If you’d like to cook gourmet mushrooms yourself, find a knowledgeable supplier who can both ensure his wares’ quality and freshness and tell you about the characteristics of different species and how best to prepare them.
To find a supplier, talk to the produce manager at your local gourmet market, ask a chef for the name of his or her supplier, or contact a mycological (mushroom appreciation) society. Look in the phone book or type “mycological society” and your location into an Internet search engine.
Even if you’re not personally preparing mushrooms, some knowledge about how they should be treated will help you appreciate a chef’s artistry when you order them.
Storage. Most fresh mushrooms keep up to 5 to 7 days if refrigerated in a brown paper bag (shiitakes last longer–up to 2 weeks), but they lose a little texture and flavor every day. Cook them as soon as you can. Dried mushrooms keep for a year or more if stored in an airtight container in a dark place that’s room temperature or slightly more relaxed. Some fungi are frozen, pickled, or canned, but many premium species lose their magic if preserved in these ways.
Washing. Mushrooms tend to be dirty. Clean them gently by brushing the dirt off every surface with a brush (like a soft toothbrush) or a kitchen towel, or, if you can’t get the dirt off otherwise, rinsing under cold running water. Don’t let them sit in water, however, or they’ll become waterlogged; pat them dry promptly if they get wet.
Cooking. Always cook mushrooms thoroughly. Humans can’t fully digest them if they aren’t prepared. While this in-digestibility isn’t dangerous, some people may experience stomach upset from eating uncooked edible mushrooms. Besides, cooking brings out their flavors.
Perhaps the best way to cook any fresh mushrooms is to saute them slowly in butter (possibly with onions), letting the mushrooms’ liquids bubble out and form a creamy, savory sauce. Eat them as is, or add them and their cooking liquid to dishes containing eggs, wine, cream, chicken, pasta, pork, veal, or smoked meats.
Reconstitute dried mushrooms by soaking them in warm water (about 100F or 38C) for about 20 to 30 minutes, then use them and their soaking liquid in soups and sauces. Some reconstituted dried mushrooms, like morels, can be substituted for fresh in cooked dishes. The stems of most mushrooms tend to be fibrous, so are also best used in stews, stocks, and other slow-cooked dishes. You can remove the cooked stems, or chop them finely and return them to the recipe as appropriate.
Tame wild mushrooms
Appearing sporadically during rainy seasons (usually autumn or spring), wild mushrooms are tantalizingly elusive and very desirable. They are the stars of the culinary fungus firmament.
Porcine. The Boletus group of mushrooms have tiny, sponge-like pores under their caps rather than the gills other fungi have. The most prized among them is Boletus edulis, called cepes in France and porcine (or “little pigs”) in Italy–perhaps in honor of their plump little stems bulging out from under their round caps. Fresh porcini have been called “poor man’s steaks” for their meaty flavor and texture (though now they’re often more expensive by weight than steaks). Dried, they have smoky, woodsy flavors.
Drying seems to bring out the best in porcine. Look for dark, aromatic pieces that are solid and clean. Fresh ones should be brown and flawless, and the underside of the cap should be firm to the touch, with no greenish or yellowish discoloration (this indicates over-ripeness). Grill fresh porcini caps and use dried pieces to infuse soups, stews, and stocks with their flavor.
Note: Overripe fresh porcine can often be salvaged–just remove the mushy or discolored under a section of the cap and discard.
Chanticleers. The widely gathered and beloved Cantharellus caribous or golden Chantalle resembles golden-orange flowers, with fleshy, undulating caps and shallow, widely spaced gills. It has flavors and aromas of wood and apricot or peach. Related species include earthy, buttery black chanticleers (C. cinereus, C. fallax, and C. cornucopias), and the rarer, meatier white chanter Elle (C. subalbidus).
Golden Chanticleers don’t freeze well and are best used fresh. Look for firm, fragrant, golden specimens–reject chanterelles that are slimy or discolored or whose gills crumble under your fingertips.
Morels. In springtime, mushrooms of the coveted genus Morchella raise their crinkly caps above ground. Notoriously elusive, morels have resisted cultivation until very recently, so most are still wild–and expensive. Their flavor is seductive–nutty, meaty, and spicy.
Choose firm fresh morels with larger caps than stems and use them as soon as possible (refrigerate in the meantime). Clean, they may be left whole and stuffed with various fillings (including meat and rice preparations) before being cooked. They dry and reconstitute well.
Others. Other favorite wild mushrooms include toothsome young blew-its (Lepista nuda), delicate hedgehogs (Hydnum repandum), and mild, chewy matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare).
Get acquainted with cultivated mushrooms
All cultivated mushrooms started out wild–some species just took to domestication better than others. Many of those listed below can still be bought in their primitive forms, but the cultivated kind is often just as right, more available, and less expensive.
Portobellos. These members of genus Agaricus have a classic shape: round, saucer-like caps that are open beneath to display close-set gills. Portobello’s (or giant cremini) are mature specimens of the familiar white or tan button mushrooms found in Western supermarkets. Typically 4 inches (10 centimeters) or more in diameter, their maturity gives them a meaty, succulent flavor comparable to wild mushrooms.
Buy them fresh, and look for specimens with firm, fawn-co lour caps; intact, fine, brown gills; firm, paler stems; and no soft or disco-loured spots. Portobello caps are delicious when brushed with oil or butter and grilled, then used whole as a sandwich filling or side dish. They can also substitute for meat in many recipes.
Shiitakes. Lentinus ed-odes have been cultivated in Japan for over a thousand years, where they also grow wild on the shii tree. Shiitakes are medium-sized, with brown or tan umbrella-shaped caps and white gills and stems. They have a smoky, woodsy flavor that holds its own in any dish.
Many varieties of both fresh and dried shiitakes are available. In general, look for fresh ones with firm, spongy caps. Reconstituted dry ones can be used in the same variety of dishes fresh shiitakes can–everything from stir-fries to casseroles to soups.
Oyster mushrooms. Pleurotus ostreatus mushrooms only look like oysters, with fluted caps and irregular stems that jut out, shelf-like, from the sides of the trees on which they grow. There are many varieties on the market, ranging widely in flavor, texture, and color (some are pink!). Most have a sweet and mild, sometimes fruity taste. They can be used anywhere you’d use white mushrooms (they’re best if cooked, though).
Others. Other coveted cultivated mushrooms include rich maitake (Grifola frondosa), crunchy dried cloud ears or wood ears (Auricularia group), and slender white enoki (Flammulina velutipes).
Trifle with truffles
Truffles aren’t mushrooms, but they are fungi, and they certainly qualify as gourmet foodstuffs. Unlike mushrooms, truffles are usually eaten raw or barely cooked and in minimal quantities, since they are very pungent and costly (up to several hundred U.S. dollars per pound).
They look like small nuts or rocks and are sometimes smooth, sometimes bumpy or warty. They grow underground near individual tree species and are often found with the help of specially trained pigs or dogs. Truffles can’t be farmed, and they must be consumed when perfectly mature and entirely fresh. No wonder they’re costly! The varieties most commonly available in North America include:
Black truffles of Perigord, France (Tuber melanosporum), the most celebrated of all truffles
White truffles from Piedmont in northern Italy (T. magnatum), which are more pungent than French black truffles
Black truffles (Picoa carthusiana) and white truffles (T. gibbosum) from Oregon, which rival their European counterparts in size, flavor, and aroma
Choose truffles that have been out of the ground for only a few days, and have been refrigerated or packed in rice in the interim. Find a knowledgeable supplier and ask where the truffles are from, when they were harvested, and how they have been stored. They should be rounded but irregular in shape, and range from walnut-size to fist-size. Smell the truffles. They should have a pungent, richly layered aroma of earth and musk–their predominant flavors.
Use them as quickly as you can; to store them before use, refrigerate them in a brown paper bag or pack them in plenty of raw rice. Brush the dirt off the skins or wash them thoroughly under cold running water–the skin is eaten, too. Grate or slice truffles fresh over salads, sauces, or pasta, or saute them briefly with onions, chicken, sausage, or eggs.
Gourmet mushrooms and truffles are some of the great culinary delights of the world. Choose them carefully, prepare them lovingly, and savor them thoroughly.