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Water Cooler: A guide to cooking mushrooms

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 7, 2021

 (pixabay.com)
(pixabay.com)

Ever since Julie Child said, “Don’t crowd the mushrooms,” the savory, earthy fungi solidified a reputation for being fussy in the kitchen. It is true that small mistakes can easily result in poorly cooked mushrooms, but don’t be intimidated. Arm yourself with a bit of knowledge about this ingredient, and it will become the star of your cooking in no time.

Still fresh or past their prime?

It is crucial to use mushrooms while they’re fresh, especially because of their funky flavor that can easily teeter between delicious and unappetizing. Toss mushrooms that are slimy, have dark or discolored spotting, appear especially wrinkled or have dark or grayed gills. In general, mushrooms are best when consumed within 10 days.

Wash? That’s the question

Depending on who you ask, it is either the worst mushroom sin of all to wash mushrooms in water, or it’s no big deal. Some recommend gently brushing the dirt off with a soft-bristled brush or a paper towel, otherwise the mushrooms will soak up the water like a sponge and become waterlogged and soggy in the pan.

Others negate this by reasoning that mushrooms are mostly made of water anyway, so there’s no reason you cannot wash them like you do other vegetables. Some people rinse mushrooms and dry them in a paper towel-lined salad spinner. It is likely they soak up some water, but probably not enough to make a substantial difference in texture if you cook them well.

The deciding factor will likely be whether you are grossed out by the idea of not rinsing off produce or if you are satisfied by knocking the majority of the dirt clods off. In terms of determining the mushroom’s final texture, your choice of cooking method will be more important anyway.

Cut them to size

Depending on the size of the mushroom, you may want to halve, quarter or slice it. Make sure to cut them all the same size, otherwise some mushrooms will wilt and burn, and others will not cook all the way through. It is also better to cut them in a way that provides you with a large flat surface for browning.

Depending on the variety of mushroom, you can keep or remove the stem. The rule of thumb is that if the stem is soft, like with white button mushrooms, it is perfectly edible. Some varieties, like oyster mushrooms, have firm stems that need to be removed because they won’t soften up with cooking. In most cases, stem removal is a matter of presentation.

Cook with oil, finish with butter

Any neutral oil can cook mushrooms, or oils that will impart specific flavors like olive oil. Cook with oil to begin, then finish with butter. The butter can’t take high heat so it is best saved for when the mushrooms are almost done, and it will also be better absorbed by the mushroom once the water has had time to evaporate.

Let water evaporate

The reason you shouldn’t crowd too many mushrooms into a pan is because they release water as they cook. Use a large pan and cook the mushrooms in batches if needed. If the mushrooms release water without enough room to spread out and allow the water to evaporate, they will become soggy and won’t brown, which deepens flavor.

The other element to this is to ensure you use a high enough heat. Don’t burn them, but make sure you hear a consistent sizzle while they are cooking. If they aren’t sizzling, they are steaming.

Feel free to add finishing touches such as sautéed shallot, onion or garlic and enjoy.

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