Mushrooms are their own kingdom—fungus—and it’s an incredibly diverse kingdom at that. It includes molds (not tasty), yeasts (tasty in some applications), and edible (tasty) and poisonous (very much not good) mushrooms of all kinds. There's an incredible number of varieties of mushrooms, but we’ll stick to some of the most common and most delicious edible ones today. The kinds you’re most familiar with are probably white button mushrooms (the little white ones at the store) or creminis (about the same size as the button mushrooms, but brown—sometimes called baby portobellos). You also are probably familiar with the giant-capped portobello mushrooms which, speaking as a vegetarian, are delicious but simply not an appropriate substitute for a burger—I had to get it out. I’m sorry. They’re just not. Well-stocked grocery stores may also have the delicious, savory, slightly funky East Asian shiitake mushroom.
Beyond that, unless you’re at a farmers' market or a specialty grocery, it’s likely you’ll see anything else that’s happened to find its way to the mushroom shelves labeled “wild mushrooms” or “gourmet mushrooms,” which oversimplifies the matter so greatly.
These are a few favorite and delicious mushrooms that occupy that realm. If you want to know what’s really good right now, get thee to your farmer’s market and find the nearest ’shroom vendor. Or see if your city has a mycological (that is, mushroom) society.
Varieties of Mushrooms
These guys are golden and very prized. In the Northeastern US, they’re a summer mushroom, mostly June and July. Some say they have a fruity scent; the Canal House duo have correctly identified it, I think, as apricot.
Chicken of the Woods
A vibrantly orange and beautiful mushroom—kind of like lacy petticoats. It really does taste like chicken, and it’s so dense and meaty that you can prepare it in many ways you would chicken: stir-fried, roasted, sliced for tacos, and so much more.
Hen of the Woods, a.k.a. Maitake
Not to be confused with Chicken of the Woods. Frilly and beautiful. Maitake mushrooms are very popular in Japanese cooking, and very delicious sautéed with butter.
Another prized mushroom, these are spring treats. They’re a bit nutty, and best prepared simply so that you can really enjoy the flavor (and relish them, as they’re expensive and come but once a year). Cook smaller ones whole and larger ones halved or quartered.
Oyster mushrooms can range from dense, fat-stalked, and elegant to very petite. They are all delicious, delicately flavored, a little bit sweet. Oyster mushrooms are fairly firm, so they’ll hold up well to more vigorous cooking methods. They’re really good sautéed, in long slices, with garlic. You can also dredge those thin slices in a beaten egg, then in breadcrumbs, then fry them in butter. Or brush them with butter or oil and grill them.
A highly adorable mushroom, with a thick white stalk and a slightly rounded brown cap. They’re related to oyster mushrooms and can be prepared the same ways.
How to Buy and Store
Mushrooms should be firm and dry (not damp or slimy at all), with no soft or moist-looking spots. Dirt’s OK. Dirt’s great. If you can buy them bulk-style, that is not wrapped in plastic, that’s best. Mushrooms and plastic don’t play well together, since plastic holds in moisture and keeps the mushrooms from being able to breathe. This makes for slimy mushrooms, which is no good. And try to find mushrooms whose shapes are intact. If you have the option, buy whole rather than pre-sliced.
Ideally, buy them from a farmer’s market. The vendor will likely be extremely knowledgeable and have a whole host of local, beautiful, colorful, and super-fresh mushrooms—they’ll be able to talk to you about what kinds of mushrooms grow where you live. And they’ll probably hand them over to you in a little paper bag.
If you get them in a plastic bag, transfer them to a paper bag as soon as you get them home. Refrigerate for up to four days or so—but use them as soon as you can, as they’ll start to either dry out or get slimy after a few days in the fridge.
How to Prep
Many experts say not to wash mushrooms because they’re spongy and will become waterlogged. If you’re not planning to cook your mushrooms for a while, say, an hour, this is definitely true. But if you’re about the throw them into the pan, and they’re very dirty, a quick rinse is just fine. Dry them gently but thoroughly with a clean dishtowel or paper towel. Otherwise, you can dust them off with a mushroom brush (yes, there is such a thing—basically, a gentle little brush used for cleaning ’shrooms) or do as I do and just lightly rub the dirtiest ones with a dishtowel.
Use a paring knife to trim the stems, in most cases not removing them completely—just taking off the part where the mushroom was cut when harvested and has dried. Trim off any other woody-feeling bits. From here, how you cut the mushrooms (or not) will depend on what you’re making, but all mushrooms get at least this clean-and-trim treatment.
How to Cook
Mushrooms are funky, savory, and meaty. They brown well, crisp up, or become meltingly soft, and because of their savoriness they are often used to replace meat in things like gravy, meat sauce, and veggie burgers. They love rich flavors: butter, cream, red or white wine, cheese, sherry, eggs. They also love herbs and garlic and onions and salt and pepper. What I’m saying here is, whatever you make with your mushrooms will probably be very delicious.
Sautéing is maybe the easiest way to go about mushrooms—at least at first. If you have any doubt about what to do with a mushroom, start here. You can also always sauté mushrooms and freeze them for a rainy day.
Cut mushrooms into bite-sized pieces but try to preserve their pretty shapes. Heat a bit of butter and oil (butter for flavor, oil to protect from burning) in a pan over medium heat, and when it’s melted and starting to shimmer, add the mushrooms (and sliced onions or shallots, if you like). Stir regularly, but let them brown in spots; when they begin to brown (but not before), add a good pinch of salt—this will season the mushrooms and also cause them to release their water. Add any garlic or wine at this point, then continue to cook the mushrooms until they’re tender and have absorbed most of the liquid. Finish with a splash of cream if you like, or fresh herbs (parsley and thyme are particularly nice with most mushrooms), or a squeeze of lemon. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Or roast them instead. Simply toss bite-sized pieces of mushrooms with olive oil, salt and pepper, and any herbs or seasonings (soy sauce, red pepper flakes, thyme, red wine, sherry) and roast—400°F for 20 to 30 minutes for crispy mushrooms, or covered with foil at 325°F for about 20 minutes and 425°F for 15 minutes for chewy-crisp.
Or steam them and toss them in a bright vinaigrette or a green sauce like pesto. These are good warm, room temp, or cold. They’d be really nice alongside some hard-boiled eggs.
What to Eat Them With
Dang, anything. Polenta. In a frittata, omelet, mountain of creamy scrambled eggs. Steak. Pasta. Chicken. Lentils. A grain bowl. Tangled up with spinach or kale or chard. Piled on toast, or straight from the pan with your fingers. No one has to know.