You don't have to be a professional chef to know that “sauté” means to sear food in a small amount of hot fat so that it browns deeply and develops savory flavor. So you might wonder how I—a professional chef—came to conclude that the most important step when sautéing mushrooms is to first simmer them in water.
To explain, let me start by recounting what typically happens when you sauté mushrooms. You heat a little oil in a skillet, throw in the sliced fungi, and toss them around. Pretty soon, there's no oil left in the skillet, so you add a little more to lubricate the pan and encourage the browning that creates loads of new, rich-tasting flavor compounds. But mushrooms suck up oil like sponges, and you find yourself adding more and more. Then, just as browning seems to be getting underway, the mushrooms start to release their abundant moisture. Only once all their jus has evaporated—which takes a lot of time and frequent stirring so that the process happens evenly among all the slices—can browning start in earnest. But by that time, you've already added so much fat to the pan that you may as well have deep-fried the mushrooms.
The problem is that mushrooms are full of air pockets that readily absorb oil. And all that water they contain thwarts browning. To yield meaty-tasting, well-browned mushrooms—not spongy oil receptacles—I'd have to start by quickly ridding them of all that air and water.
Thanks to our recent recipe for Caramelized Onions (September/October 2017), I had a good idea of what to do: Start by adding water—not oil—to the skillet with the mushrooms. This might sound counterintuitive since the whole idea of browning is to eliminate moisture so that food can rise above 212 degrees and the browning reactions can take place. But as with onions, surrounding the mushrooms with steam from the get-go would mean that all of the mushrooms would start cooking right away. Their cells would rupture sooner so that the mushrooms could rapidly exude moisture—the step that's the requisite precursor to browning.
So I loaded up my 12-inch nonstick skillet with a little more than a pound of sliced white button mushrooms (enough to yield about four servings) and ¼ cup of water. I cranked the heat to high and, sure enough, within moments the liquid in the pan turned gray—proof that the mushrooms were giving up their jus. After only 5 minutes and just occasional stirring, that liquid had evaporated and the mound of mushrooms I'd started with had reduced enough to fit in a single layer across the skillet's cooking surface.
From there, I proceeded with a typical sauté method, drizzling several tablespoons of oil over the mushrooms to speed browning and letting them sizzle over medium-high heat until they developed good color.
But, surprisingly, multiple tablespoons of fat now seemed like way too much. Instead of readily soaking up the oil and leaving just enough to lubricate the pan and encourage browning, as they do when sautéed the typical way, the mushrooms didn't absorb much oil at all. In fact, much of the oil remained in the pan, so the mushrooms cooked up grease-slicked.
I ran a series of tests in which I incrementally decreased the amount of oil I added to the pan after the water evaporated, and I was stunned to discover that a mere ½ teaspoon was all I needed to prevent sticking and help accelerate browning. Why? Because while raw mushrooms contain air pockets that readily soak up oil, cooking the mushrooms before adding oil collapses those air pockets so that they can't absorb nearly as much.
Now that I had a method for sautéing mushrooms that was not only efficient but also downright lean, I felt justified in lavishing the mushrooms with a glossy butter-based glaze.
Once they were well browned, I lowered the heat to medium and pushed the mushrooms to the sides of the pan to clear a space. In went a tablespoon of butter and some minced shallot and rosemary to lend the dish depth and fragrance, followed by red wine and cider vinegar to deglaze the pan.
I gave the contents a stir to evenly coat the mushrooms with the sauce, but on closer inspection I noticed that the mushrooms were coated with droplets of fat—a clear sign that simply tossing the butter-wine mixture with the mushrooms hadn't thoroughly emulsified the sauce.
The problem was that there was very little sauce compared to the volume of mushrooms in the pan, which made it difficult to vigorously stir the mixture and incorporate the butter. So, going forward, I added ½ cup of chicken broth after the deglazing liquid had evaporated, and I let the buttery broth simmer until it had reduced by about half and the fat had emulsified into the liquid.
These were the dinner party–worthy sautéed mushrooms I'd had in mind: well browned, meaty-textured, flavor-packed, and lightly glossed with a buttery glaze. I checked that the recipe worked with portobello, cremini, and shiitake mushrooms and, to make it even more special, tried subbing in oyster and maitake mushrooms, varieties that are increasingly available in supermarkets. I also pulled together a few more simple sauces to give the dish some real bandwidth.