Maine has a wide array of locally cultivated mushrooms that come in a veritable smorgasbord of shapes, sizes and colors. The sheer variety available, even in the grocery store, can be intimidating for home chefs. If you can keep a few basic techniques in mind, though, you can greatly expand the palette of mushrooms in your home cooking.
Even though cultivated mushrooms are diverse, you can basically prepare them using the same methods, as long as you consider the basic physiology of the mushroom.
Here’s what you need to know to get started cooking the wide variety of locally cultivated mushrooms in Maine.
On cleaning mushrooms
First, make sure you are washing mushrooms properly. Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College, said that you want your mushrooms to be as dry as possible before cooking.
“Don’t make them moist, or they’ll get soggy when they’re cooked,” Enjaian said.
Enjaian said she will knock off debris with a dry brush or towel, but you may have to be “OK with a tiny bit of dirt.”
Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine, said that a spritz of water or a damp paper towel won’t hurt if mushrooms are completely filthy, but he said most locally cultivated mushrooms “should be able to go from package to cooking, no problem.”
“Mushrooms are grown in a pasteurized medium,” Dumas said. “Compared to traditional produce, [which have] lots have pesticides that might be residual, mushrooms don’t have any of that.”
Dumas said that one of the best ways to start with mushrooms, no matter the shape, is by sauteing them in a pan by adding your chopped, sliced or diced mushrooms in a single layer, taking care not to crowd them, and letting them cook until they are slightly shrunken and crispy.
“It allows you to cook off a little bit of the moisture from the mushrooms and get a little bit of a sear on them,” Dumas said.
Be aware that most mushrooms will shrink when you cook them, as they lose their moisture.
Consider the texture
In general, you will want to consider the texture of the mushrooms when thinking about the best way to cook them. Meatier mushrooms, like king oyster or trumpet mushrooms, can be cooked almost like meat, pan seared like you would a steak or a pork chop.
“[It’s about] the relative density and thickness of mushroom and thinking about what that’s going to be like in the dish that you’re making,” Dumas said. “If you have mushrooms standing in for a chunk of shrimp or chicken, you might want a bigger, thicker, meatier mushroom.”
More fragile varieties like enoki or pioppino are better prepared in soups.
“You just want to be cognizant of their texture and the way that you approach them,” Dumas said. “A more delicate type mushroom is appealing especially if it needs to cook quickly in a broth situation.”
“You just have to take care to not overcook them,” Enjaian added. “To me, mushrooms that are overcooked are usually just mush, but the unique varieties have so much texture and so many different notes to them.”
Choosing your mushrooms
If you are just getting started in the wonderful world of mushrooms, Dumas said that perhaps the two most common locally grown mushrooms would be shiitake and oysters, both of which would be great to start with.
“They’re wonderful mushrooms,” Dumas said. “The one important element with shiitakes is that stems are pretty tough, [so you should] take the caps off the stem of the shiitake. Oysters have a tender stem, so don’t worry about those [but they] have a more slippery texture. To combat that, I think cooking them in a really hot, dry skillet is a nice way to get started.”
Another great locally cultivated mushroom is lion’s mane.
“Lion’s manes are friggin’ amazing,” Dumas said. “[If] you want to have the best substitute for crab meat — maybe even better than crabmeat — make yourself an angel hair pasta with lemony cream sauce and roasted lion’s mane mushrooms. Just hand tear it into little chunks [and] roast and pan fry them in butter.”
In addition to being delicious, cultivated mushrooms are an excellent market for Maine growers.
“Mushroom agriculture is low impact, it’s regenerative in some ways [and] it’s a really safe yummy food with a lot of nutritional value,” Dumas said. “It’s a niche market for Maine producers [because] they can produce them year round.”
Dumas said that if the first locally cultivated mushroom variety you try doesn’t appeal to you, don’t give up — just give another mushroom a shot.
“If there’s a mushroom you don’t like the flavor or the texture, try another one,” Dumas said. “It’s like coffee or beer, but a much more exciting world out there when you look at the subtleties. Different folks have different palettes when it comes to textures. Embrace the challenge a little bit.”
Even if you have never been a fan of mushrooms, Dumas said you should try locally cultivated mushroom varieties.
“If you think you hate mushrooms because all you’ve ever eaten is canned mushrooms on pizza, give it a try,” Dumas said. “Mushrooms are fun.”