Why Chefs LOVE Mushrooms
There are not very many new vegetables coming to market, but there are still plenty of new ingredients for the kitchen coming from the Kingdom of Fungi. Chefs, and adventurous home cooks, are learning to appreciate the whole range of flavors and textures from cultivated specialty mushrooms. Up until recently mushroom choice was limited to white button mushrooms and seasonably available wild-foraged mushrooms. Even shiitake mushrooms, now becoming ubiquitous, were unknown as a fresh mushroom up until the 1980s. Recipes for Asian dishes relied instead on reconstituting dried mushrooms.
In the past few years mushroom growers in the U.S. have learned new cultivation techniques from Asia. Shiitake mushrooms were traditionally grown on logs outdoors, but new methods, relying on sawdust instead of logs, have made the process more efficient and have opened the potential for growing more varieties. The sawdust substrate provides both a medium for the mushroom mycelium to grow in and the food for the mushroom to digest. Some species, like chanterelles and porcini, are symbiotic with living plants and cannot be farmed. Others, like shiitake, hen-of-the-woods, and nameko are easily adapted to sawdust culture. Wood is the natural food for these varieties. Some of the other species that are now becoming available include enoki, honshimeji (beech or clamshell mushroom), pioppini (black poplar mushroom), and lion’s mane (pom-pom).
So why do chefs love mushrooms? Mushrooms are beautiful to the eye, and easily adapt to a wide range of cuisines, but most importantly mushrooms behave in the kitchen much the same way that meats do. Like meats, mushrooms change their character in response to different cooking techniques and they express different qualities depending on the ingredients with which they are paired. There is sound science behind these effects.
Mushrooms are not vegetables. They are part of the kingdom of fungi and the biochemical structure of fungi has more in common with animals in some ways than with vegetables. Mushrooms have a broad range of amino acids, as animal proteins do, and this provides them with savory flavor. They are high in glutamic acid, an amino acid that forms naturally occurring glutamates which act as flavor enhancers. (The ‘unnatural’ form you know as MSG, monosodium glutamate.) Mushrooms are also rich in nucleotides, compounds that are synergistic with glutamates. Together these characteristics make up umami, the savory flavor component that is now widely accepted as the fifth flavor, beside the old standbys of salt, bitter, sweet, and acid. These attributes make mushrooms perfect pairing partners in a wide variety of culinary settings. Savory flavor plus a satisfying “meaty” texture make mushrooms excellent ingredients in vegetarian meals. Mushrooms give you something to chew on.
As an example of mushrooms’ culinary adaptability, a fairly mild mushroom like the king oyster has a mildly sweet flavor when lightly sautéed in butter with lemon and tarragon. Prepared this way, king oyster pairs well with chicken and fish and is best complemented by white wines. The same mushroom tossed with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, then grilled over hot coals, has a deeply satisfying, hearty character that would stand up to grilled beef and bold red varietals from Cabernet to Zinfandel. One can image a similar contrast with varying preparations of chicken breast. A gently sautéed chicken breast has a different flavor from the same chicken breast grilled, but comparable shifts of flavor do not occur so readily with vegetables. And while some vegetable flavors are hard to pair with wines, mushrooms easily complement wines.
With the possible exception of the onion family, mushrooms occur in more recipes around the world than any other single ingredient. Doubtless this is because mushrooms grow wild on every continent. In Asia they are found in soups, noodle dishes and stir-fries. In Northern Europe they are used in stews and pickled. In Southern Europe they add depth to ragouts, garnish grilled meats and are tossed in pastas. The culinary names Chasseur, Cacciatore and Jaeger schnitzel all share a common root in the word “hunter” – and all feature mushrooms. When you hunt you spend a lot of time waiting quietly in the woods, time well spent scanning the ground for mushrooms. The hunter who returned from the forest with both game and mushrooms, of course cooked them together.
The cultivation of specialty mushrooms broadens our culinary palette. While a brown crimini mushroom is only slightly different from a white button mushroom, a pioppini mushroom is very different from honshimeji, and honshimeji is different from maitake. When explorers find a new country they are always eager to find what’s to eat. Potatoes, corn, cocoa and chilies moved quickly from the Western Hemisphere back to Europe. The Kingdom of Fungi remains in part unexplored territory and chefs can look forward to even more new varieties as expanding acceptance leads to increased demand and farmers investigate new mushrooms and how best to cultivate them.