The deep, rich, earthy flavor of freshly gathered morels complements early fall root crops. Dried morels are available year-round, and add a wild note to soups and stews.
Photography by Joe Coca
Featured Wild Mushroom Recipes:
Oven-Roasted or Grilled Porcini
Warm Morels and Potato Salad
Risotto with Wild Mushrooms
It's hard to imagine anything more mysteriously and elementally of the earth than mushrooms. They spring up suddenly and unexpectedly from a dank, decaying underworld. Among their myriad varieties are some of the most desired flavors in the culinary world—and some of the deadliest.
The mushroom myths of Western cultures cluster around death and destruction. For centuries, mushrooms were regarded as agents of evil spirits, magically appearing when thunder sounded or when lightening struck. Because they grew in dung and other decaying matter, they were generally thought to be unclean or unhealthy. On the other hand, many Asian cultures have used them for culinary and medicinal purposes—and this use is spreading.
Our interest here, however, is in three of the finest edible mushrooms: the porcino (Boletus edulus), also know as cèpe in France or bolete in serious mushroom circles; the chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius); and the morel (Morchella esculenta). All three are easy to identify with reasonable certainty in the wild. All are principally found in temperate-zone woods and forests, although morels sometimes appear in woodsy garden nooks.
Each mushroom variety also is harvested commercially, and is increasingly available at farmer’s markets, gourmet stores, and specialty supermarkets. In most states, codes and laws regulate the sale of such mushrooms to ensure that they are safe to eat. There have been no reported poisonings from commercial wild mushrooms for several years. Amateur harvesters do, however, account for occasional poisonings that range from digestive upset through liver impairment to death.
Selecting, Storing, and Cleaning Mushrooms
Whether your wild mushrooms come from the forest floor or from a store, they should be firm, not soft. They should have no moldy or rotted sections. In general, smaller is better. Although porcini and chanterelles weighing up to half a pound can spring up overnight, very large mushrooms are often over-the-hill, with much less flavor and aroma than smaller specimens. Inspect mushrooms carefully for insects and sponginess.
Treat mushrooms as extremely perishable during transport and storage. If you don’t plan to use them immediately, layer them without touching between paper towels and refrigerate. Just-harvested mushrooms will keep four or five days in the driest part of the refrigerator, usually the bin marked for fruit storage. Fresh store-bought mushrooms may keep that long, but I buy them the day I plan to use them since they’re usually quite expensive and never look quite as fresh as harvested ones.
To clean mushrooms, use a soft cloth or brush to remove obvious forest debris, sand, or soil; be aware that some mushroom brushes are much too stiff, so you’ll want something like a baby brush. Then use a small, sharp knife to remove bruised spots and insect-infested areas. Insects love porcini, take or leave chanterelles, and rarely bother morels. Stems of porcini and morels can be removed at this stage if you plan to use the caps right away. Save the stems for drying or use them to make mushroom broth. The caps and stems of chanterelles are continuous and both are good to eat. Check the pores of porcini. Those on very fresh porcini are a pale buff color. But if they’ve turned brownish-green, they will become mushy when cooked. Many cooks routinely trim the pores from porcini to maintain an even texture.
Mushroom cooks hotly debate the use of water to clean fungi after brushing and trimming. If you’re satisfied that the mushrooms are clean, it’s best not to use water, particularly if you’re going to grill or roast them. If the mushrooms will be braised, sautéed to reabsorb their juices, or used in soups or sauces, a little water won’t make a difference. My own preference is the knife, cloth, or brush for harvested mushrooms, water for store-bought ones.
Many cooks find that the flavors of morels and porcini, unlike chanterelles, intensify when they are dried. Since mushrooms are over 90 percent water, they shrink to half or less of their fresh size. To dry, clean the mushrooms well without using water. Leave small ones whole and slice large ones at least 1/4-inch thick. Layer them, not touching, on racks that allow for air circulation. Dry in full sun for a day or two when the humidity is less than 50 percent, and turn the mushrooms once. Or dry at the lowest oven setting with the oven door ajar for twelve to twenty-four hours, checking the mushrooms frequently. When they’re ready for storage, they should be slightly leathery and pliable. Well-dried and stored in airtight jars, these varieties keep for years.
Partners in the Kitchen: Cooking with Mushrooms
In general, these three mushroom varieties are enhanced by shallots or onions, and by cooking in even a small amount of butter. Garlic obscures the subtleties in chanterelles and morels, but porcini can stand up to a discreet amount. Matching intensity of flavors is the most important thing to remember. If you’re new to wild mushrooms, this is a process of discovery for your own palate.
The amount of mushrooms to cook depends on the variety and dish. Chanterelles shrink more during cooking than the other two varieties. A good rule of thumb is to use one pound of chanterelles for four to six people. Half a pound of porcini and morels generally satisfies four to six. Of course, this may vary according to the maturity of the mushroom, and how wet the conditions were when they were harvested, as water will add to the mushrooms’ weight.
Porcini have a flavor that stands alone, especially when cooked over wood. They pair well with bread, polenta, and white beans. They also complement full-flavored foods such as game and game birds, beef, lamb, and duck. Some Italians cook porcini with salt cod. The natural juices from porcini make a rich sauce on their own, and wonderfully complex ones with wine and/or meat or poultry stock. Dried porcini are a pantry staple that deliver a dinner’s worth of flavor. Simmer dried ones for ten minutes or so, 1/2 ounce of porcini to 11/2 cups of water, for incomparable flavor in soups, sauces, pasta dishes and risottos, and stews.
Chanterelles are distinctive but delicate. Their perfume and flavor fade more quickly than those of porcini and morels. Chanterelles’ pronounced fruit and nut flavor make them good partners with most herbs, with mild-tasting white fish, chicken, veal, and pork chops and roasts. Some people like chanterelles with shrimp, prawns, and lobster. Chanterelles take the acidity of wine well, especially Sauvignon Blanc, which has a complementary flavor. A dish of chanterelles is delicious on its own: Simply cook in butter with shallots or a little onion over medium heat until the mushrooms absorb their juices and turn deep golden brown.
Morels are adaptable partners with many foods, including other mushrooms. They harmonize with root vegetables, especially early crops of beets, carrots, and potatoes. Mashed potatoes any time of year with fresh and/or dried morel gravy is a treat. Dried morels can enrich a fall or winter vegetable stew or a roasted dish of rutabagas, parsnips, carrots, and winter squash. A very special flavor results when morels are mixed with peas, asparagus, or artichokes. Morels are classic with veal stews and as side dishes with, or sauces for, veal roasts or grills. They have a long history of accompanying lamb, pork, quail, pheasant, and squab.
Wild Mushrooms Home Grown
Shitake, oyster, hen-of-the-woods—you can have an abundance of these edible wild mushrooms in your own backyard or basement. All it takes is appropriate logs, a hand or electric drill, mushroom starter plugs, and a little patience.
The starter plugs, or “dowels,” are dormant mushroom mycelium—the part that grows underground or inside trees. Inserted into holes drilled in moist logs, the plugs begin to colonize the wood, and mushrooms—lots of them—can appear in as little as two or three months. Oak, fruitwoods, alder, and maple are appropriate for the shiitakes shown here. A single log can bear mushrooms repeatedly if temperatures are well above freezing and there’s sufficient moisture. Mushroom logs also can thrive in a cool basement or root cellar.