12 Mushrooms and How to Eat Them
OK, so you love mushrooms. But which ones do you use when? And what's the best recipe for that "chef's assortment" you impulsively picked up at the market? Here's what you need to know to make the most of the 12 most popular mushrooms.
As with the wide world of cheese, one of the joys of eating mushrooms is experiencing the unique flavors of the different varieties. From meaty portabellos and shiitakes to mild oyster mushrooms and chanterelles, you'll just have to taste the rainbow of mushrooms to decide which one is your favorite. With their unique flavor profiles, mushrooms can be happily paired for different effect with steak, cream, pasta, wine, onions, in breakfast dishes with eggs, and (of course) cheese.
Here, we take a look at the defining characteristics and preparations for the most popular dozen mushrooms; read on and celebrate the glories of fungus!
Common Button/White Mushrooms
Button mushrooms have the honor of being both the most common and least expensive mushroom in the United States. These versatile, everyday mushrooms have a mild flavor that gets stronger when cooked and blends well with other ingredients. Sturdy enough to hold up in sauces, stir-fries, and stews, sliced and sautéed button mushrooms are also what come to mind as classic toppings for pizza and mushroom-smothered cheeseburgers.
Cremini Mushrooms, aka "Baby Bellas"
Cremini, or brown mushrooms, are almost identical biologically to white mushrooms. You can use them interchangeably in recipes that call for white mushrooms to add a slightly earthier, more full-bodied mushroom flavor. Like white mushrooms, the hardy cremini stand up well to slow cooking soups and stews. Oh, and that name, "baby bella"? It's exactly what it sounds like: cremini mushrooms are indeed immature, or baby, portabella mushrooms. More on that after these recipes.
Large, substantial portabella (also called portobello) mushroom caps are the meatiest of the mushrooms, good for grilling and used as a healthy substitute in traditional meat dishes. The portabella is simply a cremini mushroom that's been allowed to grow to maturity, producing a wide, flat cap about the size of your palm. On the underside, you'll see dark gills, which should be removed before cooking. Freshness tip: look for portabellas whose gills still have pink undertones.
The stems can be quite woody and are typically composted or used to flavor soup broth. The taste of a grilled portabella mushroom cap is best described as meaty and earthy — but the real meat-like quality comes from the chewy texture, which provides a sensation similar to biting into a medium-rare steak.
Hard-to-find morels are a springtime treat with a distinctive deep and earthy flavor and sponge-like appearance. If you see them fresh, buy them while you can! The short season for morels means they'll be gone in a flash. Fortunately, many recipes call for dried morels, which can easily be found online, bringing us the pleasure of morel's nutty flavor year round. Remember: morels should ALWAYS be cooked — they can make you sick if eaten raw.
Oyster mushrooms get their name from the shell-like shape of the caps, which grow on the side of trees in clustered stacks reminiscent of stadium seating. While they do have a distinctive shape, be careful when shopping not to confuse them with the long, thick-stemmed king oyster mushroom. Despite its name, the king oyster is a quite different species altogether.
Oyster mushrooms are known for their mild yet complex flavor and come in a range of colors from blue-gray to salmon to golden-brown, with slight variations in taste. Orange-hued oyster mushrooms, for example, will tend to have a light nutty flavor. All varieties taste best paired with other mild flavors — or even better, served alone, sautéed in butter. While oyster mushrooms are on the fragile side, you'll still want to remove the tougher stem before cooking and be sure to eat them while young and somewhat firm. Because of their delicate nature, they're often used in Asian soups, stir-fries, and other quick-cooking preparations.
Shiitakes are meaty mushrooms similar to portabellas, if without their signature massive girth. These mushrooms have an intense and woodsy flavor, with smaller shiitakes offering a tender texture and larger ones providing more robust flavor. A chewier mushroom, shiitakes are a good choice to add both texture and umami to flavor-rich dishes.
If using fresh, the woody stem should be removed and saved to add to stocks. Like morels, shiitakes should never be eaten raw, so keep these off your salads unless you've sautéed them first. If fresh shiitakes aren't available, there are many recipes that call for dried shiitakes for an even more intense mushroom flavor. In fact, dried shiitakes have been noted as an excellent substitute for the much pricier wild porcini — with a deeper flavor to boot.
Hen of the Woods, aka Maitake Mushrooms
One of the most delicate mushrooms, the Hen of the Woods mushroom sports a tattered head held together by a sturdier core at the base. Also known as maitake or sheepshead (but not to be confused with chicken of the woods), this shaggy clump of mushroom is most often prepared simply by breaking and tearing the mushroom into bits and pieces by hand. These mushrooms have an earthy, woodsy, and somewhat spicy flavor that helps makes dishes taste richer. Hen of the Woods are excellent when roasted or sautéed in butter, allowing the delicate edges to curl up and crisp.
The enoki mushroom, sometimes labeled as enokitake, is a very mild, crunchy Asian favorite that is quickly gaining popularity in the United States. Pale, long, and skinny little mushrooms, these are often eaten quick fried in little bundles or scattered atop a hot dish as a garnish after cooking.
To prepare, cut off the connected stem end and separate the mushrooms with your fingers into smaller clumps. Enoki mushrooms are quite good for soup, where they can be put in raw to just barely cook themselves in the hot broth while adding a textural crunch to the dish. Other preparations involve a quick stir fry where the mushrooms jump in and out of the pan in a flash.
Chanterelles are the belle of the ball at the wild mushroom dance. Delicate yellow or orange in color, chanterelles look like little golden horns with their inverted bell shape, and may even smell faintly of apricot. The have a gentle nutty flavor with hints of pepper and spice, making chanterelles a good substitute for morels or the even rarer hedgehog mushroom. Although firmer than the maitake or enoki mushrooms, chanterelles are still best prepared by tearing them instead of chopping. Like many of the other mushrooms here, they can have tough stems which can be removed and added to homemade stocks to make the most of this exceptional flavor.
Porcini mushrooms are some of the most highly prized in the culinary world, known for their bold, nutty flavor. Porcinis impart a deep, pure mushroom flavor to any dish, and are classically used in many Italian recipes. Their hearty flavor and meaty bite work well with pasta and grains, thick soups, and in flavorful gravies.
Porcinis are bulbous, both in cap and stem, with a classic mushroom-brown hue. They may be easier to find dried; if they're cost-prohibitive to buy, you can substitute dried shiitakes easily in the recipes below.
Truffles and Truffle Oil
Only the truffle, one of the most expensive gourmet foods in the world, can give the porcini a run for its money (or yours). This hard, bulbous mushroom grows underground; historically dogs and pigs have been used to help truffle hunters sniff them out in the wild. The two main varieties are the white or "Alba" truffle from the Piedmont region of Italy and the black "Perigord" truffle grown in France, Italy, and Spain.
Despite being so hard that they are typically served shaved, truffles are among the most perishable of mushrooms, with peak flavor lasting only 3-4 days. Truffles have a very strong, almost musky flavor associated with the finest of dining; however, you can more affordably boost your day-to-day cooking by using a small amount of truffle oil as with many of the elegant recipes that follow.
Straw mushrooms, sometimes called paddy straw mushrooms, are easily recognizable for their small, pointy shape and dark caps. Most often purchased canned here in the States, these bite-size 'shrooms are frequently seen in stir fry dishes and classic Thai soups such as Tom Yum and Tom Kha Gai. If you do use canned straw mushrooms, remember that they've already been partially cooked during canning, so they're well suited for quick cooking weeknight recipes.
Can't Decide? Mix 'Em Up!
Can't choose just one? Me neither. Here are just a few ideas for when one kind of mushroom just isn't enough!
Want to know more about mushrooms? Read Mushrooms 101