There is a vast array of mushroom varieties (almost 40,000!), each variety falling into one of two camps: wild and cultivated. Many of them are poisonous or cannot be cultivated—which explains the expensive price tags on the more-unusual varieties. Most varieties work well used fresh or cooked and may be used as an ingredient or as an elegant garnish.
Spring rains and cool, damp, fall mornings create the perfect conditions for mushroom hunting. These coveted prizes grow under trees or on old stumps, and their earthy tastes prove an ample reward for the hunt.
Please note: Wild mushrooms can be fatally toxic. The poisonous variety can be easily mistaken for the edible varieties, so it is crucial to have a trained expert identify any wild findings.
Mushrooms vary greatly in size and range in color from white to black. Flavors run from bland (like the button mushroom) to rich, nutty, and earthy (like shiitake). They are comprised of a shaft and a cap that can be smooth, pitted, honeycombed, or ruffled.
Mushrooms are available in bulk or prepackaged and are best when they are firm and smooth with unblemished caps. Marinated mushrooms are also available. Because of their tendency to absorb water, mushrooms can become limp, soggy, wrinkled, or moldy very easily; however, the best mushrooms are heavier due to their own natural water content. Avoid mushrooms with grey or dried stems—they have been stored too long and have dried out. If mushrooms have caps, make sure they are closed—and, if they have gills, make sure they are exposed and unbroken. When shopping in bulk, select mushrooms of uniform size to assure even cooking.
To absorb excess moisture and prevent sogginess, place fresh mushrooms in a paper bag and store in the refrigerator up to four days. Delicate varieties should be spread out on a tray covered with a damp cloth and stored in the refrigerator. Prepackaged mushrooms will keep for three to four days before becoming slimy and developing mold. Dried mushrooms will keep in a cool, dry place up to six months.
Mushrooms can be cooked a variety of ways and may be sautéed, microwaved, roasted, grilled, or broiled. To remove dirt from mushrooms, rinse quickly under cold water (taking care not to soak them) and pat dry just before cooking. Alternately, you can wipe them down gently with a damp cloth. Trim tough stems or remove them completely, if necessary.
Mushrooms may shrink to half their size because of the loss of water in sautéing. Be sure to account for this when preparing or you will have a lot less than you thought you did! Cook the mushrooms long enough to absorb their juices.
Not much is needed to bring out the rich mushroom flavor—simply sauté in olive oil with garlic over high heat. Mushrooms will also adapt well to virtually any seasoning. Sautéed mushrooms make an excellent side dish and work wonderfully well served on top of choice, free-range beef! Mushrooms are wonderful roasted or grilled cap side down and are perfectly suited to shish-kabob skewers. Truffles are usually added at the end of cooking time to preserve their flavor.
What follows is a guide to the most-common mushrooms available at your local farmers’ market or grocery store. For more information on these and other varieties, visit the Mushroom Council at http://www.mushroomcouncil.org/ or the American Mushroom Institute, http://www.americanmushroom.org/.
Button mushrooms—Button mushrooms are young white mushrooms most commonly called for in recipes.
Cremini—These brown, firm-textured mushrooms are a little stronger in flavor than white mushrooms and are characterized by a rich, mellow taste. Cremini mushrooms are pleasant raw or cooked and will not shrink as much as white mushrooms.
Morels—Morels are considered by many to be the king of the mushrooms due to their delicious flavor. They are a rich tan to very dark-brown wild mushroom in the same family as truffles (see below). They have a spongy, honeycombed, cone-shaped cap that is two to four inches high and a earthy and nutty flavor. The darker the mushroom, the deeper the flavor. Dried morels are popular for their smoky flavor and are available year-round.
Porcini mushrooms—These pale-brown, wild mushrooms are also known as cèpes and can weigh from one ounce to one pound with cap size ranging from one to ten inches. Porcini mushrooms boast a smooth, meaty texture and pungent, woodsy flavor that is very popular. They are difficult to find fresh in the U.S., but they may be purchased packed in oil or dried. If using the dried mushrooms, soften them with water before using
Portobellos—Portobellos (sometimes referred to as portabellas) are a mature, brown, cultivated mushroom variety that is the largest of the commercially available mushrooms with cap diameters up to six inches wide. Their long growing cycle gives them a deep, smoky, meat-like flavor and substantial texture prized by many—especially vegetarians. Thick, tough stems should be removed.
Shiitakes—Shiitakes range in color from tan to dark brown and are characterized by smooth, plump, umbrella-shaped caps, wide open veils and tan gills. They are most popular in Japan and but are now widely cultivated.
Truffles—Truffles are one of the most expensive and rare foods in the world. They are found primarily in Europe, with the world's largest truffle plantation said to be in Spain in the town of Abejar north of Madrid with France’s Périgord and Quercy regions and Italy’s Umbria region being the most renowned. Interest in harvesting in the U.S. is also growing, with Oregon taking the lead. Truffles are hunted by specially trained pigs or dogs, who are able to hone in on their distinct aroma. These subterranean fungi grow among tree roots several inches to several feet underground no further out from the tree than the height of the tree itself. The flesh of all truffles is nearly white when young; as the truffle matures, the flesh becomes darker with a marbling of lighter tissue. Many cooks feel that a tiny amount of truffle shavings can change a common dish into food fit for royalty.
White mushrooms—The cultivated white mushroom has a mild, earthy flavor with caps ranging from one-half to three inches in diameter and colors ranging from white to pale tan. This mushroom is a widely available, all-purpose mushroom that is perfect for stuffing.