How To Handle and Cook Wild Mushrooms
So you have just returned from successfully foraging in the woods. Your basket is brimming with assorted wild mushrooms. As you spread out your haul on the newspaper-covered table, savouring thoughts of the feast to come, the itchy insect bites are quickly forgotten. Now it is time to make sure you get the best out of your harvest.
The first important task is to sort through all the mushrooms, discarding any wormy or decayed specimens. Humans are not the only creatures that like to gorge on mushrooms, and soft-fleshed species like the Boletes (Ceps, Porcini, Steinpilz in other languages) can become infested by insects and worms pretty fast. Cutting through the soft flesh will reveal any trace of worm holes. Secondly, mushrooms should be separated by type: Boletes, Chanterelles, various gilled mushrooms, puffballs and any other edible species you may have come across. If you are uncertain of any mushroom’s identity, it should be put aside for later identification, and if that fails, discarded.
Mushrooms should be carefully cleaned with a soft brush to remove any grit, small twigs or other forest debris. Suitable nylon brushes can be purchased at cookware shops. In a pinch, though, a soft bristled toothbrush will do the job. The delicate fungi should not be immersed in water as this can destroy subtle flavours, but they can be carefully wiped down with a damp cloth.
Preserving Wild Mushrooms
After sorting and selecting has been completed, decide which mushrooms you will be using in the near future and which you would like to preserve for later use. Select only those in very good condition for preserving. There are a number of effective methods for preserving wild mushrooms; your options will be decided partially by the species (depending on the type of mushroom, some methods work better than others) and partially by how you plan to use them in the future.
Drying works brilliantly with Boletes but not nearly as well for other species such as Chanterelles. Dried mushrooms, like dried herbs, can add wonderful flavours to a variety of dishes. Other methods include freezing, pickling in vinegar, preserving in olive oil and salting.
sautéing in butter before freezing
The classic French method “Duxelle” combines finely chopped mushrooms and shallots which are cooked in wine, butter and herbs. The mixture can be refrigerated, or frozen in small portions for use over a longer period.
A simpler modification of this method is to lightly sauté mushrooms by themselves in butter and freeze in small, meal-sized packages. This works extremely well with Chanterelles as well as many other woodland mushrooms that can subsequently be used in soups, cream sauces for pasta or simply as side dishes with a main course. Below is the tried and true method developed by my wife, Jody Wood.
There are many different ways of preserving wild mushrooms; however, one of the best is also the simplest. Sauté the wild mushrooms in plenty of butter. Add more butter than normal, since it is absorbed by the mushrooms. Sauté until the liquid from the mushrooms disappears. As soon as the liquid disappears, remove the mushrooms from the pan, place on a plate and allow to cool. When they are completely cooled, place in freezer bags in desired quantities and freeze. At this point, the mushrooms are only partially cooked but will preserve beautifully. Thaw them out when you are ready. More cooking will be required. Wild mushrooms are very flavourful so only small quantities are needed.
drying wild mushrooms
As with herbs, drying mushrooms greatly intensifies their flavour. The King Boletus develops a profoundly rich beefy aroma and an amazingly complex flavour. Morels develop a perfumed character that is hard to describe, but which adds extraordinary flavours and aromas to any dish in which you use them. Mushrooms can be dried on racks in a warm dry place, but in our relatively cool climate it can take several days before they are completely free of all moisture. There are reasonably priced commercial dehydrators that are particularly efficient for this task, but the standard kitchen oven can also do a good job.
Prior to drying, mushrooms should be thinly and uniformly sliced, then placed on a tray lined with several layers of newspaper topped with baking parchment. The oven should be preheated to 80˚C. Mushrooms should be dried for approximately two hours with the oven door left slightly ajar. When mushrooms have been fully dried, they should be labelled and stored in airtight jars and kept in a dry, dark place. Be sure you have dried them completely; if not, they can become mouldy and unusable. Properly dried and stored, they will safely last through until the following season.
Several varieties of dried mushroom can be used in powdered form to enhance the flavours of soups and stews. A standard, carefully cleaned electric coffee grinder can reduce dried mushrooms to a fine powder quite efficiently. Store the powder in the same way as other dried mushrooms.
reconstituting dried mushrooms
Dried mushrooms should be soaked in a warm, but not boiling liquid for approximately 20 minutes. Water will do, but I usually use red or white wine if they will subsequently be used in a wine-based dish. After soaking, drain the mushrooms, but preserve the soaking liquid. When used in a sauce such as Bolognese, the reconstituted Boletes should be chopped into small pieces and added to the sauce together with the wine used for soaking. The relatively small quantity called for in this recipe still adds incomparable richness and subtle flavour.
This method is suitable for firmer varieties such as the Chanterelle, Shiitake and Matsutake (Japanese Pine Mushroom). After careful cleaning they should be quickly parboiled, simmering for about one minute before being turned out onto a wax paper lined tray. Freeze this way, and when fully frozen, mushrooms can then be stored for up to six months in small plastic bags.
Wild Mushroom Recipes
There are a number of classic cookbooks which include recipes that call for wild mushrooms. Both French and Italian cuisine make extensive use of mushrooms and celebrate picking season with many seasonal dishes. There are also some excellent books that provide information on preserving and cooking. The best I have come across is Steven Wheeler’s Mushroom Magic (Anness Publishing, London, 1996). On the web, check out wildaboutmushrooms.net, also an excellent source of invaluable information.
Here is a favourite recipe from our own kitchen:
Chanterelles in cream sherry sauce on angel hair pasta
Chanterelles, fresh or thawed
1/2 litre blend half-and-half or coffee cream
1 package powdered chicken broth
Sherry, dry or semi-dry (Amontillado)
Angel hair pasta
Place Chanterelles in large frying plan with lots of butter. Sauté until done to your taste. If using fresh mushrooms, make sure to cook them until the liquid from the mushrooms disappears. They will still require more cooking.
When the mushrooms are cooked to your taste, add 1/2 litre blend or coffee cream. Bring to a simmer and cook until the cream thickens slightly to a pasta sauce consistency. It might be necessary to add more cream depending on the quantity of mushrooms that are being cooked and the number of servings required.
Add salt to taste. Add powdered chicken bouillon to taste. Add sherry in tablespoon increments, to taste. (One for you, one for the recipe) Allow to simmer.
Cook pasta and spoon sauce on top.