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Mushrooms 101

All you need to know about these wondrous little things.

by: Food24 | 25 Mar 2010

Technically speaking, mushrooms are the rapid-growing fruit of fungi. The base structure is developed from wind or animal carried spores that grow underground in the right conditions and appear overnight. Mushroom "hunting" has been a pastime for centuries but it's not recommended for amateurs as there can be confusion between the poisonous and edible species.

Contrary to popular belief, mushrooms are highly nutritious. They're packed with B-group Vitamins, Iron, Potassium, Vitamin C and some essential minerals not found in fauna or flora. But according to some experts, eating a mushroom raw is not going to provide you with anything other than fibre, to release the goodness, they have to be cooked.

Edible wild mushrooms can be bought dried. Their flavour is stronger than their cultivated cousins' and a little goes a long way. As the mushroom matures, it flares open to expose pinkish-brown gills on the underside. In cultivation, these gills would eventually discharge the spores into the ground to complete the cycle.

Choosing and storing:
Mushrooms should be bought as fresh as possible. They are delicate and require handling with care, so avoid putting them at the bottom of shopping bags or bruising them. Keep them in a brown paper bag, to prevent sweating, at the bottom of the fridge and use them within three to four days. They should be firm and smooth, moist, smell fresh and have no damp patches or discolouration. They can be frozen fresh on open trays and then bagged. Cook them in their frozen state without thawing.

Cultivated mushrooms need little preparation. Don't peel them; their skin contains the flavour and nutrients. Wipe with a damp cloth to dislodge any dirt then trim stalk slightly. Don't wash unless absolutely necessary and then only a 30-60 second plunge into cold water. Drain immediately as they absorb moisture quickly. Cut stalks level with cap, the stalk can still be used.

Mushrooms bring colour and a meaty flavour to dishes. Use in soups, starters, sauces, main dishes, quick snacks, as a vegetable or raw in salads. They can be microwaved, baked, braaied, fried, steamed or pickled and eaten for breakfast, lunch or supper. Chop or slice mushrooms by hand or in a food processor. Mushrooms produce a good deal of liquid, which reduces in cooking, leaving them tender and smaller in size.

To sauté:
Sauté in butter for best results. Heat 30 to 40g butter in a shallow pan until hot and add 250g sliced mushrooms. Cook quickly, stirring constantly, until liquid has evaporated. When cooked, add 15ml freshly chopped herbs of your choice. Firm, dry mushrooms need to be cooked slower and covered with a lid.

To stew:
Fry as above and, when almost cooked, add 30 to 45ml sherry, dry vermouth, wine or lemon juice, together with 200ml stock or cream. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. This can be thickened by adding 5 ml cornflour, dissolved in 15ml cold water, and brought to the boil.

To use dried mushrooms
Soak in warm water to cover for 30 to 60 minutes. Drain, retaining liquid for cooking, then slice. Once rehydrated, cook as fresh mushrooms. Some kinds may require longer cooking to become tender. Twenty grams dried mushrooms is the equivalent of 250g fresh.

Cultivated mushrooms:
Baby button and button: Immature mushroom with white, velvety cap and little stalk. Eat raw, whole or sliced in salads or use in soups, sauces, soufflés and omelettes, with additional flavourings.
Portobellini: Brown capped mushroom with a denser texture and nuttier flavour. An excellent all-rounder for cooking, and now available in South Africa.
Brown: Has brownish-pink gills and a more open cap. Richer, with more flavour and used sliced in dishes or stuffed and baked.
Black: Most mature cultivated mushroom, almost flat with black gills. Superb flavour and meatiness; good for soups, stuffing and baking or grilling whole.
Oyster: Has pretty shell-shaped cap that fans from clusters of stalks. Browny-grey colour and with slippery texture when eaten. Cook small ones whole and tear larger ones into pieces along the gills. Combines well with shellfish, eggs and is used in Oriental cooking. Fry quickly in a little butter or olive oil.

Dried mushrooms:
Cloud ear: Has dramatic, dark crinkly shape and a gelatinous texture. The fungi itself grows on a tree. Used in Asian cooking and believed to give long life and reduce heart disease.
Porcini or boletus edulis: Has thick stalk and fleshy cap with tiny tubes instead of gills. A little goes a long way as the flavour is superb and concentrated in the dehydration process. Use in soups, pastas, risottos and egg dishes. Always include or save soaking liquid, which is full of nutrients.
Shiitake: Best known in Oriental and Japanese cooking. Flat mushroom than can be stuffed, used in stir-fries, soups and served alongside grills. Requires longer soaking than other species and the stems are best removed as they are quite woody.

10 Things to try with mushrooms:
Mushroom risotto
Cheesy mushroom lasagna
Mushroom sauce
Mushroom salad
Chicken and mushroom pasta
Grilled mushroom schwarma
Bacon, mushroom and spinach pasta
Chicken and mushroom plait
Puta mushroom pie
Veal and mushrooms


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