When cooking with mushrooms, it’s a bit like cooking with death itself. They’re more parasite than plant and are wildly notorious for having an extremely toxic edge. But mushrooms are also delicious. They taste like meat and if you dare to dance with the devil, you will experience their sinful pleasures.
More parasite than plant
Mushrooms are part of the family known as fungi. Unlike plants that harvest their energy from the sun, mushrooms survive by living off other organisms. They might form a symbiotic relationship with a living thing such as a tree, or feed off the decaying remains of some long deceased creature.
Most of the mushrooms you buy at a supermarket come from the latter. Decaying matter can easily be sourced and concentrated, allowing for a commercial supply of mushrooms to be sold. The same cannot be said for mushrooms that are in symbiosis with living trees. Hence why mushrooms such as truffles are so expensive, as they need to be harvested from the wild.
Where the flavour at?
The part of the mushroom we eat is actually the fruiting body and is characterised by a taste reminiscent of meat. This is due to natural concentrated sources of protein, free amino acids and MSG, which gives mushrooms their umami (or meaty) taste. Contrary to what you might have heard, most of the recent scientific literature has confirmed that MSG does not pose serious health risks. And MSG, for the record, is a natural product.
While the protein, amino acids and MSG govern the taste profile on your tongue, the flavour of the mushroom is due to the many aromatic compounds, which stimulate your nose with exciting smells. These compounds are concentrated mostly in the gill section of the mushroom, which is the furry bit on the underside of the mushroom top. A mushroom that has a large gill section, like a Portobello, will have a much richer aroma than a closed, small gill mushroom like a white button.
Mushroom cooking secrets
When cooking with mushrooms, it’s all about intensifying their natural flavour, which can be achieved by concentrating and complementing the proteins, amino acids, MSG and aromatics. Sautéeing mushrooms are one of the easiest and simplest ways to achieve this.
Mushrooms are 80-90% water and we want to get rid of most of this water to concentrate the flavour. Thankfully, the surface area of the mushroom is semi-permeable to water, so addition of dry heat will help expel most of this water. The heat also collapses air pockets, which when combined with water loss, causes mushrooms to shrink upon cooking.
But while concentrating the flavour is easily achieved by heat addition, complementing and boosting the natural flavours is achieved by addition of one handy ingredient: balsamic vinegar. The main taste profile of balsamic vinegar is its distinct sourness, which encourages salivation in the mouth. But it also has natural sugars and a slight umami taste, which further boosts the natural umami taste of mushrooms.
So by addition of this one ingredient, the sour and sweet flavour profiles are boosted and the natural umami flavour of the mushroom is enhanced. A bit of butter or salt at the end will give the final lift your mushrooms need. It should be noted that only a little bit of balsamic vinegar is needed as you don’t want to overpower the mushrooms with too much acidity. But the formula still holds:
Mushrooms + Balsamic Vinegar + Butter = Heaven
Of course that’s not the only way to appreciate mushrooms, but hopefully my little tips can help you appreciate mushrooms as an individual ingredient. And even though you’ll be using mushrooms in any of the thousands of recipes out there, you at least now know what’s going on inside that cooking pot.
Happy cooking and if you want to share any of your own mushrooms tips, write it in the comments section below! Bon appétit