In today’s food world, versatile ingredients are an operator’s best friend. They’re cost-effective, adaptable and fun to work with. At the top of that list sits mushrooms, which “are great because they’re so high in moisture, so they make people feel full, without affecting their nutritional intake,” says Aatul Jain, retail operations manager at Saint Clare’s Health System, in Denville, N.J.
Jain adds that mushrooms retain their shape and size well and add depth and complexity to a dish, something with which Justin Johnson, executive chef at the Watertown Regional Medical Center, in Wisconsin, agrees. “One of our challenges is to create flavor without a lot of added salt. Mushrooms are great for that because they’ve got those deep savory, umami notes and they don’t need a ton of coaxing to take a dish to another level.”
In addition, mushrooms also offer limitless applications. “They’re fantastic in braising dishes, awesome fried, sautéed as a side dish or stir-fry, or roasted,” says Joseph Burdi, executive chef with Sodexo at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.
A word to the wise: If you roast mushrooms, cook them at a very high temperature and don’t overfill the pan, which will steam them, Jain says. Roasting is often preferred over sautéing. “When you sauté, at some point you have to deglaze the pan with some kind of liquid, which leaches out a lot of the flavor,” Johnson adds. “But if you roast in a hot oven, you get a slightly crispy skin and you’ll retain a lot more flavor.”
An abundance of varieties
Different applications call for different varieties, so it’s important to understand the difference. Button and crimini are best sliced, while wild do well in soups, for example. And portobellos are great meat substitutes.
“We have a Bourbon-glazed Grilled Portobello Breakfast Sandwich, a Grilled Mushroom and Cheese Panini and a Portobello Burger, which are great vegetarian choices because they’re big mushrooms with a [hearty mouth feel] and a texture very similar to meat,” says Terry Baker, director of dining services at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater. Or offer stuffed mushrooms, like Burdi, who has a quinoa-stuffed portobello at his vegan station.
If you’re looking for a cost-effective way to use mushrooms, take a page from the Corpus Christi (Texas) Independent School District’s book and only use stems and pieces from button mushrooms. “We do a veggie pizza that arrives frozen with the crust, cheese and sauce separated,” explains Jody Houston, director of food services. “Our cafeteria staff assemble the pizza and add fresh mushrooms before cooking in a conveyer oven. Students love it; the pizza is attractive and offers a great vegetarian choice.”
Whichever variety you choose, keep in mind these rules of thumb:
1. Storage is key. “Arrange mushrooms on flat sheet pans, so air can circulate and they can breathe,” Johnson says. Or store in paper bags.
2. Never wash or soak mushrooms, as they will absorb too much water and lose their flavor. Instead, dust debris off with a towel or quickly dip in a bowl of cold water, Burdi advises.
3. Remember, some mushroom stems, like those of portobellos and shiitakes, aren’t edible. Others, such as oyster mushrooms and morels, have a consistent texture from cap to stem, Johnson explains. Taste to see how woody the stem is before use.
Most importantly, use mushrooms thoughtfully. “If you just throw them in as an afterthought, they won’t enhance the dish, they’ll be off-putting,” says Johnson, who recommends chicken marsala or beef chasseur as ways to make mushrooms an integral part of the dish.
Sourcing from local and sustainable farms is important to chefs today. As such, Oklahoma State started a farm-to-table program, Farm Fresh, in an attempt to broaden students’ horizons by introducing them to ingredients from local farmers.
This February, the department highlighted mushrooms from a farm 20 miles away. “We brought the farmer in so the students could meet him and learn about his product,” says Baker, who also does cooking demos and tastings across campus to educate students about mushrooms. “It’s great because students may not be familiar with an ingredient, but once they try fresh, locally grown produce on our table, they change their mind.”
Baker isn’t alone. Watertown’s Johnson sources his mushrooms from a local forager, and Northwestern’s Burdi labels all local items, including an excerpt about the farm.
White: This type accounts for nearly 90% of the mushrooms consumed in the U.S. Whites have a mild taste, which intensifies when cooked.
Crimini: These baby portobellos look like whites, except they have a darker cap and firmer texture. Crimini also have an earthier flavor, which pairs well with beef, wild game and vegetables.
Portobello: These mushrooms have caps that measure up to six inches in diameter. Because of their meatlike texture and flavor, portobellos are great meat substitutes.
Enoki: This variety has long, spindly stems with small button-shaped caps. Enoki are mild tasting and crunchy, making them good raw in salads and sandwiches.
Oyster: The color varies from gray, pale yellow to blue. Oysters have a velvety texture and a very delicate flavor, which is best brought out by sautéing with butter and onions.
Maitake: These mushrooms are fan shaped and have no caps. Their woodsy flavor is used best in dishes calling for a richer taste.
Shiitake: This variety has a tan to dark brown color, with broad, umbrella-shaped caps. Shiitake are best when cooked
to bring out their rich, woodsy flavor.