Mushrooms - The Inside Story
Cooking is Chemistry
Our taste sensations have evolved to keep us safe and to be able to choose foods we need for nutrition.
Sweet : signal for sugars—energy source
Salty : minerals – maintenance of body fluids
Sour : signal for organic acids and warns of food spoilage
Bitter : alert signal for potentially harmful substances
Umami (savoury) : signal for amino acids – essential for making protein
Mushrooms are high in amino acids /proteins and have long been called ‘poor mans meat’. They are used by chefs to add that umami-savoury element to their dishes.
People are instinctively drawn to umami rich foods and around the world examples of different comfort foods commonly have umami rich elements:
Japanese kombu, Chicken soup (aka. Jewish penicillin), Steak and chips, Roast potatoes, Toast & marmite, Crispy pork, Saurkraut, Tomato soup, Korean kimchi
Texture – they are not vegetables and they have cell walls made of the same material as seafood shells. It is immensely tough so mushrooms have a chewy texture not found in plant material. This very appealing to vegetarians who miss textures usually found in meat.
Sugars - mushrooms contain long chain polysaccharides which gives sweetish flavour. They are also highly soluble so will easily escape into any cooking liquor. Mushrooms high in sugar caramelise to a lovely golden colour when sautéed.
Aromatics – all mushrooms have different compositions, some are very fragrant (eg. shiitake) other hardly at all. They are not as volatile as herbal aromatic molecules but will be lost over time. So really important to buy freshest mushrooms possible for that extra flavour dimension.
Amino acids – there are 23 amino acids that are essential for human survival. These are turned into proteins by the body. Different mushrooms have different combinations and quantities. Truffles have all 23 and plenty of aromatics too. The Maillard reaction takes place when mushrooms are cooked at high heat and this is how the savoury/umami flavour similar to well browned meat is developed. Cook them like steak, they are not vegetables.
Presentation is artistry
Love the versatility
Food presentation is an art and chefs are creative people. Almost instinctively good chefs understand how to balance sweet, salt, sour, bitter & umami and
provide visual and textural balance too. Mushrooms are extremely versatile and different ways of preparation yield a variety of looks, atse and textures as well as that all important umami.
Good raw : enoki, grey & yellow oysters, horse mushrooms, chestnuts,
very thinly sliced shiitake and eryngii
Do not eat raw : wood blewits (possible tummy ache), shimeji (bitter)
Marinades Mushrooms are great for marinades as they have no ‘skin’ and liquids are instantly absorbed.
Crispy – dry fried maitake (hen of the woods) thinly sliced eryngii
Soft, creamy – abalone (quite like ceps), shiitake
Chewy – eryngii, Shimeji
Purees : because of the immensely strong cell walls, you will never get a totally smooth puree as you might with vegetables. That’s why mushroom soup always seems little gritty. Pass for best results.
Chestnut, portabella, horse and enoki mushrooms all have higher sugar levels which is why they taste nice raw. Mixing sweetish mushrooms in a pickling mix gives the pickling liquor a lovely sweetish/ acidic but mushroomy flavour which is great to cook with after the mushrooms have been used up.
Savoury stocks & essences
Use trims to make mushroom essence – just cover with water and bring to boil.
Remove and strain if you want a light fragrant, fresh broth – eryngii, white & brown shimeji, oysters and enoki are good for this.
Reduce by 50-75% by boiling and you will have an intense savoury/ mushroomy/meaty flavoured essence. Best for this is shiitake (fresh organic) & Nameko, you will find they produce a natural gel when cooled.
Reduce to a thick paste for intense mushroom ketchup.
Mushrooms sauces are classic. This is because of the ability of mushrooms when cooked to reabsorb any liquid with ease.
Even if serving simply as sautéed mushrooms, always have a bit of mushroom essence from trims on hand to intensify the flavour, just add at the end.
Smoking & griddling
Just like sauces and marinades, mushrooms take on smoke really well. Need to make sure they are not too wet before starting or they may taste bitter.