The most familiar and readily available mushrooms in the United States are those cultivated here—the white button and brown cremini mushrooms varieties. Since the 1980s, many varieties of wild mushrooms have been imported, and other varieties of specialty mushrooms have been developed or cultivated. These mushrooms are now widely available fresh or dried in our vegetable markets. Some of my favorites include shiitakes, portobellos and porcinis (cèpes). Porcinis, or cèpes, when fresh are incredibly delicious—and pricey—and only make a brief appearance in our specialty produce markets in early through mid-autumn. Fortunately dried porcinis, once reconstituted, are also delicious and much more readily available.
To buy and store fresh mushrooms: When selecting white button mushrooms, avoid those with open caps (turn mushrooms stem side up and if the dark brown gills are visible, choose another). Button mushrooms should be firm, smooth and blemish free and, when stored properly at home, will last for about one week. If purchasing packaged mushrooms, leave them in their original container on the shelf of your refrigerator. (Don’t enclose them in the crisper which is too humid and will provoke the mushrooms to sweat.) If purchasing unpackaged mushrooms, store them in a shallow dish draped loosely with a double thickness of slightly moistened paper towel.
To clean fresh mushrooms: Since fresh mushrooms are very absorptive and naturally loaded with liquid, it’s not a good idea to run them under water to clean them. When mushrooms become wet before cooking, they will immediately release excess liquid into the hot sauté pan and lose their ability to sear and become golden. Instead, they will quickly steam within their own juice and become gray and limp. To properly clean fresh mushrooms, dampen a piece of paper toweling and wipe the cap and stem of the mushroom to remove all traces of dirt. Although it’s not necessary to peel the outer skin, which will naturally begin to fall away as you wipe, I usually remove it to make the surface of each mushroom look cleaner and whiter. (Some” foodies,” however, are quite passionate about not peeling mushrooms; this is strictly a matter of personal preference.)
To remove stems from fresh mushrooms: Although the stems on many mushrooms are edible, some are not palatable since their texture is quite tough and the flavor sometimes gamey. To remove the stems of shiitakes or portobellos, simply slice off the stems flush with the caps. Button mushrooms stems are as delicious as the caps so the only reason to remove their stems is when you wish to stuff the mushroom. Don’t throw away your stems (see below on how to use and cook fresh mushrooms). To release the stem from a button mushroom, secure the mushroom cap down in one hand and lay your other hand lightly over the mushroom bottom. Using the thumb on the hand covering the mushroom, gently but firmly push the stem away from you to release it from one side of the cap. Turn the cap a half turn and do the same on the other side. Lift out the stem.
To reconstitute dried mushrooms: While excess liquid is detrimental to the texture of fresh mushrooms, dried “wild” mushrooms need excess moisture not only to become clean, but also supple and edible. To clean dried mushrooms, place them in a wire strainer and rinse briefly under cool running tap water. Then immediately place them in a bowl, pour in very hot water to cover and soak until fully reconstituted, 20 to 30 minutes. Lift the reconstituted mushrooms out of the liquid, gently squeezing them to extract more of the liquid. Strain the flavor-packed soaking liquid through a paper filter or dampened cheesecloth to remove debris, and use the mushroom liquid to enhance whatever you are cooking—whether its sauce, soups, rice, or stews (the list is endless!)
To use and cook fresh mushrooms: Although fresh mushrooms may be eaten raw, it’s best not to make a habit of it. Raw mushrooms contain small levels of toxins (called hydrazines), which are a natural protective substance produced in mushrooms to deter predators. Fortunately, most of these toxins are destroyed during cooking or after drying. To cook fresh mushrooms properly so they become golden and savory, they should be sautéed over intense heat in either hot butter (full or clarified), or extra-virgin olive oil. For the most intense flavor, keep cooking the mushrooms until all of their exuded juices evaporate and the mushrooms begin to turn golden and give off a wonderful savory aroma. The exception is when adding mushrooms to a sauce. Then, in order to incorporate more of the mushroom flavor, you’d remove the pan from the heat just after the mushrooms become tender and begin to exude their natural juices. Mushrooms make wonderful containers for savory fillings for an appetizer or first course. They can also be sliced, chopped or quartered and sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs to add to sauces, soups, rice, stews, omelets and soufflés, or to top crisp hot garlic toasts.
To use dried mushrooms: Add reconstituted dried mushrooms, and the liquid used to reconstitute them, to sauces and stews in much the same way as fresh—only use less, since their flavor is quite intense and concentrated and their price tag is high. Remember that a little goes a long way. To make up for the lack of texture in dried mushrooms, add additional fresh sliced or chopped mild cultivated mushrooms to the more powerful reconstituted fungi.