They are nutritious, they are versatile, and here’s how to make the most of them
If I were to describe mushrooms in one word, it would be a toss up between “miraculous” and “misunderstood.” Miraculous because they are the only product in the produce aisle with vitamin D. They contain this naturally, but levels ramp up when exposed to UV light — just like the humans that consume them. Vitamin D is only one of the 15 nutrients they deliver. The best part? Whole or sliced, cooked or raw, mushrooms maintain their nutritional profile.
While their nutrients are stable, some mushrooms themselves are shape-shifters. Criminis, which are harvested at two to three days, double in size every 24 hours. By day five or six the once small crimini has grown into a full-fledged portabella, which explains why criminis are sometimes marketed as “baby bellas”. Despite rapid growth and year-round harvesting, mushrooms require no chemicals or pesticides to thrive.
Yet for all their marvels, mushrooms are victim to many misconceptions.
Contrary to popular belief, they don’t need to be kept in the dark. They thrive in any light condition. After all, the humans who grow and pick them need a well-lit operation to see what they’re doing. And no, mushrooms don’t grow in manure. The familiar white, crimini and portabella varieties are grown in bacteria-free peat moss, while shiitakes grow on logs, and Enoki grow in saw dust.
BUYING AND STORING Regardless of the variety, mushrooms should be firm with a uniform colour. Packaged mushrooms will keep in the fridge for a week if left unopened. Once the seal is broken, transfer the mushrooms to a paper bag to keep them from releasing moisture and getting slimy.
If they dry out in the paper bag, place a damp paper towel in the bag and they’ll absorb the moisture. Even shrivelled mushrooms can be rehydrated with water.
TO WASH OR NOT TO WASH All packaged mushrooms have been prewashed, so there’s no need to wash or peel them. Any soil on them can be brushed off. However, if you buy from the farmers’ market or from a bulk setup where other shoppers might have touched them, just before using, give your mushrooms a quick rinse and wipe with a paper towel. Never soak fresh mushrooms as they will get waterlogged – and they’re already 90 per cent water.
TAKE YOUR PICK White Button: The button mushroom comes in small, medium and large. Regardless of size, it has a mild flavour that develops when cooked. The go-to of the mushroom family, white buttons are the most popular-selling mushroom in Canada. Serve them stuffed as one-bite appetizers, purée them into soups or toss them into stir-fries. Crimini: Also called brown mushrooms, criminis look like their white button counterpart, but are darker and firmer. While they’re meatier than white buttons, these are just as versatile, making a wonderful addition to pizza, stews, casseroles and soups.
Portabella: Coveted for their umbrella-like caps, portabella mushrooms are very meaty with an earthy taste. Whole caps can be grilled as “burgers,” but you can also chop them into small pieces and use them anywhere button or crimini are called for.
Enoki: Tall and slender, mild and crunchy, these are the bean sprouts of mushrooms. They make a welcomed addition to salads and wraps. Just trim off the roots, then enjoy them from stem to cap. While not recommended for cooking, you can toss them in a stir-fry at the last minute.
Oyster: Crooked stems and funnel-shaped caps make the oyster mushroom stand out. They’re good raw in salads, but once cooked become creamy and velvety, making them ideal for cream sauces.
King oyster: Towering above the other mushrooms, these tall mushrooms have a light brown caps and thick white stems. They’re sweet and chewy. Because they stay firm when cooked, their thick stems are often sliced into rings and used as a vegetarian replacement for scallops.
Shiitake: Their bold, earthly flavour works well with most Asian cuisines. The caps have a spongy texture. Remove the woody stems before cooking and use them to make soup stock.