All About Wild Mushrooms—And How To Use Them
It’s pretty amazing that, with all the technology we have, the only way to harvest certain mushrooms is to send people out to forage for them. We haven’t managed to grow them in neat rows on farms, or in dark buildings. We don’t even know for sure where they’ll sprout.
Sure, foragers know the approximate areas where they’ll find what they’re looking for. But they can’t guarantee that the spot next to that tree, or that rock, will be the jackpot.
Like any agricultural product, wild mushrooms have their seasons. The good news is that there’s probably at least one type of wild mushroom available, fresh, at all times of the year. The better news is that many wild mushrooms are available in dried form, so if you have a favorite and it’s not in season—or if the weather has cut the season short—you can rely on dried mushrooms to provide that flavor you’re looking for.
Of course, because wild mushrooms need to be handharvested and because they’re so perishable, prices can be high—sometimes very high. But the flavor you get from wild mushrooms is generally a lot more complex and potent than what you’ll get from cultivated button mushrooms.
Speaking of button mushrooms, if the budget doesn’t allow the purchase of as many wild mushrooms as you’d like to use for a recipe, you can use a small portion of wild mushrooms and make up the rest of the volume with cultivated mushrooms. The flavor of the wild mushrooms will be prominent.
To get answers to a few of my most pressing mushroom questions, I talked to Justin Marx, the owner of Marx Foods in Seattle, Washington. Marx Foods sells gourmet food items, including fresh, dried and frozen wild mushrooms.
With respect to sourcing mushrooms, and whether he prefers fresh or dried, Justin recommends buying fresh, wild mushrooms—or foraging. “Seriously, though,” he said, “You should never forage without training, having an expert along, or at least showing your mushrooms to an expert before you cook them. There are poisonous mushrooms out there that look safe to eat but aren’t.”
Then we got down to the serious Q&A.
Whisk: Dried mushrooms are available year-round. How do you suggest preparing them?
Justin: Put the desired amount of dried mushrooms in a non-reactive bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Let them sit for at least 20 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender, then strain them and use them in recipes that call for fresh mushrooms. You can totally use other liquids—like wine or stock—instead of water [to hydrate them].
Keep in mind that dried wild chanterelle mushrooms reconstitute [to be] woody and tough. Accordingly, we recommend dried chanterelles to be used only in dishes that are to be puréed.
Also, because they’re hollow and honeycombed, morels trap the most sediment, as well as pine needles. Soak them briefly in hot water to loosen dirt, swish them around, and migrate them to a new hot water bath, leaving the dirt behind.
Whisk: Can the hydrating liquid be used?
Justin: Not only can it be used—it should be used. Mushroom hydrating liquid lends great flavor to soups, sauces, risotto, etc. One of our favorite dishes involves rehydrating shiitakes, then chucking the mushrooms and just using the liquid. Seriously.
COOK’S NOTE: Shiitake mushrooms can be and are usually cultivated. They are sold fresh and dried. Fall and winter are peak season for fresh shiitakes, which have the deep flavor characteristic of wild mushrooms.
Whisk: Can rehydrated mushrooms be used as is, or must you cook them? Does it vary by variety?
Justin: I can’t think of a dish where you’d rehydrate but not cook. The heat will help soften them up.
Whisk: Do you have to rehydrate the [dried] mushrooms before using? Could you just throw them into soup, for example?
Justin: You can very definitely rehydrate while cooking, as long as they’re given time. Because rehydrated mushrooms (especially chanterelles) tend to be less tender, you may want to chop or puree them as part of the process. Try putting porcinis in braising liquid (pot roast, short ribs, osso buco, etc.), and then blending them in after cooking to use the liquid as a sauce.
Whisk: How long can hydrated mushrooms be kept, if they’re not cooked immediately? How would you store rehydrated mushrooms, or dried mushrooms?
Justin: You’d definitely want to put the rehydrated mushrooms in the refrigerator, but to be honest we always rehydrate ours the day we use them…it’s easy and fairly quick. For dried mushrooms, put them in a closed container in a cool, dry place.
Whisk: Can wild mushrooms be used raw?
Justin: That’s a very emphatic no. Conventional wisdom was that porcinis were one of the only wild varieties that could be used raw. Chef Becky, who recently released an exceptional cookbook called Shroom, tells us she’s recently read that the cooking rule is shifting to include porcinis. Your readers will love this book, by the way—it is such a quality resource.
Whisk: Where are most wild mushrooms found in the US?
Justin: Generally, where you have a good amount of moisture in the spring and fall. Mushrooms don’t like dry and/or hot climates. The western Pacific Northwest is mushroom wonderland.
Whisk: What are the seasons for various wild mushrooms?
Justin: Black trumpet mushrooms are available from January through March. Morels show up in April through July. We see porcinis in June and July, and again in September and October. Fried chicken mushrooms are available from June through October. Lobster mushrooms are available from July through November. Golden chanterelles are available in August through December. Matsutake mushrooms are in season from October through January. And finally, hedgehog and yellowfoot mushrooms are available in December and January.
Those dates are just rules of thumb, because the quality of a mushroom season totally depends on the weather. If weather conditions are perfect, it will be a long season. If the conditions are poor, the season will be short, erratic and sometimes nonexistent. Mama Nature dictates the season, but the chart we have on our website is generally reliable.
Whisk: What are the most popular wild mushrooms?
Justin: Morels are the most popular for consumers. A lot of our customers tell us about how they used to go picking morels with their grandparents, so morels are very nostalgic. Other popular varieties are chanterelles and porcinis. My favorites are the winter mushrooms: black trumpets and hedgehogs.
Whisk: What wild mushrooms might people not be familiar with that you suggest they try?
Justin: Hedgehogs are my favorite unsung heroes. They’re super buttery! Candy caps are a whole new experience—a mushroom that you can use in desserts. In the right hands, candy caps can be absolutely delicious.
Whisk: What’s the easiest wild mushroom for people to try for the first time, if they’ve used only button mushrooms?
Justin: Try a mild and buttery variety—such as chanterelles or hedgehogs. Or you can go straight for the knockout punch with butter-sautéed morels.
Whisk: What wild mushrooms have the most distinct flavors?
Justin: Matsutakes are piney, candy caps are maplemushroomy, porcinis are earthy and rich with umami, and lobster mushrooms are “seafoodesque.”
Whisk: I’ve seen mushroom powder in stores. Can you just pulverize dry mushrooms, or would there be grit to contend with?
Justin: You can grind pretty much any variety into powder in a spice grinder or a food processor. Grind dry porcinis and put them in a dry rub. Shiitake powder is also good.
Whisk: Is there any time dry mushrooms would be preferred over fresh?
Justin: Outside the fresh season! Otherwise, candy caps should always be dried—high heat caramelizes their sugars and brings out their mapley, mushroomy goodness. Fresh and dried porcinis are almost different mushrooms—both delicious.
Fresh porcinis can be used as you would other fresh mushrooms (try them grilled), whereas the dried ones are so bold that they’re frequently used in small amounts to flavor dishes instead.
Whisk: How should someone store fresh mushrooms?
Justin: Store them in a paper bag (or a loosely towel-covered basket or cardboard box in the refrigerator). Paper, paper, paper.
I really appreciated the time Justin took to answer so many questions. If we missed answering a question you’re curious about, there’s even more mushroom information on the Marx Foods website (see Source box at the end of this story).
When it comes to cooking, mushrooms add a meatiness and umami to dishes, making the dishes seem richer and more substantial, so if you’re looking for a meatless dish that meat eaters will devour, mushrooms can be your heroes.
WILD MUSHROOM AND TOMATO SAUCE
In this sauce, dried and fresh wild mushrooms add their unique flavors. If you don’t have exactly the mushrooms called for here, feel free to substitute whatever varieties are available in your area.
Once this sauce is assembled, it’s a hands-off process while it simmers in a slow cooker. If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can also cook this in a heavy-bottom pot, like a Dutch oven, but you’ll need to do some stirring now and then to make sure nothing sticks or burns.
The result is a rich, mushroom-forward sauce that your pasta will love. It freezes well, if you don’t need all of it, and one recipe makes enough sauce for at least a pound of dried pasta—depending on how you like your pasta sauced.
MAKES ENOUGH SAUCE FOR 1 POUND OF DRIED PASTA
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- 1/2 pound fresh lobster mushrooms – cleaned and sliced
- 1/2 pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms – cleaned and sliced
- 1/2 ounce dried black trumpet mushrooms – rehydrated and finely chopped
- 1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms – rehydrated and finely chopped
- 1 large red onion – diced
- 1 clove garlic – finely diced
- 2 bell peppers (red or green) – cored, seeded and diced
- 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes – crushed with your hands
- 1 14.5-ounce can petite diced tomatoes
- 1 8-ounce can tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 cup white wine mushroom soaking liquid – strained to remove dirt and grit, and boiled until reduced to 1/2 cup
If you have a slow cooker that has a browning or bottom-cooking feature, you can do all the cooking in the slow cooker. Otherwise, start the cooking in a heavy-bottom pan, then transfer to the slow cooker to finish (see introductory note).
Melt the butter in your slow cooker or saucepan. Add all of the mushrooms, along with the onion, garlic and bell peppers. Cook, stirring as needed, until all of the vegetables have softened and the mushrooms are just beginning to brown.
Transfer this mixture to your slow cooker, and add the remaining ingredients. Cover the slow cooker and cook on high for 3 hours.
Partially uncover the slow cooker and continue cooking for another hour, stirring as needed, to reduce the sauce until it’s as thick as desired.
Taste for seasoning and add salt, if desired.
Serve with pasta. This sauce is also great over polenta or chicken.
Variations: This sauce doesn’t feature any herbs because the mushrooms are the primary flavor. If you want to change things up, add 1-2 teaspoons of dried thyme, marjoram, oregano, or your favorite Italian herb mixture.
MUSHROOM CREAM GRAVY
This is an all-purpose gravy that works equally well with chicken, pork or beef. If you have leftovers, the gravy will thicken upon standing, so simply add more milk or some water to thin it to the desired consistency when you reheat it.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 ounces fresh chanterelles – cleaned and sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- several grinds of black pepper
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups milk
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 1 tablespoon fresh chives – chopped salt – as needed
In a sauté pan, melt the butter and add the mushrooms, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring as needed, until the mushrooms begin to brown on the edges.
Add the flour and stir. Cook, stirring, for a full minute (to cook away the raw-flour taste), then add the milk. Cook, stirring, until the mixture comes to a simmer and allow it to cook for another few minutes at a low simmer. The gravy will thicken.
Stir in the sour cream and the chives. Taste for seasoning and add salt, if needed.
SPAGHETTI SQUASH WITH LOBSTER MUSHROOMS
If you would enjoy a completely vegan dish featuring mushrooms, this is it. For meat eaters, it makes a lovely light lunch or a hearty side dish. The number of servings you’ll get depends on how big your spaghetti squash is, but consider that the more squash you have, the less “dressed” it will be.
The color of the lobster mushrooms is similar to that of lobster or crab, or shrimp, so if you want to make this an even heartier dish (and no longer vegan), add some grilled seafood to the top and drizzle with a bit of fresh lemon juice.
While this is intended to be served hot, it’s also good served at room temperature, or even as a chilled salad.
- 1 spaghetti squash
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 ounces lobster mushrooms
- – cleaned and sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt – plus more as needed
- several grinds of black pepper
- 1 fresh tomato – diced
- 1/2 cup radicchio – slivered
- 1/2 cup frozen peas
To Prepare the Squash: The easiest way to prepare a spaghetti squash is to cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and place it, cutside down, on a microwave-safe rimmed plate or in a shallow microwave-safe casserole. Add about 1/2 cup water, cover with plastic wrap, leaving a hole to vent the steam, and microwave for 20 minutes, or until the squash is tender and cooked throughout.
Allow the squash to cool just long enough to permit handling it, then scoop out and fluff the interior strands.
To Prepare the Mushrooms: In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil and add the mushrooms, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring as needed, until the mushrooms are cooked throughout.
Add the spaghetti squash strands. If you have a large squash, start with about half—you can add more if you like later. Add the tomato, radicchio and peas. Stir to combine.
Taste for seasoning and add more salt, if needed. Serve hot.
ALL-PURPOSE MUSHROOM HASH
Let’s face it: Wild mushrooms are expensive and seasonal, so you probably won’t want to waste any when you have them. This mushroom hash is an all-purpose combination that you can add to soups, stews or gravies. Add some to scrambled eggs or omelets, or use as a filling for pasta.
Just make it, cool it and then freeze it in a thin layer, in a freezer specified plastic bag.
Since this hash is cooked, it’s ready to go with no prep work—just break off a piece of the frozen sheet and add it where you need it.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 stalk celery – finely diced
- 1 medium onion – diced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 pound wild mushrooms – diced
In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil and then add the rest of the ingredients. Cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables are cooked through. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Freeze for later use.