It wasn't long ago that if customers were shopping for mushrooms, they had but one choice—the humble white button mushroom. So when a recipe called for mushrooms, they knew exactly what to look for in your store.
But that was then, and this is now.
Today's consumers no longer face the monotony of a single mushroom choice. Instead, they must wade through a multiplicity of mushroom varieties, available in a plethora of shapes, sizes and colors. At first glance, many of these unfamiliar mushrooms may appear too strange or costly to bother sorting through. But by understanding just a few basic principles about how to select and prepare mushroom varieties, this ample selection can provide consumers with a broad palette for cooking creative and satisfying dishes.
Types Of Mushrooms
Mushrooms are anything but a homogenous category of cuisine. They vary dramatically in taste, texture, aroma and appearance. Just for starters, mushrooms come in radically varying shapes. The most familiar looking are those with dome-shaped caps, such as button, portobello or crimini. Others, such as chanterelles or lobster mushrooms, have tops that blend uniformly into their stems. Some mushrooms have natural folds on their caps, others have tiny caps and long stems, and some have an appearance similar to an undulating fungus you might see on a log in the forest. (This brings up one good point—while all mushrooms are subsets of the fungus category, not all fungi are mushrooms.)
The basic button mushroom of yesteryear may have gained popularity because it has a characteristically mild, middle-of-the road flavor, and an inoffensive (if not boring) texture. And everybody loves those picturesque rounded caps.
But other mushrooms available today provide a broad range of tastes, textures and aromas. Some have a modest flavor, such as wood ears or enoki, but possess a distinctive texture. These are best used as a textural element in stir-fries or soups (see recipe below). Others, such as morels and cèpes, are bountiful in flavor, aroma and texture and deserve to be used as a central ingredient in a dish. Some, such as lobster mushrooms or portobello, are robust in both aroma and texture and lend a strong, "meaty" quality to a dish.
Because of their distinctive tastes, mushrooms are often used as an essential ingredient in sauces and stocks. When used in this way, they should be sliced or diced to impart optimal flavor. In addition to the taste they add to a dish, mushrooms are also often used to provide texture—finely diced in a duxelle, coarsely chopped in stews and soups, or delicately sliced in a stir-fry. So even the same type of mushroom can seem unique with varying treatments in a knowledgeable cook's hands.
Selecting For Freshness
Knowing how to recognize freshness in mushrooms is vitally important to the experience your customers have, especially if they're trying a certain variety for the first time. As with apples, one bad mushroom spoils the whole bunch.
When checking a delivery or helping a customer select some for a recipe, avoid mushrooms that are shriveled, bruised, dried-out, decayed smelling or slimy. In a comparable way that an old zucchini has a dull skin and faded color, the same happens to the appearance of a mushroom that's past its prime. A fresh mushroom's color should be vivid and saturated. Given the number of varieties available, it's important to learn the individual characteristics of each mushroom, and select accordingly. Common button mushrooms, for example, should be firm, unblemished and white. Tree oysters should be cream colored and succulent looking, without dried or broken edges.
The caps of most button-style mushrooms should be tightly closed around the stem, revealing none of the underside "gills." An exception to this is the portobello, which, as a mature crimini (some might say "wildly overgrown" crimini), has a flattened cap that has pulled away from the stem. If any mushroom has a strong, musty, unpleasant odor, it's not fresh and will give an offensive dominant flavor to any dish in which it's used.
To Wash Or Not To Wash?
Many a chef and gourmand will advise newcomers to never wash mushrooms before cooking. The logic is that because mushrooms are so porous, they absorb water when washed.
Consequently, they'll exude excess water when cooked and won't soak-in flavorful liquids from the dish. So the method for cleaning mushrooms that's often recommended is to use a soft brush or damp towel to wipe off the dirt.
But there are two drawbacks to this method. First, it's very time-consuming to brush each mushroom and inspect closely for hidden particles of dirt—particularly those mushrooms with folds and creases, such as morels. Secondly, many hands, from source to produce stand, may pass over the mushrooms before they're sold. If bacteria settle on the mushrooms in the process, a simple brushing may not be sufficient to render them healthy and clean.
So it's safer, and more practical in terms of time, for customers to wash mushrooms thoroughly before using. Tell them to begin by trimming and discarding any tough or woody parts of the mushroom. If the top of the mushroom is button-shaped (portobellos, crimini, cèpes, etc.), cut the stem off, flush with the bottom of the cap. Place the mushrooms in a strainer and quickly rinse with a gentle stream of cold running water, tossing and rubbing to remove all dirt. Immediately place the mushrooms on a clean, dry kitchen towel.
It's also important that your customers allow the mushrooms to dry thoroughly at room temperature and then transfer them to a plastic bag lined with a paper towel. Loosely folding the bag around the mushrooms and allowing space for air to circulate allows mushrooms to be stored for up to seven days. Tell customers not to store mushrooms in a bag that's tied shut, because moisture will collect inside the bag and cause the mushrooms to spoil quickly.
Exotic Mushrooms For The Masses
A natural foods store produce department is the ideal venue for introducing wild and cultivated exotic mushrooms to the gourmet market. You already have customers who are open to learning about new ingredients and who turn to your produce department for new options. But because mushrooms are such a perishable, high-end product, when expanding your stock it's best to begin small and strategically.
Start by knowing your customers and what's available through your suppliers. Plan to expand your stock with a conservative, yet top-quality selection of mushrooms. Button, portobello and shiitake, plus at least one or two more exotic varieties, can initially provide enough assortment to differentiate you from the less adventurous commercial markets.
Today, most mushroom varieties—even those that are traditionally wild—are commercially grown, so you may find a wide variety available to you. But when choosing a supplier, it's imperative to find a reputable source because so many varieties of wild mushrooms are extremely poisonous.
Above all, make certain the mushrooms you keep on display, as well as your back stock, are fresh. That way, there's a better chance your customers' culinary experiences will be enjoyable and they will learn to depend on you for reliably tasty mushrooms. That confidence may make them willing to experiment with more pricey varieties as you build your selection.
Another way to broaden the range of mushroom varieties you offer is to cross-merchandise with the grocery department and display dried mushrooms next to your fresh selection. Be sure, however, that neither the fresh nor dried mushrooms are positioned so that the automatic spraying system hits them, since this will cause them to spoil quickly.
By offering your customers a wider variety of mushrooms, you'll help them to increase their cooking creativity. Once customers understand the range of mushroom possibilities beyond the humble white button variety, they can begin a culinary exploration that's both rewarding and delicious.
Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg are the coauthors of the upcoming book What Are You Hungry For? (St. Martin's Press, 2002; www.whatareyouhungryfor.net). They also write the "Eating Wisely" column for Yoga Journal magazine.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 11/p. 20, 23-25