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Our Guide to Fresh Mushrooms

By Elizabeth Bomze Published

Meaty in flavor and texture, mushrooms add substance and savor to countless dishes. They’re also one of the most forgiving foods you can cook. Here’s everything you need to know about them, including our innovative sautéing method.

Mushrooms have the potential to brown deeply and deliver meaty flavor and satisfying chew. The trick is to maximize their surface area and rid them of as much water as possible. Well show you how—plus, well walk you through the basics of shopping for, storing, and prepping them. 

What Youll Learn

What Exactly Are Mushrooms?

Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms are fungi that grow on the forest floor. There are around 1,000 edible varieties, but only about 20 are commercially cultivated. The mushrooms we buy in the supermarket are grown under highly controlled conditions on mushroom farms.

Mushrooms are noted for their characteristic flavor when cooked; they provide a savory, meaty umami taste to dishes. That’s because they are an excellent source of both glutamic acid and the nucleotides IMP and GMP, which combine to produce a strong umami taste. Since both glutamic acid and the nucleotides are nonvolatile and heat-stable, cooking does not destroy mushrooms’ ability to enhance the taste of food.

Shopping Tips for Mushrooms

We recommend buying loose rather than packaged mushrooms so you can inspect their condition.
Pay attention to the following qualities:

Cap Size and Condition: Whole and intact with no discoloration or dry, shriveled patches. Pick mushrooms with large caps and minimal stems.

Moisture: Faintly damp but not moist or slimy.

Texture: Springy and light—never spongy.

Aroma: Intensely sweet and earthy. Avoid mushrooms that smell sour or fishy.

Mushroom Varieties

Long gone are the days when the only mushrooms in the produce aisle were white button, portobello, or cremini. Some stores display up to a dozen different kinds, and many that were once available only seasonally are now farmed almost year-round. Here’s just some of what you might find.

  • White Button

    Flavor: Mild, meaty

    Texture: Smooth, firm

    Price: $

    Best ways to cook: Grill, sauté, roast

  • Cremini

    Alias: Baby portobello

    Flavor: Intensely meaty

    Texture: Smooth, firm

    Price: $

    Best ways to cook: Grill, sauté, roast

  • Portobello

    Flavor: Robust, earthy

    Texture: Dense, steak-like

    Price: $

    Best ways to cook: Grill, sauté, roast

    Tip: To avoid a muddy-looking dish, gently scrape out the black gills with a spoon before cooking.

  • Shiitake

    Flavor: Nutty, buttery

    Texture: Pleasantly chewy

    Price: $$

    Best way to cook: Sauté

    Tip: Look for smaller specimens with thick caps and edges that curl under the caps.

  • Oyster

    Flavor: Clean, savory, subtly briny

    Texture: Delicate

    Price: $$

    Best way to cook: Sauté

  • King Oyster

    Flavor: Very savory

    Texture: Resiliently chewy

    Price: $$

    Best way to cook: Sauté

  • Black Trumpet

    Alias: Horn of Plenty

    Flavor: Robust, slightly smoky

    Texture: Pleasantly chewy

    Price: $$$

    Best way to cook: Sauté

    Tip: They are a particularly dirty variety and must be thoroughly rinsed. Halve them first to loosen any grit hiding in the centers.

  • Morel

    Flavor: Rich, nutty

    Texture: Spongy, meaty  

    Price: $$$

    Best way to cook: Sauté

    Tip: Look for mushrooms with minimal grit and be sure to check inside the hollow centers for insects.

  • Enoki

    Flavor: Very mild, faintly nutty

    Texture: Delicately crisp

    Price: $

    Best ways to cook: Sauté, deep-fry, stir into soup

  • Maitake

    Alias: Hen-of-the-Woods

    Flavor: Nutty, slightly smoky

    Texture: Feathery

    Price: $$

    Best way to cook: Sauté

  • Chanterelle

    Flavor: Assertively nutty, almost fruity

    Texture: Dense; fibrous but not tough

    Price: $$$

    Best way to cook: Sauté

How to Store Mushrooms

Maximizing the shelf life of mushrooms is all about balancing air circulation with moisture retention.

Loose Mushrooms: Store in a partially open zipper-lock bag, which maximizes air circulation without drying them out. Leaving the bag slightly open allows ethylene gas emitted from the mushrooms to be released, prolonging their shelf life.

Packaged Mushrooms: Store in their original containers, which are designed to “breathe,” maximizing the mushrooms’ shelf life by balancing the retention of moisture and the release of ethylene gas. If you open a sealed package of mushrooms but don’t use all the contents, rewrap the remaining contents in the box with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the plastic wrap to allow moisture to escape.

DON’T wrap mushrooms in a paper bag or cover them with a damp paper towel, as many sources suggest. Both techniques speed up their deterioration.

How Long Do Mushrooms Last?

Due to their high moisture content, fresh mushrooms are very perishable. But if properly stored, they can last at least a week.

How to Know When Mushrooms Go Bad
A slimy film on the cap and stem, mushy texture, and dark discoloration are the classic indicators of spoiled mushrooms.

Don’t Toss Older White Button Mushrooms

If you have white button mushrooms that are looking slightly old and blemished, don’t discard them. In a side-by-side taste test against pristine, ultrafresh specimens, we found that week-old, tired-looking mushrooms boasted deeper, earthier, more mushroomy flavor than the unblemished samples. This is likely because some moisture had evaporated and the flavors had concentrated and because some of the proteins had broken down to peptides and amino acids such as glutamic acid that add to the umami taste. (Do not, however, use mushrooms that smell fermented or look slimy.)

Should You Wash Mushrooms?

That question has long been the subject of debate among cooks, since any water that mushrooms absorb during washing thwarts browning and prolongs their cooking time. So we tested how much water various types of mushrooms absorb by weighing them before and after washing.  

The upshot: Mushrooms with exposed gills (such as portobello and shiitake) absorbed lots of water, so it’s best to avoid washing these varieties. Instead, simply brush off any dirt with a pastry brush or paper towel. But varieties that don’t contain exposed gills didn’t soak up much water at all, so it’s fine to wash them as long as you do so before cutting them; their exposed flesh will absorb water like a sponge. (Note: Most cultivated mushrooms are very clean and don’t require washing in the first place.) 

The Best Way to Wash and Dry Mushrooms: A Salad Spinner

Rinsing the mushrooms in the spinner’s basket and then spinning them dry is the most efficient way to rid them of any debris and any moisture still clinging to them after cleaning. (For oddly shaped or delicate varieties such as enoki, simply rinse and pat them dry with paper towels.)

How to Prepare Mushrooms for Sautéing

We cut each of these mushrooms to maximize flat surfaces for browning. Note that we trim only the bases from white and cremini mushrooms, as the stems are tender enough to eat.

  • WHITE BUTTON AND CREMINI

    1. Trim woody ends from stems.
    2. Quarter large or medium mushrooms; halve smaller mushrooms.
  • PORTOBELLO

    1. Leave gills intact. (Scrape out gills with spoon when they might muddy appearance of dish; when sautéing, muddiness won’t be noticeable.) Remove stems.
    2. Halve each cap, then cut each half crosswise into ½-inch pieces.
  • OYSTER

    1. Trim any tough bottom parts of stems, separating caps from stems first if mushrooms come in clump.
    2. Tear caps along gills (this results in more-attractive pieces than cutting) into
      1- to 1½-inch pieces.
  • MAITAKE

    1. Trim base to release individual fronds.
    2. Cut each frond into 1- to 1½-inch pieces.
  • SHIITAKE

    1. Remove stems.
    2. Quarter large caps; halve smaller caps.

Our Favorite Way to Sauté Mushrooms

Though it sounds counterintuitive, we found that simmering mushrooms in a small amount of liquid before sautéing them is the most efficient way to help them shed liquid so that they can then brown. Even better, this step allowed us to dramatically reduce the amount of oil necessary for sautéing. See how it works in our recipe for Sautéed Mushrooms with Red Wine and Rosemary.

Sautéed Mushrooms with Red Wine and Rosemary

Sautéed Mushrooms with Red Wine and Rosemary

Want savory, meaty-textured, deeply browned mushrooms without a lot of work, time, or even oil? Start by adding water.

Why You Can't Overcook Mushrooms

Mushroom cell walls are made of a uniquely resilient, heat-stable polymer called chitin. This substance (which is also found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans such as shrimp and lobster) enables mushrooms to maintain their pleasantly firm, chewy texture over a wide range of cooking times. We prove it in this experiment by comparing how mushrooms’ texture changes with cooking compared to those of beef and zucchini.

Why Mushrooms Absorb So Much Oil

Raw mushrooms are veritable sponges that can soak up a tremendous amount of oil. That’s because their stems and caps contain numerous air pockets in which oil can collect. However, cooking causes these air pockets to collapse and the mushrooms to shrink, which dramatically limits their ability to absorb oil as well as the amount of surface area to which the oil can cling. In fact, when we compared the oil absorption between equal weights of raw and precooked (microwaved so that they quickly exuded moisture) mushrooms, the raw batch absorbed a whopping 21 times more oil than the cooked sample. 

Our Favorite Mushroom Recipes

Mushrooms play a starring role in a variety of dishes—from soups, stews, and sauces to sautés, eggs, pastas, and savory tarts. Here are a few of our favorites.

Mushroom Farrotto

Mushroom Farrotto

This Italian grain’s flavorful bran layer makes it a challenge to coax into creamy farrotto.

Recipe Mushroom Bisque

Most versions have so much dairy that they could be cream of anything. We wanted the trademark silkiness of a bisque without drowning out the earthy mushrooms.

Recipe Wild Mushroom Lasagna

Exotic mushrooms and homemade pasta practically guarantee great mushroom lasagna—if you've got money to spend. But what if you have to rely on supermarket staples?

Recipe Vegetarian Mapo Tofu

Think tofu is bland and boring? This braise of custardy curds cloaked in a garlicky, spicy sauce—a vegetarian version of the traditional Sichuan dish—will change your mind.

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