Umami-rich mushrooms are prized in so many cuisines, particularly across Europe and Asia. They lend a heft and meatiness to dishes, absorb flavors beautifully and are simply irresistible when patiently sautéed in butter and oil. Many vegetarians love them as an alternative to meat in dishes like lasagna and tacos. Still, there are those who hate them, claiming that they taste like dirt. Well, that just leaves more for those of us who can truly appreciate these culinary gifts.
Mushrooms aren’t plants — they are types of fungi. If that grosses you out, remember that yeast, another fungus, is essential for sourdough bread, beer and wine — and without those, what even is life?
Mushroom varieties and what to do with them
There are a variety of mushrooms — more than 10,000 that are known — with distinct flavors, textures, sizes, shapes and colors. With plenty of vitamins and minerals, medicinal mushrooms have become wildly popular to help with stress, focus, digestion and more.
For cooking, thin, delicate enoki mushrooms are wonderful toppers for Japanese noodle dishes. Dried porcini mushrooms can be boiled in water with aromatics to make a rich, flavorful vegetarian broth to use as a base for sauces, soups or vegetarian ramen. Bright red lobster mushrooms (which are technically a mold) have a slight seafood-like flavor that is perfect for bisque. Chanterelles cooked in butter or cream pair beautifully with pasta.
The most common mushrooms that you’ll find widely for cooking at home are button, cremini, shiitake, oyster and portobello. We’ll get more into the best ways to cook these later on.
How to clean and prep mushrooms
There are two rules you should always abide by when cooking mushrooms:
- Clean them thoroughly and keep them dry.
- Like in all of the most successful relationships, give them the time and space they need to become their best selves.
Mushrooms you find at the grocery store are generally pretty clean, so you may just want to use a dry paper towel or washcloth to remove grit. Mushrooms from the farmers market may have more dirt on them. Some varieties, like lobster mushrooms, can also be particularly dirty and difficult to clean. In those cases, use a mushroom or vegetable brush to clean them off.
If you can’t resist washing them, briefly rinse with cold water and thoroughly dry them off. You want to avoid getting mushrooms too wet and you definitely don’t want to submerge them. They’ll soak up that water like sponges and you’ll never achieve caramelization or crispiness; instead, your mushrooms will release water when cooking, resulting in soggy sadness.
This is, of course, less of an issue if you’re using the mushrooms to make a stock or soup.
Depending on what you are cooking, you can keep the mushrooms whole, halve them, slice or chop them — just make sure they are nearly uniform in size so that they cook evenly.
How to cook mushrooms
One of the best ways to cook mushrooms is also the easiest: a simple sauté in butter and oil, a combo that makes the mushrooms extra decadent.
Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter to a large sauté pan. Once the butter foams up, add thinly sliced garlic and 1 pound of sliced mushrooms (button, cremini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, or a combo, work great for this). Add a sprinkling of salt (not too much!). Give the mushrooms an initial toss so the butter and oil mixture is distributed, and make sure the pan isn’t crowded.
Now, the hard part — you wait. Your fear will compel you to grab a spatula to stir, but resist the urge to tinker. Let the mushrooms have their “me” time, undisturbed. After about five minutes, finally, give it a stir. Let cook for another 3 to 5 minutes. You’ll see the mushrooms caramelize and start to shrink. Turn off the heat, add more salt to taste and a sprinkling of fresh herbs.
Your mushrooms are now ready to enjoy as a side dish, on toast, pasta, risotto or polenta. You can make variations on this, like deglazing with white wine or adding taco seasoning while cooking to use the mushrooms for tacos, flautas or quesadillas. Mushrooms can be roasted in the oven, too.
With all the mushroom varieties out there and an array of different cooking techniques at your disposal, you are limited only by your imagination (and, well, maybe time and willingness to cook). Here are a few other ideas for cooking mushrooms that just scratch the surface:
Stuffed mushrooms: Try these mouthwatering crab-stuffed mushrooms, or make a vegetarian version with sautéed veggies, breadcrumbs and cheese. Cremini or button mushrooms work well for this method.
Mushroom burgers: Need a healthy recipe for mushrooms? Try this chickpea and mushroom patty, which can be made with most mushroom varieties. Alternatively, you can make a blended burger with a half beef, half mushroom mixed patty.
Grilled portobello mushrooms: Marinate the large portobello mushroom caps in your favorite marinade and spices, and throw them on the grill, cooking for 5 to 7 minutes on each side. You can use these in place of patties for vegetarian burgers, or slice them up and serve over a salad or polenta.
Mushroom stroganoff: You won't miss the meat in this one, either. Partnered with the mushrooms, the kale and beans add additional bulk and terrific texture.
Mushroom soup: Mushrooms add really nice texture to soups, and this mushroom and farro soup from the mind of Martha Stewart is no exception.
Mushrooms in eggs: Got leftover mushrooms in the fridge? Like with any other vegetable you've got lingering in there, you can always throw it in an omelet or frittata. Cheese optional, but always appreciated.