The magic of mushrooms

Egyptians once believed them to be the plant of immortality. Ancient civilizations believed them to possess supernatural powers. Chefs today consider them to be the “fifth taste,” offering a whole different taste sensation.

Mushrooms, once only fit for royalty, are now one of the most popular vegetables on the market with consumption reaching close to four million pounds each year. But while they may easily be one of the most popular vegetables on the market, mushrooms are a complicated commodity.

Here’s the whole story.

The Varieties

There are over 2,500 mushroom varieties available today, offering a myriad of flavors and textures to choose from. Portabella (Portobello), Shiitake, Crimini and White mushrooms (Agaricus) are the most commonly used cultivated varieties, but the more exotic mushrooms – Morels, Oyster, Beech, Enoki and Maitake mushrooms – are becoming increasingly popular.

The fresh white mushroom, known as the Agaricus, is the most popular variety of mushrooms, comprising 85 to 88 percent of the mushroom industry, according to Marilyn Dompe, a consultant and food service management representative at the Mushroom Council. The portabella and shiitake mushrooms are also gaining interest recently in the industry, Marilyn says.

The Purchasing and Handling

When buying mushrooms, look for smooth, firm caps, free from major blemishes. The surfaces should not be slick. Freshly picked white mushrooms have closed veils (meaning the membrane on the underside of the cap is tightly attached to the stem and cap). If the membrane has pulled away, the mushroom has lost some moisture, actually giving it a somewhat richer flavor. Many people prefer open veiled mushrooms for cooking.

Mushrooms should always be refrigerated and used as soon as possible. They're best when used within a few days of purchase but will keep up to a week. To prolong storage, the Mushroom Council recommends removing the outer plastic wrap and covering with a paper towel. If purchased in bulk, place in a paper bag to reduce moisture buildup.

“We get our mushrooms at a local produce distributor and prep about five pounds a day,” says John Pontrelli of Pit Stop Pasta. “They are not the most expensive perishable items so it’s definitely worth keeping them on hand.”

Spoilage can be an issue when dealing with mushrooms. “If the mushrooms come in fresh, we don’t have any problems with going through the case before they spoil,” John says.

Restaurateur Stephen Izen receives his mushrooms at his restaurant Iven’s Bennett Valley Pizza the day after they are picked. “Once they are delivered, I keep them in my coldest reach-in refrigerator,” Stephen says. “I slice them myself. Once sliced, I keep them in a large plastic cambro box and cover them with paper towels.”

“I have noticed that throughout the year, we get mushrooms with more or less moisture,” Stephen says. “The mushrooms with more moisture last for less time because they are more susceptible to browning.”
Fresh mushrooms don't freeze well. But if it's necessary to freeze them, the Mushroom Council recommends first sautéing them in butter or oil or in a non-stick skillet without fat, cooling slightly, then freezing in an airtight container for up to one month.

The Preparation

Fresh mushrooms are truly a cook's best friend, say the experts at the Mushroom Information Center. “At times we blow through them and have to go back to the reach-in for another load,” Stephen says. “We do not keep any back stock on the prep table. I keep all overflow in the reach-in, which is 10 degrees colder than the prep table.”

Cleaning mushrooms has been a topic of debate for many restaurants and chefs. “Mushrooms are a fungus, and they grow in manure, for starters,” says John Harvey, of Harvco Technologies, who deals with packaging for the food and beverage industry. “Dirt is not processed; it contains untold numbers of bacteria. Handling and storage conditions, along with time and temperature, make big differences in fresh food.”

To clean, remove any clinging particles with a damp cloth or a soft brush. Or, place the mushrooms in a colander or strainer and rinse quickly; immediately pat dry with paper towels. Never soak mushrooms because they are porous and will absorb the water.

“When cleaning, we rinse them in cool water, let them dry a bit, and then slice them and place them in a container and refrigerate,” John says. “I know that our health inspector insists on rinsing all produce that comes in.”

Mushrooms can be cooked many different ways. A short cooking time usually means a more delicate mushroom and longer cooking time makes them denser and chewier (the longer mushrooms cook, the more water they lose).

The Marketing

The Mushroom Council, which represents cultivated mushrooms, warns the restaurant industry of using the term “wild” when describing their mushrooms. “The word ‘wild’ turns people off,” Marilyn says. “If a restaurant is using cultivated mushrooms, we recommend using the name itself. There have been cases where people have picked poisonous mushrooms that were deadly,” she said. “Instead of ‘wild,’ use ‘specialty,’ ‘exotic,’ or the actual name.”

“As far as marketing,” says Stephen, “we advertise that the mushrooms are fresh. We tend to use a lot of mushrooms on our Take and Bake pizzas and people are always impressed!”

Some restaurants market mushrooms more than others. “We don’t use them as an upsell item; I think the customer would be surprised and puzzled if we asked each customer if they wanted to add mushrooms to their pizza or pasta order,” John says.

For More Information

The Mushroom Council offers a culinary workshop on a complimentary CD for anyone interested in learning more about cooking mushrooms. The culinary workshop is available for individual chefs, corporate training, or any individual wanting to learn more. E-mail at the Mushroom Council for the free CD.