another spelling is portabello.

Porcini – These mushrooms have round, golden- to reddish-brown caps with bulbous white stems. The flesh is tender and cream-colored while the flavor is described as earthy, meaty and even nutty. They are available fresh or dried although in the US, it can be difficult to find fresh ones. The dried porcinis need to be soaked in water before using. They can be added to braised meat dishes, ground up and sprinkled onto meat or cooked into a risotto.

Chanterelles – Described as trumpet-shaped with yellowish stems and frilly brown caps. The flesh is delicate and golden with an almost fruity aroma. Their shape leads to accumulation of dirt, requiring a thorough cleaning before consuming. Their woodsy flavor means they work well in souffles, cream sauces, soups, pasta or just sautéed in butter.

Morels – Morels have a distinctive spongy and conical shaped cap, ranging in color from tan to dark brown to gray. The flesh is delicate and spongy and their flavor is earthy, nutty and somewhat spicy. They are another type that traps dirt and so must be cleaned well. They are often just sautéed in butter and served with meat or poultry or added to soups or pasta.

Oyster – These are fan-shaped with cream to gray colored caps (although there are yellow, pink and blue varieties) and short white stem and gills. Delicate in aroma and flavor, they are very common in Chinese cooking for stir-fries and soups. If you use these, be aware that they will take a longer cooking time.

Shitake – These are recognizable by their dark brown umbrella-shaped caps with cream colored gills and stems. The flavor is earthy, woodsy and slightly meaty. As previously mentioned, the stems are tough and should be removed. They come in fresh and dried form with the latter being more intense in flavor. Very common in Asian cuisines, they release an earthy, umami flavor when cooked. They can be sautéed, stir-fried, roasted, sprinkled on pizza or added to soups.

There are, of course, many other varieties. The problem will be in finding them in our supermarkets. You will probably always be able to find button, cremini and portabellas. You can occasionally find some of the other varieties although it might be easier to do so in specialty markets.

Whether you are a forager or just shop for mushrooms in the market, they are an ingredient that can add great umami flavor to your dishes or help you make a substantial and “meaty” vegetarian dish. Have fun with them!