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ingredients and techniques

About Wild Mushrooms

meg's picture

Wild mushrooms are the ultimate forager's prize. Ephemeral and camouflaged, they represent the bounty and mystery of forest and field. They also happen to be some of the best eating around if you're cooking with wild foods.

Of course, before I get carried away with tales of mushroom feasts, I must issue the standard caveat that I give for all wild foods. If you cannot positively identify the mushroom with 100% certainty, do not eat it. If you're pretty sure you know what it is, don't eat it. If you think it looks like the picture in your mushroom book, don't eat it. Only eat it if you know, absolutely and positively, what it is and that it is not poisonous. As JOY says, "There are bold mushrooms hunters and old mushroom hunters, but no bold old mushrooms hunters."

The best way to get started foraging for mushrooms is to find someone who knows what they're doing. This person should preferably be an old, crusty man who's spent the better part of his life in the woods. Okay, that was an exaggeration, but find someone who knows edible mushrooms like fishes know water, not a hippie with a mushroom guide who wants to forage for kicks.

Another option is to find a good source for buying wild mushrooms. This is an expensive food item, clocking in at about $24/lb or more--that's about $4 more per pound than pine nuts. Personally, I would rather have wild mushrooms than pine nuts, but that's my own bias.

We are fortunate enough to have a good source for wild mushrooms at our local farmer's market, and so when we feel like splurging we head over to his booth. He usually has morels, chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, shiitakes, and sometimes porcinis and hen of the woods.

The most important thing to remember about wild mushrooms, apart from how crucial it is to positively identify them, is that they must be cooked. Do not eat raw wild mushrooms. It will probably not kill you to do so, but it can make you very sick.

The third most important thing is that wild mushrooms have spent some the wild. They're liable to be pretty dirty. Sometimes, they even harbor small insects and worms. This fact may or may not make you queasy. It doesn't deter me because I love the flavor of wild mushrooms and figure that anything tiny that's been feasting on wild mushrooms will probably taste exactly like the mushroom itself.

To wash wild mushrooms, I prefer to dunk them in cool water right before I plan to cook them. As soon as you wash mushrooms they begin to deteriorate, so don't wash them too far ahead of cooking. Swish the mushrooms around in the water to dislodge any bits of dirt or sand or pine needles (we recently bought some chanterelles that obviously grew beneath pine trees--they had pine needles imbedded in them that had to be removed with a paring knife). You might have to change the water a few times.

Some like to soak morels in a salt solution to make sure they get all the bugs and worms out. I prefer not to do this because the morels will soak up some of the salt, and it causes the mushrooms to break down more quickly. I find that plain water is good enough.

Dry the mushrooms by laying them in a single layer on a kitchen towel.

As we are still young and on a tight budget, when we cook with wild mushrooms, or any expensive ingredient, we want them to shine. Therefore, we don't make anything too extravagant or heavily spiced --the flavor of the mushrooms would be lost.

We usually sauté the mushrooms with shallot and butter and serve them with eggs, or sometimes we sauté them, add cream, and serve with pasta and chives. Another good option is to make a simple mushroom ragout and serve it on toast.

I can see wild mushrooms making a fantastic soup or a good homemade pizza topping as well. Wild mushrooms pair well with butter, cream, eggs, pasta, shallots or chives, and rosemary, thyme, or tarragon among other things.

Other articles you might enjoy: Mushroom Ragout Toasts, Duxelles Gravy, Ramp and Mushroom Soufflés


Amanda's picture

My husband and I made a mushroom risotto the other day that I can imagine would have been knock-your-socks-off, out-of-this-world fantastic with wild mushrooms, as it was great with just plain old market bought button mushrooms.

meg's picture

Oooh, mushroom risotto is one of our favorites! And risotto is a perfect use for wild mushrooms.

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