Umami: Practical Guide to Cooking with Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been a staple in the culinary world for centuries. They bring a complex, earthy flavor to the table, that is unparalleled. While it is impossible to know how many varieties of mushrooms exist in the wild, there are about 10,000 known species in North America alone. That does not mean these are all edible, far from it. While about 50% of mushrooms are edible only about 4% are believed to be both edible and tasty. The rest range from bad tasting to fatal. That leaves literally hundreds of varieties of mushrooms that are considered worth eating with a wide range of flavors & textures. America's favorite, the button mushroom, has very little flavor when compared to any of its relatives. While most grocery stores now carry a respectable variety, many of my clients have admitted to sticking to the button, cremini & portobello. While you may feel comfortable with these three, they are actually all the same mushroom. They are simply harvested at different levels of maturity. These fungi may have their place, but you're doing yourself & your dinner guests a disservice by not trying some of those weird looking ones. My goal is to give you some tools so you can be confident cooking anytime you choose a new variety of mushroom. Don't forget to bookmark this page, for future reference!
THE MAGIC OF UMAMI
Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, bitter & salty. It describes a savory flavor & is often described as meaty or hearty. It is the flavor that is in meats, smoked fish, mushrooms, tomatoes, soy sauce, fish sauce, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and many other foods.
Umami is known for its lasting aftertaste and unique ability to cause salivation.
Scientists have debated about umami since it was first proposed in 1908 and it wasn't accepted as one of the basic tastes until the 1980s. It may be a relatively recent discovery, but chefs have been balancing flavors with these ingredients for centuries.
Buy organic. This is highly recommended for all produce, especially those where you are eating the skin as it absorbs pesticides, insecticides and other nasty chemicals.
Select mushrooms with a fresh, smooth appearance. They should appear dry and plump. Avoid any mushrooms that look wet or soggy.
ALWAYS purchase from a reputable farmer or reseller. Many varieties of mushrooms are inedible, toxic and even fatal. NEVER collect mushrooms from the wild yourself.
If you find yourself unimpressed with the variety your grocery has to offer, check out your local international market. Take a trip to Saraga International Market, they have locations in Indiana & Ohio. It is a culinary adventure & my favorite store. They have everything from mushrooms to durian, and fresh seafood to lambs head. Whatever you are looking for, you can find it there.
Do NOT wash your mushrooms. They will absorb the water like little delicious sponges and you'll end up with a not-so-delicious soggy mess. Instead use a dry towel or paper towel to brush off any dirt.
Trim the root end and press the stem in between your fingers, if it feels woody or tough trim if off. If not, it's good for eatin'!
As a general rule, I recommend sautéing or searing your mushrooms until they are golden brown. This is my favorite way to get the most flavor out of my shrooms and it works great for most varieties. There are a few delicate varieties which fare better with more gentler cooking or just heating through by adding to a stir fry or soup.
USING DRIED MUSHROOMS
An excellent way to keep mushrooms on hand, without worrying about them going bad because you forgot about them, or didn't need to use an entire container. If stored properly, in a well sealed container, dried mushrooms can last for up to a year.
They need to be reconstituted before being used. This is simple to do by soaking them in room temperature or warm water. Thinly sliced mushrooms will only need to soak about 30 minutes. They are fully reconstituted once they are soft. Rinse them thoroughly to remove any grit. The soaking liquid that is left over will be a beautiful brown color and full of flavor. Be sure to save it to add to a soup or sauce. Drain it over a coffee filter or piece of paper towel to remove the grit from the mushroom broth you just created.
MIXING & MATCHING
As mentioned previously, the varieties offer unique flavors & textures. You can take advantage of this by combining to create an even deeper flavor profile. Combine those that cook well with the same method. Combining different flavors and textures can create something truly unique & delicious.
THE MUSHROOM BUCKET LIST
The most common varieties you will see in the grocery store.
Specs: Most common in US. Harvested young.
Flavor: Very subtle flavor.
Cooking: Raw or Cooked: Sear, Saute, Stir fry, Roast or Grill.
Cremini aka baby portobellos.
Specs: Mature white button mushroom.
Flavor: Mild Flavor.
Cooking: Raw or Cooked: Sear, Saute, Stir fry, Roast or Grill.
Specs: Most mature stage of the button mushroom.
Flavor: Mild in flavor, meaty texture.
Cooking: Remove the gills with a spoon before cooking. Recommend marinading and grilling/ roasting.
Specs: Common in Asian cuisine
Flavor: Savory Deep flavor & Meaty
Cooking: Trim stems, they can be woody & tough. Sear, Saute, Stir fry, Roast or Grill.
Specs: Delicacy in Asia.
Flavor: Delicate & Sweet flavor, depending on season they have an anise-like flavor.
Cooking: Remove stems, they are tough. Cooks quickly so does best in stirfrys or being added to the dish at the end of cooking.
Beech My personal favorite!
Specs: Adorable clusters of mini mushrooms.
Flavor: Nutty, buttery flavor. Firm texture.
Cooking: Try searing or sauteing with garlic, fresh ginger & herbs.
Specs: Varieties native to Europe, Asia & North America.
Flavor: Slightly floral, fruity & peppery. Meaty & Chewy.
Cooking: Try Roasting or Sauteing.
Specs: Native to North America, Turkey, China, the Himalayas, India, and Pakistan.
Flavor: Super savory & delicious, chewy texture.
Cooking: Try them sauteed in butter.
Specs: Long stems with little white caps. Seen frequently in Asian cooking.
Flavor: Mild fruity flavor.
Cooking: Trim off root. Excellent in soups & salads.
Specs: Common in Italian cuisine. Native to Europe & North America.
Flavor: Meaty, slightly nutty & creamy. Sourdough like aroma.
Cooking: Can be eaten raw, sauteed, grilled or roasted.
Specs: Native to Japan, now widespread. Related to the Oyster Mushroom.
Flavor: Meaty when cooked. Very mild flavor raw.
Cooking: Sear, Saute, Stir fry, Roast or Grill.
Hen of the Woods aka Maitake, "dancing mushrooms"
Specs: Seen in Japanese & Western cooking.
Flavor: Packed with flavor; rich & earthy.
Cooking: They hold their shape well & are excellent in soups & stir frys.