by Buck Reed

Cooking With Mushrooms or Fungi

Good food that is not prepared well is not well served. Caviar, venison, and mushrooms are great examples of foods that more than prove this point. If you have ever been served the first two, then it is more than a good chance they were prepared and served properly. But I would wager that you have never had perfectly cooked mushrooms.

Mushrooms are classified as fungi, which means they are not exactly a vegetable, but they are not animal either. The largest organism in the history of the world is credited to a honey mushroom in Malheur National Forest in Oregon and has roots that spread over some 2,600 acres. It is thought to be 8,500 years old, and yes, they are edible.

First, forget the canned or jarred mushrooms. Nutritionally speaking, canned mushrooms are on par with fresh but are extremely high in sodium. Also, the canned variety are woefully lacking in flavor. Do yourself and your tastebuds a favor and stick with fresh mushrooms. They are a bit more work but well worth it.

Common button mushrooms are an excellent inexpensive choice; however, do not overlook the exotic varieties. These mushrooms are readily available and can add a punch of flavor to your dishes. Plus, with a few exceptions, they can all be prepared and cooked the same as the button mushrooms.

To prepare mushrooms for cooking, rinse them quickly but thoroughly under cold water. Make sure to dry them before cutting them into desired pieces. Most mushrooms will need to have their stems removed before cooking. Use the stems to flavor stocks or broths.

At this point, cooking the mushrooms can get tricky but is easily manageable. The goal is to get them well-browned before they release their liquid. We do not want them boiling in their own liquid; instead, we want them to become brown tidbits of earthy flavor that were steamed in their own liquid. Cook the mushrooms separately from the rest of the dish. Cook them in a hot pan with plenty of oil and do not overcrowd the pan. As they release their liquid, your mushrooms will soak up the oil in the pan. About halfway through, you may need to add more oil or, even better, butter to the pan as your mushrooms finish cooking. Finally—this is the most important part—do not stir your mushrooms once you put them in the hot pan. Let them sit and cook until they are well-browned on one side. If you watch them, you will see them get golden around the edges, or you can pick up an individual piece with a set of tongs and peek at it. If it is brown, you can start to stir; if not, put it back.

Once cooked, set the mushrooms aside and continue with the rest of your recipe. You can also cook the mushrooms a day or two ahead and store in a covered container in the refrigerator. It is no doubt a bit more work, but it will improve any dish that calls for mushrooms.

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