Because I have kids, who go through stages of liking and hating foods (my younger two are usually swayed by what my oldest finds appealing or unappealing at the time), I decided that what the world needs now, is kids who like mushrooms. I’m not even talking about fancier fungi like truffles, chanterelles, or morels (although…try to imagine a world without them…or even better, don’t) I’m talking about the everyday button or crimini varieties that are widely available in any grocery store, have great health benefits such as inflammation fighting properties and conjugated linolenic acid that may help fight breast cancer. So, come on…add a little earthiness to your home cooking.
First though, seriously, put yourself in your children’s shoes. Would you really want to eat something chewy and even a little slimy that tastes vaguely of the forest floor? Can you blame them? No. I think not.
Let’s talk about this. Some common errors in simple mushroom sauté happen when your butter or oil isn’t hot enough, when you salt your mushrooms before or while they are cooking (which encourages them to release their moisture – essentially boiling the shroomies rather caramelizing them), when they aren’t sliced thinly enough, or when they are not allowed to get a little caramelization on them. There are all kinds of debates over whether or not you should wash your mushrooms, and you should just hear it from me: who the hell cares? If you feel queasy knowing that mushrooms are grown in manure and want to clean them, then give them a quick rinse and let them dry before you slice them. The main thing is that you probably don’t want them to absorb much moisture (don’t soak their undersides), and you also probably don’t want to slice them when they’re slippery. Or don’t wash them. If you’re comfortable knowing that manure is compost, and heat kills germies, then by all means, live a little. If your concern about poop shrooms lies somewhere in the middle, wipe them off with a paper towel. Whatever your pre-saute mushroom routine, here are some tricks that will help when you get to the cooking part:
1) Thinly slice your mushrooms. This will help them cook quickly and evenly, and help you work on your knife skills. Win-win.
2) Use a pan that provides plenty of room for sautéing. You want to be able to jiggle the pan so that all the mushroom slices hit a hot surface at the same time. Overloading the pan doesn’t allow that to happen, and increases that chewy and slimy texture you may be familiar with from mushrooms past. Ew.
3) Heat your oil before adding the mushrooms to the pan. Mushrooms are ridiculously absorbent. If you put them in a cool pan with oil and then try to heat everything up together, you’ll end up adding tons more oil (or butter, if you’re getting down like that) and missing out on that hot-pan caramelization. Set your fat (oil, butter, whatever you’re using) over medium heat and let it come up to temp (but not smoking) before you add your thinly sliced shroomies. They should sizzle as soon as they hit the oil. Take a listen. Don’t you love the sounds of the kitchen?
4) Be generous with your oil. 2 Tbsp. of oil for a couple cups of mushrooms? No. I’m sorry, that will not work. In my home kitchen, we usually have a plethora of extra virgin olive oil, because, who could live without it? But, if you really want to go for the gold, use butter. Or start with olive oil (or grapeseed oil, or another type of oil that lends itself to cooking with higher heat…olive oil is not actually the best for high heat, but that’s another conversation) and finish the sauté with butter, or use clarified butter the whole way through (again, another conversation we need to have, and I promise, we’ll get there). You just want to make sure your shroomies can move freely around the pan when jiggled and can brown evenly.
5) Don’t be afraid of a little caramelization. Letting the mushrooms brown sufficiently compliments their earthy flavor and combats what I’ll henceforth refer to as slime-chew. Keep an eye on them. Jiggle the pan so all the slices hit the heat evenly, then let them sizzle away for a couple minutes, then give them a toss or stir, re-jiggle the pan so they hit the heat evenly and let them do their thing again for a couple minutes. Repeat until the mushrooms are pleasingly browned.
6) Remove mushrooms from the oil and transfer to a small bowl. Sprinkle with good sea salt, give them a stir, add more salt if you wish. Taste the mushrooms at this point and think about how they taste. Browned enough? Salted enough? How is their texture? Are they the best damned mushrooms you’ve ever had? And make adjustments for your next fungal go-round.
There’s kind of this divide between people who feel like they “don’t know how to cook” and people who are just “naturals.” I learned long ago when someone is amazing at something, it has probably come through tons of trial and error, or training, or both. While natural talent is helpful, everyone is capable of learning through trial and error. The biggest thing is getting hands-on experience. Even if you’re intimidated, try it…and then reflect on your experience…delving into cooking might also help you be more adventurous in other parts of your life. Who knows what you’ll do next, you dirty dog, you?
Some notes: I’ve found that shiitakes can get overcooked and a bit tough when the method above is followed precisely. Therefore, when I’m sautéing shiitakes, I am a little more generous with the width of their slices, and I don’t take the heat quite as high or cook them quite as long. Also, Oyster mushrooms (which probably need their own post entirely) have a delicate flavor that I don’t feel needs exactly the same treatment as regular button varieties…but we’ll get there…little steps.
Get to cooking.