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Cultivated Mushrooms Part 1: The Dependables

Elizabeth Schneider / April 1998

As portobellos replace veggieburgers—and even beefburgers—Elizabeth Schnider starts a series on a major menu-mover: mushrooms, cultivated and wild. This first article reviews the basic types.

Read Part 2 of this series, The Exotics, here.

"Do something special for the family at Thanksgiving and other special occasions," urged the author of an article on dinner parties, published in the Woman's Home Companion in 1952. "Use mushrooms liberally...not just for adults. The children will love them, too." A photo of soup garnished with canned mushrooms illustrates. It is mentioned that some people even serve raw mushrooms in salad and "if they are cleaned well, they are delicious in this natural state."

With a score of cultivated fungi now sold in this country, we tend to forget just how recently mushroom farming took root here. Jim Angelucci, general manager of the country's largest producer of specialty mushrooms, Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (our mushroom capital), reminded me. "In the 1960s, about 75 percent of all mushrooms were processed. "In the mid-60s, canned mushrooms started pouring in from Formosa [now Taiwan], and we simply couldn't compete. So we began marketing fresh white mushrooms as a winter speciality."

Now, 75 percent of mushrooms go to the fresh market, and cultivation takes place year round. Per capita consumption grew 192% between 1970 and 1994 in the United States, with fresh mushroom consumption increasing six-fold, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

As button mushrooms saturated the market in the 1980s, the farming of specialities accelerated: shiitake, brown agaricus (cremini and portobello), oysters, and some enokitake. Between 1987 and 1996, American shiitake production jumped from 3.6 to 6.5 million pounds and oyster mushrooms moved from 931,000 to 2.5 million pounds.

By 1993, Phillips had given up white mushrooms altogether and placed its bet on the specialty market. "The demand for specialties was not yet strong, so in July, we laid off 37 of 43 employees, most of them involved in the packing process," recalls Angelucci. "But ours was a lucky bet, and by November we had hired them all back. Now there are 240 employees and a half-million feet of growing area—thanks primarily to our golden star, the portobello."

The portobello has become a menu star as well along with wild and exotic (i.e. non-button) mushrooms. Eighty percent of the chefs who responded to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association ranked them first among "20 currently trendy foods." "They sell a dish that might not otherwise take off," says chef/owner Rick Hackett of Enrico's in San Francisco, echoing the words of many. "I love squab—but it isn't a seller. If I add portobello, it hooks in right away. If I use an odd meat cut—say flatiron steak—I add portobello fries and the dish gets a big push."

But trendy may be outweighing other important qualities—such as quality itself. Growers and distributors tell me that consumers (food professionals included) purchase in cycles (portobellos are high on the charts now) on the basis of price alone. Conversations with chefs confirm this and compel me to raise my voice for quality:

All cultivated mushrooms are not created equal, any more than peaches of tomatoes are! The United States Department of Agriculture and the mushroom industry observe cosmetic guidelines only (points go to size, symmetry, and uniform coloring). If premium products are the goal, you must recognize them an pay for them.

Dense, slow-grown mushrooms cost more, but they have much more flavor, a much longer shelf life, and do not shrink or turn flabby in cooking, as do lightweight ones. Many factors determine mushroom quality. Most important is the choice of the strain utilized for culture. Shiitake, for example, must be knowledgeably selected from some thousand such strains, according to Malcom Clark, president of Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol, California, a pioneer in controlled commercial shiitake cultivation.

Growing conditions determine quality. "The most flavorful mushrooms are cultivated in an environment that approximates their original wild one," states Clark. "The type and density of wood in which the fungus grows, the supplemental growing medium, and the speed at which the mushroom develops determine its final quality." In typical cultivation, mushroom spawn is inoculated into logs or planted in sawdust and/or wood chis supplemented by cereal straws, corncobs, seed hulls, or other organic materials. Speed of growth—affects texture. If accelerated, for example, mushrooms may get soggy.

It is important to take time to taste and compare mushrooms of the same species. The variations are immediately discernible. If it take two months to grow some shiitake and up to two years for others, a difference in flavor—and price—is to be expected.

An overview of the cultivated "regulars" follows. Unusual ones will follow in a future issue.

WHITE OR BUTTON MUSHROOM (Agarocis bisporus/Agaricus brunnescens) is also called champignon de Paris (although strictly speaking, this refers to another species, Agaricus campestris). It is the first, the original, the number one—the mushroom that needs no name, so commonly does it represent cultivated mushroomhood. To judge from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, it is more popular than ever. FRom 1987 to 1996, production went from nearly 632 million pounds to more than 776 million.

But the white button does not rank high among trendy chefs. With novelty a paramount preoccupation, it has become a second-class citizen. Of a dozen chef I spoke with, most had neither crown nor white buttons on the menu because they were deemed too ordinary. "I'm, afraid most chefs don't think they'll be considered innovative if they use white mushrooms. They'd use oyster mushrooms before they'd use whites because they want to be different," says Hackett. (As an interesting aside: most chefs admitted enjoying buttons at home, "because they're so reliably good," but didn't believe customers would order them.) I hear that white may be rechristened "portablanca" to sound "sexier" to the jaded.

Yet who would not prefer a nicely cooked dish of fresh buttons to the "wild ragoût" that turns out to be yesterday's dead ends? "Some chefs are putting more in the name than the dish these days," says Philippe Chin, chef/owner of Chanterelles in Philadelphia. "Porcini pasta is likely to be two pieces of porcini and the rest—champignons. Why not just make really good champignons? Tastewise, I'd buy them over a fancy mushroom in questionable shape. We go nuts for new, but basics shouldn't be forgotten."

Selection: Look for comparatively dense, hard, heavy mushrooms with closed heavy veils. Slowly grown in a coolish environment, mushrooms will be very thick and firm, with lasting power and richer flavor. Buttons are available in cap diameters from 1-inch "babies" (names vary with producers) at about 90 per pound to 2 1/2-inch "stuffers" at about 15 per pound. Prewashed buttons are useful to have ready for sautés, but will not last long. To preserve whiteness and increase shelf life, Francesco Martorella, executive chef at Brasserie Perrier in Philadelphia, recommends buying three-pound baskets of buttons rather than large boxes. High-quality buttons last a week.

CREMINI, brown buttons, Crimini, Baby Bellas, Golden Italians, Roman or Italian or Classic Browns are also, as you may already know, juvenile portobellos. That is, a relatively chubby cremino, encouraged by environmental controls, metamorphoses to a portly portobello.

Cremino/portobello is the same mushroom as white (Agaricus bisporus), but a different strain. In the "what's old is new" department: this mushroom is a reintroduction of the "old-fashioned brown" common here before the white strain was isolated and developed during the mid-1920s. Although similar to whites, cremini are generally more solid compact, and meaty, with more intense, deep flavor.

As to the name—I give up! (If you know the real story, please write to me at Food Arts.) Crimini means "crimes" in Italian ("although one company claims it means "brown"). An Italian authority cals them cremosini; but there is no such word. A distributor say he saw them in Milan in 1980—called simply funghi culticati— and named them "Romans" when he brought them to the United States the next year. An American grower later "introduced" them as "Golden Italians." Another company calls them "Classic Brown." As portobello popularity grows, it seems likely that names related to it—such as Baby Bella and Portabellini—will rise to to the top.

Selection: Choose as you would whites but, with no color to guide you, sniff deeply to assure freshness. An earthy smell is fine a sourish or animal smell means decay. I have found that unlike most, these mushrooms last particularly well in "breathable" plastic retail packs. Small cremini with closed caps hold their shapes beautifully when cooked whole. More mature ones with opening caps and darkening gills may have fuller flavor, but juices will be browner. There are several sizes, although they are not graded. Fine cremini last over a week.

PORTOBELLO (portabella, portabello) is as difficult to identify as its antecedent, crimini. I asked dozens who work with mushrooms, here and in Italy, about the name. "It was named after Portobello Road in London, where they sell fashionable things," offered the marketing director of a mushroom farm. An importer said: "Portobello was cappelaccio in Italy until 10 years ago, when it was renamed after a TV show called portobello." Another importer: "Portobello is know only in northern Italy—as capellone." To another, capallone means "big hat." To the director of an Italian trade board—and one dictionary—it means "hippie." Two northern italian chefs had never hear of capellone or cappelaccio. And last: "Champignon comes from the word for Champagne," an Italian distributor explained," and a round Champagne cork resembles a round port," he summed up with impeccable logic.

Whatever the origin of its name, portobello has "knocked the 'veggie plate' off the menu," as Brian Whitmer, chef/partner of Moose's restaurant in San Francisco, puts it. Odessa Piper, chef/owner of L'etoile in Madison, Wisconsin, exemplifies: "They've changed the whole vegetarian palate. The other night, for instance, I did a benefit and served venison steaks for some, portobello 'steaks' for others. I didn't need to change garnishes or wine, They're great."

Selection: Purchase whole portobellos packed in open cases for best keeping. Or choose caps, which are less prone to breakage but more expensive (and lack the all-useful stems). Gills should be dry and perfectly formed, not dented, damp, or crackling; with age, gills change from pinkish taupe to dark chocolate. Old mushrooms, recognizable by a loss of sheen as well as dark gills, are fibrous an may taste muddy. Typically, whole ones run 10 to 25 per five-pound case; caps are four to six inches in diameter. Smaller ones as also sold; they have a finer texture and milder taste. Whole ones last well over a week.

Preparation particulars: To clean, hold upright, tap top of cap to dislodge any growing medium; flick gills clean with soft brush, if needed. Most people twist, then break off stem, but I find this risks cracking the cap; I prefer to hold each upright and gently cut off the stem. Stems are ideal for duxelles and mushroom stock. The deep-brown gills of older portobellos will darken any preparation. Scrape them out with a blunt knife to use in sauce or as garnish.

COMMON OYSTER MUSHROOMS or pleurottes (Pleurotus species, primarily ostreatus and pulmonarius) form clusters of fairly long-stemmed buff or gray leafy caps ranging from tiny to saucer-sized, which are joined at the base. All are soft and mild when cooked—if not down-right bland. These species "are by far the easiest and least expensive to grow. For small cultivators with limited budgets, oyster mushrooms are the clear choice for gaining entry into the gourmet mushroom industry," writes Paul Staments in his valuable manual, Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley CA, 1993).

Unfortunatley, of the many types cultivated worldwide, these easiest to grow are shortest on flavor—at least as cultivated in this country. Matorella spoke for many American chefs when he said: "I use oysters to add body to a dish, or I crisp them up for textural interest. Tastewise, they're pretty worthless." Cooks with Asian training who have worked with a wider range of Pleurotus species often have more of a feeling for these subtle flavors. Chefs trained in Europe tell me American-raised common oyster mushrooms generally lack the character of the European.

Selection: Choose comparatively firm, dry mushrooms with a kid-glove feel. Avoid ones that are moist have darkened areas, or seriously cracked cap edges (a few cracks are common). Because stems are often inedibly tough, seek sources which offer more cap and less stem.

Particulars: Store no more than a few days; oyster mushrooms absorb refrigerator odors and lose flavor rapidly. Keep caps whole for cooking, if practical; they are so pretty. To my taste, searing brings out bitterness. Instead I like to roast, braise or gently stew oyster mushrooms in butter, broth, and/ or cream.

SHIITAKE (Lentinula edodes) is also called Golden Oak, Chinese, oakwood, black forest, and black mushroom. The last two syllables mean mushroom in Japanese, so there is no need to add " mushroom" to "shiitake" unless you're of the "shrimp scampi" school.

No other mushroom cultivated in this country exhibits as much quality variation as shiitake. At its best, it offers an assertive pine/garlic/autumn leaf flavor and satiny, solid flesh. Merely good, it may taste like excellent button mushrooms with an edge. Some are slippery, soft, and uninteresting: others dry and fibrous. Fresh shiitake from China, relatively new to this country, are so variable that I cannot generalize about them. On the West Coast, where they arrive by ship, they are at least two weeks old upon arrival. Those on the East Coast come by air—and are obviously fresher and more expensive. Dramatically rounded, thick, palish, and shiny, those I tasted (on the East Coast) were marshmallowy in texture and "deflated" when cooked. Some chefs like them; others cite a "chemical odor." Malcolm Clark is unequivocal: "I do not eat them, They are often grown on recycled wood and have been known to contain high levels of heavy metals and pesticides.

Selection: Choose firm, fleshy mushrooms, particularly ones that are domed and dappled (a whitish bloom is normal). Thin, pallid mushrooms often have a taste to match. Shiitake should be dry, not leathery, with a distinct aroma. Above all, curled-under cap margins assure freshness. Look for whole veils "or at least silvery veil filaments, which show the mushroom was not rushed, but grown over a correct time period," says clark. Stems should be trimmed, but not too short—which cuts shelf life. Fine shiitake will last at least two weeks.

Heed Clark's impassioned words on the correlation of quality and size: "For some unfortunate reason, the U.S. marketplace wants big shiitake. When grown large, they are necessarily flabbier because they open. Opened, they release their spores. Like salmon, once it has released its eggs, it's a dead animal: you don't want to eat it. It is limp and infection-prone. When I see great big opened-up shiitake, I want to cry!" When you find deep-brown "baby" shiitake "buttons," try them: they are a tender (stems included), tasty treat.

ENOKITAKE, domestic and imported, have become increasingly available in recent years, their popularity due, in large part, to their remarkable appearance—quite unlike any other mushroom's. The ivory stems topped with tiny "gumdrop" caps have mild, fruity, acid taste that is equally unusual. The texture, comparatively crisp, is best enjoyed when the enoki are separated into small clumps or individual strands and eaten raw or added to a hot dish at serving time.

Selection: Purchase enokitake packed in clear plastic boxes rather than shrink wrapped if you want to see what you're getting. They should be bright white to cream, with no sign of wateriness, flabbiness, or browning caps. However, the joined stem base is usually colored beige to tan from the blend of rice bran and corn-cob meal in which enoki typically grow. The Japanese imports I have seen, more expensive than domestic, appear to be more uniformly sized individual mushrooms and to have less stem waste. They last about two weeks.

Particulars: Enoki are grown in a sterilized environment and do not need rinsing, although some prefer to do so. Trim off the base and growing medium. For the vacuum-packed type, cut two inches form the base without removing the mushrooms from the bag. Then slip off the bag and separate enoki into clumps or individual stems.


Button Mushrooms
SALAD OF BUTTONS, PEARS & FENNEL (Odessa Piper, chef/owner, L'Etoile, Madison, WI): Process fennel topes, parsly, and olive oil. Refrigerate overnight; strain. Arrange thinly sliced white baby buttons, pears, and fennel. Drizzle with the herb-flavored oil.
BUTTERED BABY BUTTON MUSHROOMS (Odessa Piper—at home): "Like white bread and butter, what's better than a bowl of perfect white buttons sautéed in butter?
MUSHROOM CAPPUCCINO (Philippe Chin, chef/owner, Chanterelles and Planet Wrap, Philadephia): Color sliced buttons in olive oil. Add chopped shallots; sweat. Deglaze with white wine; cook until dry. Add chicken stock and bouquet garni; simmer 1/2 hour. Puree. Bring to boil. Add cream; simmer 5 minutes. Strain. Whisk in butter and seasoning. To serve, place a teaspoon of reserved duxelles in each cappuccino cup. Fill 2/3 with soup; add steamed milk. Top with enoki and nutmeg.
COLD MUSHROOMS WITH BLACK BEANS (Susanna Foo, Chef/Owner, Susanna Foo, Philadelphia): Soak fermented black beans; drain and dry. Heat olive oil with peeled, crushed garlic. Add beans and sliced jalapenos; toss. Add pre-washed small, whole white mushrooms; sauté until tender. Add balsamic vinegar. Cool to room temperature. Season. Server as a condiment to dumplings or tea-smoked duck.
SHARK AND CHAMPIGNON SOUP (Soup Beautiful Soup by Felipe Rogas-Lombardi, Random House, NY, 1985): Sauté shallots and garlic. Add soy sauce; stir. Add sweet vermouth; evaporate. Add sliced buttons; cook until browned, at least 1 minutes. Add fish stock and thyme; simmer briefly. Dissolve potato starch in water and whisk into soup to thicken. Add seared chunks of mako shark. Poach to barely cook through.
CHIANTI-BRAISED CREMINI MUSHROOM RAGOUT (Nora Pouillon, chef/owner, Nora and Asia Nora, Washington D.C.): Braised whole cremini in Chianti and mushroom stock with garlic, rosemary, thyme, and shallots; drain. Prepare saffron risotto with vegetable stock and reserved mushroom liquor. Spoon mushrooms over rice; garnish with thyme and chives.
CREMINI WITH ARTICHOKE HEARTS IN RED WINE/CORIANDER REDUCTIONS ( Joseph Schultz, founder, India Joze, Santa Cruz, CA): Sauté quartered cremini and diced onion in olive oil to concentrate. Add red wine, parboiled artichoke hearts, garlic pepper, and red-wine vinegar. Cook down. Serve dusted with crushed coriander seeds.

GRILLED PORTOBELLO/RUTABAGA NAPOLEON (Nora): With 2- or 3-inch cutter, make rounds of grilled portobello. Cut slices of same size from steamed rutabaga; toss with vinaigrette. Press layers in ring; unmold. Drizzle with dressing of goat cheese pureed with garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. Arrange on frisée; garnish with root vegetable brunoise.
ROASTED PORTOBELLO WITH CRISP POLENTA ( Brian Whitmer, chef/partner, Moose's San Francisco): Cook sliced portobello stems slowly to deeply caramelize. Add leek, celery, and vegetable stock; simmer one hour. With hand mixer, wiz to break up slightly. Cook briefly; strain. Add butter to make a nage. Toss portobello caps with oil, rosemary, and garlic. Spread on sheet pan; cover with foil. Roast in hot oven (without fan) until well cooked. Spoon seasonal vegetable ragoût in shallow bowl. Top with crisp-fried polenta rectangle, then sliced and fanned portobello. Add nage.
PORTOBELLO FRIES (Rick Hackett, chef/owner Enrico's, San Francisco): Cut portobello caps into 1/2-inch strips. Dust with flour, dip into egg/cream wash, the into panko (Japanese bread crumbs). Deep fry.
PORTOBELLO "PIZZA" (Tom Gray, executive chef, The Market Cafe at Dean & DeLuca, St. Helena, CA): Toss portobello caps with balsamic vinegar, garlic, thyme, and oil. Roast in moderate oven, covered until no longer white in the center, about 20 minutes. Set on perforated pan ( collect juices to use as base for dressing for mixed mushroom salad). Top roasted portobello with mozzarella round. Brush with pesto; top with roasted pepper. Warm to melt. Sprinkle with oregano. Serve as an appetizer.

Oyster Mushrooms
SEA BASS FILLETS WITH OYSTER MUSHROOMS (Susanna Foo): Chop stems of shiitake, oysters, and buttons. Sauté shallots; add stems. Add vegetable stock; reduce; strain. Thicken with cornstarch; season. Add coconut milk. Briefly marinate sea bass sea bass fillets in oil, soy, and vodka. Sear, skin side down; turn. Gently sauté oyster caps; add to sauce. Set fillets in bowl on steamed, sliced Chinese cabbage; top with mushrooms and sauce.
THREE-OYSTER CHOWDER (L'Etoile): Peel and chop salsify (oyster plant). As you chop, drop pieces into mixture of 1 tablespoon flour mixed into 2 cups each milk and water and 2 teaspoons lemon. Simmer until tender. Sweat shallots in butter; add oyster mushrooms; sauté until golden. Add large oysters and salsify; season. Deglaze with white wine; add mushroom stock to barely cover. Heat; add heavy cream and tarragon.
SPAGHETTI SQUASH WITH OYSTER MUSHROOMS & PEARL ONION RAGOÛT (Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, Broadway Books, NY, 1997): Bake whole, pierced spaghetti squash until tender. Glaze pearl onions in oil, butter, and sugar. When colored, add diced parsnips, carrots, thyme, sage, and seasoning. Cook until caramelized. Sauté oyster mushroom caps with garlic. Add cooked onions, tomato paste diluted with red wine, and mushroom soy. Cook briefly. Toss squash strands with butter; season; surround with mushroom mixture.

SHIITAKE/MONTRACHET CROQUETTE ( Chanterelles): Season shiitake caps of equal size. Sandwich slice of Montrachet cheese between caps; press to seal. Dip in flour, beaten egg, then kataifi dough. Deep fry, halve. Dot plate with basil pesto and red-pepper coulis. Add basil chiffonade. Garnish with fried basil leaf and black pepper.
SHIITAKE/ MUSHROOM GALETTE (Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone): Sauté diced onion with rosemary in olive oil; lightly brown; season. Sauté shiitake and button mushrooms in olive oil to brown. Add onion, garlic, diluted tomato paste, and a little vinegar. Add mushroom stock sharpened with Dijon mustard and aged sherry vinegar; add butter and parsley. Simmer briefly; drain, reserving juice. Roll out pâte brisée for individual galettes. Top with mushrooms. Fold border; brush with butter. Bake until browned. Spoon over mushroom juices.
SHIITAKE PATÉ (The Trellis Cookbook by Marcel Desaulniers, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1992): Finely chop caps and trimmed stems. Sauté diced onion in clarified butter. Season; cook until soft. Add mushrooms; sauté. Add brandy and evaporate. Add dry white wine; simmer 15 minutes. Add chopped spinach, tarragon, and minced garlic; toss briefly. Chill and drain. Process softened cream cheese and eggs, add to chilled mixture with chopped walnuts. Turn into buttered and parchment-lined loaf pan. Cover with foil and bake in bain marie. Cool 1/2 hour before removing foil. Unmold; refrigerate. Serve with toasted walnut bread.
ROASTED SHIITAKE, MIZUNA, & PARSLEY SALAD (The Food of Campanile by Mark Peel & Nancy Silverton, Villard Books, NY, 1997): Toss quartered, stemmed shiitake with olive oil and rosemary. Roast uncovered until gill brown slightly. Rinse thinly sliced shallots; dry. Combine with shiitake, equal quantities of Italian Parsley and mizuna leaves, olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

SPRING ROLLS (Asia Nora): Lay large spinach leaf on spring roll wrapper. Top with cooked rice noodles, enoki mushrooms, shredded carrots, and halved grilled shrimp. Roll up. Serve with soy/citrus dipping sauce.
ENOKI SLAW (Asia Nora): Prepare salad of enoki, finely sliced pickled ginger, and pea shoots dressed with pickled ginger juice, lime juice, salt, pepper, cilantro leaves, an sliced Thai chiles. Serve with halibut steamed in banana leaf.
HOT-SOUR SOUP WITH ENOKITAKE (Anita Lo, formerly executive chef, Mirezi, NYC): Prepare Chinese chicken broth with ginger, garlic, and scallions; bring to a boil. Add distilled vinegar, black Chinese vinegar, and black pepper. Season with soy. Thicken with cornstarch. Add rehydrated, halved lily buds. Add enoki; heat. Garnish with slices scallions.

Mixed Mushrooms
KENNET SQUARE EDIBLE FUNGUS WRAP (Planet Wrap): Prepare tortillas of wheat flour, pureed tomato, and sun-dried tomato. Sauté sliced shiitake, buttons, and portobellos in oil and butter. Add garlic and vegetable stock; cook through. Drain liquid; reduce to syrup; stir in garlic butter sauce. Fill tortilla with couscous, garlic butter sauce, mushrooms and red onion/bell pepper slaw.
PORTOBELLO NAPOLEON WITH SHIITAKE CHIPS & ENOKI GARNISH (Anita Lo): Place thinly sliced shiitake caps on nonstick sheet pan; bake in 275˚F oven until dry and crisp. Brush large portobello with garlic and oil; grill finish in oven. Cut to form rectangle, then slice horizontally. Sandwich 3 slices with 2 layers of sushi rice. Garnish with shiitake chips and enoki tossed with chives. Drizzle plate with vinaigrette of mushroom soy, oil, rice vinegar, garlic, and truffle oil.
ROASTED MUSHROOM SALAD (Enrico's): Combine oyster caps with sliced shiitake and portobellos ("Smaller are more delicious and fresh-tasting than big"). Toss with garlic, olive oil, and dry white wine in large pan. Cover with foil; roast until cooked through. Remove foil; continue roasting to brown. Serve with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and arugula.