Know Your Mushrooms: Porcini, Shitake and Beyond

Don't be daunted by the many varieties of mushrooms. Learn their differences in flavor, texture, storage needs, and most of all, how to work them into your culinary repertoire.

With their earthy, delicate flavor and surprisingly meaty texture, mushrooms have been considered a delicacy since ancient times. Although they are fungi (not plants), the top “mushroom” portion of the organism is similar to a plant’s fruit, and produces the spores used by the fungus to reproduce. The body of the mushroom – the mycelium – is typically underground. Many varieties of mushroom are grown on farms, but some types simply cannot be cultivated outside of their natural habitats. These varieties are gathered by hand from their wild growing spots, which make them less available and far more expensive. While wild mushrooms are not necessarily superior to the cultivated ones, the wild variety are more variable in flavor – even within the same species – while farmed mushrooms are generally consistent in taste.

Regardless of variety, mushrooms are delicate and need proper handling. Don’t soak your fresh mushrooms in water unless they’re destined for a soup or salad, as mushrooms absorb water and will become mushy. Instead, use a pastry brush or paper towel to gently brush away any dirt or grit. If the mushrooms are very dirty, as is sometimes found with the wild varieties from local farmers’ markets, give them a quick rinse under running water, then blot them dry with a paper towel.

If you aren’t going to use your fresh mushrooms right away, remove them from any plastic packaging, and store them in the refrigerator in a paper bag. In Electrolux's humidity-controlled Perfect Temp drawer, mushrooms should stay good for up to five days.

Of the many thousands of mushroom species found throughout the world, only a small percentage are edible; of those, an even smaller percentage are found on the shelves of gourmet shops and farmers’ markets. Here’s what you need to know about some of the most popular:

Wild-Gathered Varieties

Chanterelle: These gold or orange-colored mushrooms grow wild in many parts of the world, including most of North America. They have an earthy and slightly-fruity flavor that particularly complements eggs, chicken and seafood. No need to remove the stem –  the entire mushroom is edible, with a tender, meaty texture.

Morel: Quite distinctive with its honeycomb cap, the morel mushroom can be light yellow, white, black or brown, though the black variety is said to be most flavorful. The taste is strong and woody, adding extra flavor to pasta dishes like this recipe for Spring Pasta with Morels, Ramps and Peas. Morels require extra rinsing because of their shape (lots of nooks and crannies), but don’t wash them until right before cooking.

Truffle: Truffle hunters commonly use pigs or dogs to sniff out the delicacies, then dig them from the ground. While varieties of truffles grow around the world, the most renowned are black truffles from France and white truffles from Italy. That said, recently, white truffles from Oregon have gained attention as worthy substitutes for the Italian varieties. The potent truffle aroma is what makes them irresistible to many, along with their earthy, dark flavor. Showcase the tang with this simple, perfect egg recipe.

Porcini: The nutty, earthy flavor of young porcini mushrooms, along with their firm texture, makes these the perfect foil for pasta dishes. These reddish mushrooms grow mainly in Europe, and while dried and frozen porcinis are easily available, finding fresh ones is quite a challenge.

Cultivated Varieties

Cremini: Cremini mushrooms are really just baby portabellas. They look like brown button mushrooms, but have a slightly stronger flavor and a meatier texture. Enjoy them sautéed on a burger or on an open-face beef sandwich.

Portabella: The giants of the mushroom world, portabellas can be bigger than your hand. They have a meaty texture and a juicy, mild flavor. Grilled with a sprinkling of herbs and cheese, a portabella makes a nice vegetarian main course.

Shiitake: Remove the tough stems before cooking shiitake, and be sure to savor the smoky, earthy flavor of their mushroom caps. Very popular in Asian cuisine, shiitake mushrooms have strong flavor that stands up well to flavorful stir-fry dishes like this beef, shiitake and snow pea recipe.

Oyster: These smooth mushrooms have a delicate flavor, and are best cooked rapidly over high heat. Use them in a stir-fry, roast them whole, or enjoy them sautéed in this fettuccine dish with sweet garlic and arugula.

Button: Button mushrooms have a mild flavor and tender consistency. Slice them up and mix them into a green salad, or sauté them to serve with eggs or beef. Note: the common supermarket variety are usually sold in small containers covered with plastic.

Enoki: Traditional in many Japanese dishes, enoki mushrooms are long and thin, with very small caps. They come in clusters, so separate them before cooking and trim away the woody end of the stems. Try enoki mushrooms in this traditional miso soup.