Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cooking with Mushrooms: What to Know

I think I'm going to try to start incorporating another new feature into this blog, although I've done a rather crappy job of dealing with the other features so far. I even went out to eat last night and intended to write a review of the restaurant, but then family time on the last weekend before school starts back for the kids kind of took over. Maybe I'll write it later. Anyway, the new feature will hopefully be helpful for aspiring cooks... it's stuff you should probably know about ingredients before you start cooking with them. Ideally, I'll talk about science and whatnot in these kinds of posts, but mostly I'll probably end up talking about my experience. I would love to have and take the time to look up all kinds of awesome science (or do it myself!) on my ingredients, but honestly, I just don't have it right now. Maybe once my dissertation is published or this blog becomes popular enough to justify putting that much more time into it. Anyway, today's commentary is about mushrooms, which I thought would be worth mentioning after making a lovely egg sandwich with them for lunch.

First and foremost about mushrooms, they're very wet vegetables that you cannot juice. Squeeze though you may, you will not get juice out of a mushroom, but the thing is over 90% water by weight. In general, adding salt to something will draw out its moisture, and so you can expect that when you're cooking mushrooms and you put salt on what you're cooking that you're going to end up with a considerable amount of liquid in the pan that you didn't expect (see, with tomatoes, e.g., you'd end up with a considerable amount of liquid that you did expect, making this an important note). You need to account for this in dishes by either adding less fluid (if fluid is to be added) or by cooking that fluid off by sauteing the mushrooms longer initially, usually after adding some salt to draw out their liquids. The cooking-them-down method is usually the one I choose.

Secondly about mushrooms, they behave strangely in the presence of fluids. On the one hand, as we noted above, they give them off readily in the presence of salt and/or heat. They also absorb fluids rapidly (usually they "fill" in about ten to twenty seconds), but they'll only absorb so much and will only do it once. That means if you wash your mushrooms, then they're going to absorb water. That usually means that you're going to have a less successful result than otherwise. It also means that your mushrooms will absorb a little bit of whatever liquid they first come in contact with, most notably vinegars and oils so far as flavoring is concerned. Thus, I never wash my mushrooms (I wipe them with a slightly damp towel or clean them a brush), and I usually try to put them into something that tastes good like butter, olive oil, or bacon oil right off the bat. If vinegar is more my thing, I might dip them quickly in vinegar or wine right before throwing them in the pan or add vinegar to them soon after adding them. I'll almost always deglaze a pan with mushrooms in it with vinegar or wine also. A special note here: if you go to saute mushrooms in some oil, they will absorb a fair amount of it (and not give it back). That means you might have to add more oil to prevent other ingredients from sticking! They also are moist enough to really moisten dishes like meatloaf or burgers, but they don't hold together well at all, so they shouldn't be overused for that purpose.

Third, mushrooms are dirty, but you can't wash them. You need to brush them off, cut off particularly dirty ends of the stems, and perhaps get rather aggressive on some spots with a slightly damp towel. You don't want to eat that dirt, but you don't want to run them under the faucet either.

Fourth, mushrooms have a texture all their own... one that most kids seem to hate. Mushrooms are chewy. They tend to stay that way even when stewed (science I'd like to do is boil mushrooms until they become mushy... I bet it takes a long time), so you need to anticipate that. Big chunks of mushrooms, therefore, do poorly in stews because they become big chewy things that usually have a fairly poor mouth-feel (though slices are great stewed). For some things, like sauces, I either slice them very, very thin or cut them into itty-bitty chunks so that the texture plays far less of a role where texture shouldn't be playing a huge role.

Fifth, mushrooms all have distinct flavors that play more prominently than you might suspect. It's a really good idea to experience the flavors of different mushrooms at some point in some rather straightforward way... a really simple dish featuring them, sauteing them and using them as a garnish to burgers or other meat, making a main course out of them, etc. That way you know how their flavors work and can therefore make good decisions on how to use them. You can always just taste them fresh as well. Exotic mushrooms sometimes sound fun and exotic, but they might not taste the way you think they're going to and could wreck what you're trying to make. On the other hand, some mushrooms have a very, very delicate flavor, and you could ruin that by putting them in the presence of too many other strong flavors. You have to get to know your ingredients to cook well.

Sixth, mushrooms are almost universally delicious fried with bacon. Oh goodness.

Seventh, mushrooms are usually very good for you in very interesting and subtle ways. The white mushroom (which is very closely related to the portabello mushroom... they're actually essentially the same thing in two colors!) recently has been shown to reduce cancer risk, for instance. In fact, regular consumption of that mushroom along with daily consumption of green tea appears to cut breast cancer risk by 90%. Guess what my wife and I have a lot of now (mostly for her!). The shiitake and maitake mushrooms grow on wood (which according to traditional medicines is one sign of superior healthiness) and confer significant enough health benefits to be dried and sold as supplements in health food and vitamin stores. Surprisingly (or not), they taste great also (the Lingzhi or Reishi mushroom does not taste great and cannot really be eaten because it's as hard as a stick, however, but it makes an interesting addition to broth).

I'll probably think of a few more exciting things to say about mushrooms in the future. Just keep in mind the main things, though, when using them: they're good, they shouldn't be washed but should be cleaned, and they contain a lot of fluid and yet absorb fluids readily. As a bonus, here's how to make them into egg sandwiches (see the link for instructions) with bacon (my favorite flavor).

  • Follow the instructions for making egg sandwiches here, changing out the part before the addition of the eggs;
  • Use two or three white or baby portabello mushrooms, halved and then sliced thin;
  • Two strips of (streaky) bacon, fried by starting in a cold pan, cooked until crisp;
  • A clove of garlic;
  • Optionally a small amount of finely chopped onion;
  • Optionally a small amoutn of finely chopped Cayenne pepper.
Basically, start the bacon in the pan and cook it until it's getting crispy. Take it out of the pan, set it aside, and add the mushrooms (and onions). Salt those immediately. While that cooks, let the bacon cool a little and then chop it up into small pieces. Add it with the garlic and let it all cook for a couple of minutes... don't burn the garlic. Deglaze with a little (a tablespoon or so will definitely do it) vinegar of choice or white wine and let the liquid reduce. Once the liquid has reduced, lower the temperature, add the eggs, and follow the instructions on the other egg sandwich post. This one is probably the best of them!

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