“The Healthy Gourmet”

May 6, 2010


September is National Mushroom Month, but May is as good a time as any to show appreciation for mushrooms.  Did you know that mushrooms are the only fruit or vegetable that has natural Vitamin D?  Mushrooms are low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free, very low in sodium, and  they are a good source of potassium.  Plus from a cooking standpoint, it’s hard to find a more versatile (and tasty!) food.

Are mushrooms vegetables?  Wikipedia says “mushrooms are the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source”.  Yum! Wiki says  “the noun vegetable usually means an edible plant or part of a plant other than a sweet fruit or seed.  However, the word is not scientific, and its meaning is largely based on culinary and cultural tradition…… For example, some people consider mushrooms to be vegetables, while others consider them a separate food category of fungi.”  So you decide how to categorize them!

Mushrooms are produced pretty much in every state but Pennsylvania leads with about 61% of US production.  In 2006/2007 the US produced 827 million pounds of mushrooms – wow, that’s a lot of mushrooms!  And before we go any further, let’s all be clear the best mushrooms for you to consume should come from a reliable source:  do not pick and/or eat any mushrooms growing in your yard or elsewhere because not all mushrooms are safe to eat.  Stick with the grocery stores or reputable farmers markets to be sure you are getting the right kind of mushrooms.

Common types of mushrooms include

White Button, the most common variety of mushroom, accounting for about 90% of the mushrooms eaten in the US.  They have a mild flavor that intensifies with cooking and they blend well with most anything.  They can be served raw or sautéed.

Crimini are light brown and often called baby ‘bellas.  They are a bit firmer than white buttons and have a more intense flavor, making them good with beef, wild game and other vegetables (assuming you go with mushrooms being a vegetable!).

Portabellas are larger relatives of crimini that have a meat-like texture and a full flavor.  Portabellas are great substitutes for hamburgers – marinate or stuff them, grill them and put them on a hamburger bun with a slice of onion and condiments.

Maitake are not mushroom-shaped; they are rippling and fan-shaped without caps.  They have a distinctive aroma and a rich woodsy taste.  These should be sautéed lightly in butter or oil.

Shitake mushrooms are tan to dark brown and have wide umbrella shaped caps with curved stems that should be removed. They taste best when cooked and are great in soups, pastas and stir-fry.

Oyster mushrooms can be gray, pale yellow or even blue!  They have a very delicate flavor that is best brought out by sautéing with onions and butter.

Porcini mushrooms are native to Italy and are difficult to find fresh in the US (at least in my experience).  Too bad, as these are some seriously great mushrooms!  Cooked over a wood fire grill and served in the Italian Riviera, they remain one of my favorite food memories!  They are available in dried form in the US but they are very expensive.

Choose mushrooms that are firm with a smooth appearance, dry but not dried out,  and the surface should appear plump.  A closed veil under the cap means they have a delicate flavor while an open veil and exposed gills means stronger flavor.

Mushrooms can be stored up to a week in the refrigerator.   They should be kept in the original packaging, and if you have extras they should be kept in a paper bag in the refrigerator.  Never keep mushrooms in sealed containers as this can cause condensation and make them go bad sooner.  Never freeze fresh mushrooms but sautéed mushrooms can be frozen and kept for up to a month.

Clean mushrooms under running water, brushing off any dirt or specs with your fingers or a soft mushroom brush.  Never soak mushrooms as they absorb water and can mess up a recipe when they weep out too much moisture in the pan.  Pat the mushrooms dry with a paper towel and trim the end before using.

Mushrooms may be sautéed in a bit of butter or oil – start with a hot pan, place mushrooms in a single layer, and flip them a few times until they are browned to your taste.  Portabellas and shitakes may be broiled or grilled:  brush the stems and caps with oil (or try a bottled oil-based salad dressing to brush them with), season with salt and pepper or other seasonings, and cook them 4 – 6” from the heat source for about 5 minutes on each side, brushing with oil to keep them from drying out.  You can microwave thickly sliced mushrooms without any fat, covered on high power for about 2.5 minutes for 8 ounces of mushrooms.  And you can roast mushrooms in a 450 degree oven, brushing them with oil (use a tablespoon of oil for 8 ounces of mushrooms).

That covers the common types of fresh mushrooms.  There are also plenty of sources of dried mushrooms that are reasonably priced and offer delicious tastes.  Dried or dehydrated mushrooms need to be hydrated before using, which is done by placing them in a cup or so of boiling water and letting them steep in the water for about 20 minutes (the package will give you exact instructions).   The advantage of using dehydrated mushrooms is that you can reserve and use the hydrating liquid in recipes for an unbelievable rich taste!


Next week:  my favorite mushroom recipes!