Mushrooms - © USDA

Shedding Light On Your Mushroom Mysteries

Yes, the headline for today’s post is a borderline-silly play on words, referring to the way mushrooms are commercially grown: In the dark. But I get a lot of questions from readers about how to choose and store mushrooms, and I’ve never dedicated a post to answering them…

Rice Pilaf with Mushrooms - ©

Mushrooms used to be rare delicacies, enjoyed by only a relative-few wealthy folks who could afford them, and the relatively poor folks who gathered them, wild, in forests. Now-a-days, commercial growers culture them in cool, dark caves or, more often, in low windowless buildings half buried in the ground. Mushrooms like it damp and cool, too.

The preferred growth medium is rotted chicken manure. You often find big egg-laying operations in close geographical proximity to big mushroom growing operations. Now you know why. Once the mushrooms are through with it, the manure is high-quality compost.

But that isn’t exactly the most popular question I get from you folks…

How do you tell a good mushroom?

Easy, if you know what to look for! First, make sure it has no scars or bruises on the cap; no discolouration at all. Mushrooms with long stems tend to be cleaner and less marred than those with shorter stems. But don’t just judge a mushroom by its stem!

Check the underside of the cap: the cap should be closed; no gills showing. That will also you that the gills have not started to develop too much. And that’s good. After all, the allure of mushrooms, for discerning chefs, is the pure, white interior of the cap. By the way, you can also eat the stems, but they don’t present too enticingly on the plate. But at the price of mushrooms these days, you’ll want to consider using the stems if you have an opportunity. I use them in soups and salads, where the mushrooms are all diced up, anyway.

The most important factor in choosing a mushroom is it’s weight. Pick up any nice looking mushroom with a closed cap and heft it in your palm. It should feel heavy for its size. That means the interior of the cap is mostly solid, not gilly. This is the one you want. And others like it.

Just a note: If you find dark, discoloured mushrooms in your supermarket’s produce department, and the gulls are all open and some even have a slimy surface texture… Tell the produce manager he needs to toss them, and insist he put out a new display of fresh ones.

Is there a best time of day to buy mushrooms?

The mushrooms you want to buy are those that were cut earlier the same day and rushed to the supermarket while the dew was still on the grass. Fortunately, if you live in a region that supports a couple of major mushroom growers – like I do – you’ll always have a good selection to choose from.

So go in to the supermarket early in the day, when the new mushrooms are just being set out on display. This way you’ll get your choice of size – a nice thing if you are planning on making a dish which will benefit from uniformly-sized mushies. Like Boeuf Bourguignon, which requires uniformly-sized Buttons. Here, for your pleasure, is Julia Child’s famous recipe

How to you store mushrooms?

That’s a loaded question. You should buy mushrooms as needed. That is, buy only as many as you intend to use within 48 hours. Once cut, they’ll start to ‘mature’ – that is, the gills will open, and the desirable part of the fungus will shrink. Unwanted musty odours and off flavours also develop as a result of this process.

Many supermarkets provide paper bags to take your mushrooms home in. When you get home, just stick the bag in the vegetable crisper with the top folded/rolled closed. That will approximate the temperature and humidity level the mushies need to remain in their prime longest.

Bottom line…

DO what you have to do to get the best mushrooms available; i.e – go early and get the new ones as soon as they go on display.

DO Handle your little treasures with care so they’ll look their best in your culinary creations.

DON’T settle for anything less than perfect, fresh mushrooms. You dishes will suffer, and embarrass you if you do!

Now you know the mushrooms basics…

… Carry on and elevate the world’s favourite fungus to new gustatory heights!

~ Maggie J.