An Unappreciated Marvel — The Humble Mushroom

Various types of mushroom
Photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

Mushrooms get a lot of flack. It’s mostly from children, or the odd adult who doesn’t know any better, but I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like mushrooms. This is fairly normal, I hear you cry. People are free to dislike things even if they’re wrong. Fair enough. But I’ve found that a lot of the time, the reputation of the lowly mushroom is being unfairly besmirched.

Now I’m going to voice a theory. I hold this theory about many things, but mushrooms are a prime example. Sometimes when we don’t like something, it’s because we haven’t given it a fair chance. In fact, the problem is often how we use it. Is this a revolutionary thought? Absolutely not. I’ve never claimed to be original. But let’s look at some of the more common complaints about the mushroom. Actually, there’s just one that comes to mind.

“It’s slimy.” More generally this can voiced as, “I don’t like the texture.” Let’s tackle the “slimy” comment. If your mushrooms are slimy before you cook them, no wonder you don’t like them, they’ve gone off. If your mushrooms are covered in a sauce, they’re going to be wet, as is everything else in the sauce. Grow up. But if these things aren’t the case, what might have happened is to do with the makeup of the mushroom and the cooking process. Mushrooms contain a lot of liquid. When the mushroom is cooked, as with most food, the liquid seeps out. There is a lot of liquid. At this point, the cook will remove the mushrooms from the heat and let them sit for a while before you eat it. This is the recipe for ‘slimy’ mushrooms. Add salt and pepper as desired.

I don’t mind mushrooms with this texture. Garlic mushrooms or stuffed mushrooms are examples of popular recipes that can have somewhat ‘slimy’ mushroom texture. But I understand why people don’t like it. Thankfully, there’s an easy solution. Cook the mushrooms some more. This is a common mistake with a lot of vegetables, actually. People simply don’t sauté for as long as they should. Onions are another common victim of this phenomenon, but I’ll do my best to not get side tracked. We’re sticking with just the one vegetable.

As an English person (or British for the Americans out there), when I think of mushrooms, I think of fried mushrooms as a part of a full English breakfast. But if you want to try to properly cook your mushrooms and not suffer from meat sweats immediately afterwards, I’d recommend a polish street food. It’s called Zapienkanka, and it’s a very simple and delicious mushroom focused dish. Simply sauté your mushrooms (I like to chop mine) until all the liquid has evaporated. After this, add your butter or oil along with some onion (somewhat optional but not really) and then keep going for another few minutes until it smells amazing. This will probably take longer than you think, but be patient. Add salt and pepper. Now put this mixture on some bread, a baguette sliced lengthways is recommended but a thick slice will do. Put some melty cheese on top of your open faced sandwich and stick under the grill until it’s, well, melted. Serve with ketchup (or sriracha) and sprinkle chives or chopped spring onions on top.

Another way to eat your mushrooms is raw. This is where, again, some people fall by the mushroom wayside. If I’m going to be honest, I would probably be one of those people. I’ve never really enjoyed raw mushrooms. I don’t hate them, but I wouldn’t choose to eat raw mushroom. This can be where texture again rises it’s ugly head. Because of the high moisture content, a raw mushroom can have an almost spongey or rubbery texture. This does depend on what type of mushroom you’re eating. Some mushrooms are going to have a different texture and be much better to eat raw than a standard white or chestnut variety.

I haven’t experimented too much with different varieties, and I’m aiming to be very general with this post, but not every mushroom is equal. I’m not going to say that if you don’t like mushrooms, go out and try every variety until you find one you enjoy, but just because you don’t like your average white or chestnut mushroom, doesn’t mean you’re not going to like a shitake or porcini. If we go back to the texture point, different mushrooms have wildly different textures. This has a lot to do with, you guessed it, moisture content. Therefore you have some mushrooms that if left in large chunks or slices and lightly cooked, can seem rubbery still. Some mushrooms can almost disappear when you bite into them, even if you leave them whole. Others, such as portabella, have a very meaty texture, some varieties being fantastic substitutes for meat.

What if, somehow, you still don’t like the texture? The solution to this is the same as with all those other ingredients we don’t like but still add to our food (looking at you, celery). Chop it really really small. You can essentially blitz mushrooms, then cook them down to get rid of all the moisture, to be left with a sort of dry paste.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why bother at all. A mushroom is just a vegetable, you can go without. Can’t you? Well, yes. You won’t die. But there’s a clue in the last paragraph. Celery. I don’t like the taste of celery, raw or cooked. Big chunks of the stuff will ruin a meal for me. So why do I use celery in my cooking? It’s one of the vegetables I use the most, I consider it a staple. The thing is, while I don’t like celery on it’s own, I find it adds something to a dish that brings it together. It works fantastically with other flavours and enhances the meal. It’s also very good in stock. As long as I don’t get a mouthful of just celery, I’ll always appreciate it. Onions are another vegetable that is the glue that holds a meal together, I can’t think of a recipe which doesn’t have some form of onion involved in the base. Mushrooms often have a similar use as a “background flavour” in recipes.

However, they also bring something else to the table. Many people have heard of ‘umami’, or the ‘savoury flavour’. It’s that flavour that just makes everything taste wonderful. The whole point of MSG is to add it easily to dishes, a lot of our favourite condiments also have this type of flavour. In fact, let’s look back at the Zapienkanka I mentioned earlier. The reason I fell in love is likely because it reminded me of an old British favourite, cheese on toast with lashings of Worcestershire Sauce (or worcheschteser sauce to my American friends). The mushrooms have the same affect as the sauce, bringing the moreish umami flavour to the fore, which helps to balance the cheese. They therefore can have an important role in many dishes, rounding out the flavour and adding a very important and often overlooked depth.

As a side note, mushrooms are naturally vegan and gluten free, if this is important to you. The more common umami flavour enhancers can contain gluten, such as the majority of soy sauce. Or they’re made from fish, such as fish or oyster sauce (surprise), or Worcestershire sauce. While there are other options are there, none are as accessible as your common, lowly mushroom.

So, we’ve established that several of our mushroom issues aren’t as insurmountable as they seemed. It’s sadly common to see the poor things being treated badly and not with the care they deserve. Maybe next time, give them another chance and add another dimension to your cooking. Or don’t, I can’t make you.

Photo by Jan Baborák on Unsplash

Maybe don’t eat that guy though. At least, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Hi, I’m Sarah. I live somewhere in England and I love to cook and to write. I figured it would be an idea to combine those passion so here we are…

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