Cooking wild mushrooms
Greetings, fellow mushroom lovers! We know that many of you are well-versed in the art of preparing and cooking edible wild mushrooms. Those of you who are in this category can stop reading now, unless you feel that a refresher course in “the basics” is in order.
When we say “the basics”, that’s exactly what we intend to address. We will assume nothing except that you can tell a mushroom from your elbow, and would like to be able to enjoy eating mushrooms that are not found in your local supermarket. All set, then? Let’s start with the rules. —What? You weren’t expecting rules? There are definitely rules involved when it comes to picking mushrooms, but there are just a few extra (but absolute) rules involved in preparing, cooking and eating them. (The accent here is in eating them.)
Rule #1: Before you consider eating a wild mushroom that you have picked yourself, you must be 100% certain of your identification. 99.9% isn’t nearly good enough. If you’re not absolutely certain, you may pick them, examine them, fondle them, or take a bath with them…. but don’t even think about putting them on your dinner plate —regardless of what method of preparation or cooking you intend to use— unless you are 100% certain of your identification. A saying we like to use in the mycological community is that “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are NO old, bold mushroom hunters!”
Rule #2: If you’re really pretty sure, or almost positive about your identification, re-read Rule #1.
Now that we have that little bit of information out of the way, we will have to conclude that by using one or more reliable methods, identification is not an issue. (After all, the article is called “Mycophagy 101”, not “Mushroom Identification 101”) What you will need before you start is a source for clean water, some towels (or paper towels), a knife or maybe two (preferably not serrated), a heat source such as a stove, and suitable cooking utensils, which will depend on what it is that you’re cooking. Olive oil is generally an excellent choice, although for some mushrooms, butter works better. Yes, we can hear some of you asking “Can’t I use margarine instead?” Well, you can use mustard if you have a mind to, but we can tell you that the taste will certainly be compromised by the use of margarine. “Alternative” spreads, such as Earth Balance work all right, but (for certain applications) nothing beats butter. Unsalted butter is best, by the way. (Salt should be added separately) A mushroom brush (widely available in stores that carry cooking supplies) will always come in handy.
Some people don’t seem to care, as long as there are no large beetles, spiders or slugs. (They figure that they’re going to be cooked anyway.) We can’t say as we agree with that. Our apologies for those of you who may feel otherwise, but we don’t “do” bugs. Any bugs.
Sometimes, insect infestation is very obvious. (‘Nuf said) Sometimes, you’ll have to cut (or break) open a cap to see if there is any evidence of tunnels or small worms. (This is sometimes evident by small “pinholes” in the flesh.) Certain mushrooms (eg: morels) may have insect infestation that will only become evident from soaking in lightly salted water, and observing insects floating to the surface. Stems will frequently have evidence of insects, where the cap on the same mushroom does not, so careful inspection is essential.
Where we find signs of insect passage, we cut and toss that part of the mushroom. You may do as you like.
CleaningWe prefer our mushrooms to be very clean before cooking. If well-cooked, a little dirt probably won’t harm you, but grit will absolutely ruin a dish, no matter how good it tastes. Because of their structure and places where they’re found, some mushrooms are easier to clean than others. Some mushrooms may be cleaned effectively no matter how dirty they are (lobster mushrooms, for example), whereas others (like small, delicate chanterelles) will be nearly impossible to clean (particularly if there is much dirt adhering to the gills) without employing an absurd amount of time and effort. Although as a general rule it’s best not to get mushrooms soaking wet prior to cooking, this is sometimes the only way to get them clean. Dirt from any part of the mushroom that was at (or below) ground level may be removed by cutting that portion of the mushroom off —preferably in the field— since once dirt becomes stuck in gills or pores (during transportation in your bag or basket), it is very difficult (if not impossible) to remove.
If you have a small amount of mushrooms to clean, you can almost do it standing on your head, but if you have any quantity, you will want to make yourself as comfortable as possible. (Your back will thank you for it!) A tall chair or barstool pulled up to the sink will help, as will something to cushion your arms from the sink’s edge. You will probably find that running the water is helpful, since you’ll need it so frequently that turning it on & off over and over will become troublesome. For most applications, a mushroom brush will work nicely, although for embedded dirt, you may have to resort to the tip of a knife. Please note that any mushrooms cleaned with water (as opposed to just wiping them off with a damp cloth, if you’re lucky enough to find really clean ones) should be well-drained prior to cooking.
Although some people do otherwise, we recommend that pores on boletes be removed (we generally do this in the field), because they are likely to harbor insects. Our experience has been that sometimes if mushrooms have been stored whole in the refrigerator for a day or so, insects will tunnel into the flesh of boletes (even where there was no previous evidence) from the pores, when pores have been left intact. The exception to this is with very young, tight pores that are in (obvously) perfect condition. Old, deep pores are spongy and largely tasteless anyway. They add nothing to the flavor, except that they absorb cooking oil at a rate that far exceeds that of the firm flesh itself.
Few wild mushrooms may be cooked whole with satisfactory results. Generally, the exception to this will be smaller, fragile varieties, such as the great “cinnabar-red” (cantharellus cinnabarinus) chanterelles. Most mushrooms should be sliced evenly (especially if fan-frying or sautéing is involved), or separated into bite sized pieces, such as with hen-of-the-woods (grifola frondosa).
Once your mushrooms are cleaned and pared to a good size for eating, the simplest cooking method is . . .
Most mushrooms are terrific using a simple sauté. The length of time required varies with the consistency of the mushrooms. However, the basic process is the same for all. Heat butter or oil over medium high heat. You will know the oil is at the right temperature when a drop of water placed in the pan sizzles instantly. The next step sometimes depends on which mushroom you are cooking. If you plan to use garlic in your saute, add it with or after other ingredients (such as onions or mushrooms) because it burns quickly, and burnt, will cause an unpleasant bitter flavor.For young, tender chicken mushrooms, slice into 1/8 – 1/4 inch thick pieces, and sauté in olive oil, two to three minutes per side. Remove to a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt and lemon juice, and just eat ’em right up! Also good: serve with mayonnaise, or a mayo-mustard mix. These make a wonderful and totally simple appetizer. If you have too many, they are easily frozen after cooking and can later be used in many different recipes. (Try them in place of chicken in a “chicken” salad!)
Oyster mushrooms are also wonderful in a sauté. Half butter/half olive oil works well with oysters, but all olive oil is just fine. We don’t recommend pure butter because oysters take some time to cook and the butter can burn. Chop two or three cloves of garlic and a small onion per frying pan full of oysters. Heat the oil (3 to 4 tablespoons) till a drop of water sizzles in it, then add the onion, cook till translucent, and add about 1/2 tsp. of ground cumin and stir. Now, you can add the oysters and garlic, (and salt to taste, we like about 1/2 tsp). Cook, stirring occasionally, until the oysters give up their liquid. At this point, we like to drain out the liquid into a container, and use it for gravy later. (this is about 15 – 20 minutes into the process). Continue to cook the drained oysters until they are slightly browned, then push the cooked oysters to the side of the pan and add a bit more (about a tablespoon) oil or butter. Turn the heat down low and add 1 – 2 tablespoons of flour and quickly mix it in with oil to make a roux. When the flour is evenly mixed, slowly return the drained mushroom liquid to the roux, mixing constantly. Then, additional liquid is needed. Milk can be used, but it not necessary, any nice vegetable broth does just fine. Adjust the seasoning and you will have a fine oyster mushroom gravy.Morels are also perfect for a sauté. We always like butter with morels, but vegans can certainly use Earth Balance as a substitute. For the simplest morel dish, halve your clean morels and dust them with a little flour. While we have often heard people claim flavor is lost in washing morels, they taste good to us, and the slight moisture that remains on them helps the flour cling. An easy way to dust them is to put the flour on a plate and dip each morel piece in the flour, turn, and then shake it. You just want a flour dusting, not a thick coating. (Morels also taste great with a variety of thick coatings – but that’s another lesson!)
Half olive oil and half butter works very well, use about 4 tablespoons per fry pan of morels. When the oil is hot and makes a drop of water sputter, add the morels. Watch them closely and turn them over as soon as the first side is browned (less than five minutes). Brown the second side and remove them to a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt to taste and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and eat! They can also be served on toast, or added to an omelet. The dusting of flour seems to capture the morel flavor.
Chanterelles are equally good sauté-ers. Whether black trumpet, cinnabar reds or goldens, chanterelles taste great when quickly sautéed in butter (or butter substitute) with a clove of minced garlic. Salt and lemon juice are sprinkled on at the end. Chanterelles will be done in about five minutes. You do not have to brown them, just cook them till they release their liquid. Stir frequently, and you will know they are done when they smell so good you can no longer resist!
Shaggy manes cook just as quickly and are done in a similar manner. We like to slice them cross-wise, but they can be sliced lengthwise or crosswise just as well. They are great no matter how you cut them, and if you happen to like eggs, cooked shaggy manes with eggs (and maybe a little cheese, salt & pepper) will be a sure-fire hit anytime you happen to have the resources. Please note: Shaggy manes do not keep! They should be cooked the day they’re collected, and after cooking, may be stored (tightly covered) in the refrigerator for a day or so until needed— but they’re best used ASAP.
Boletes take a bit longer to sauté. Their strong flavor holds up well to garlic, garlic and onions, or garlic, onions and tomatoes. One week, we found some nice boletes during a walk with members of our local mushroom club, cleaned and sliced them in the woods, and cooked them just in olive oil on a Coleman stove that we had brought along, “just in case”. Sprinkled with salt, they were truly excellent. If you want to use onions, put them in the oil first, and cook till translucent, then add your garlic and boletes. Boletes should be slightly browned on the edges when they are done, and take 15-20 minutes to cook a pan full of them completely through.
We have every expectation that by making use of the previous information, you will be up to the task of cooking up a few choice ‘shrooms the next time the situation presents itself. Of course, Mushroom The Journal will make every effort to include recipes (suitable for both novice and seasoned cook) that use wild mushrooms you are likely to find in various areas of the United States.
—See you in the field!
Joe & Kathy Brandt