Browning mushrooms takes light hand, high heat

I’ve blown it, I thought, staring down a pan of steaming mushrooms.

Because of course, I know the conventional wisdom, a la Julia Child: cook mushrooms in small enough quantities, on a large enough surface, to brown them beautifully, instead of marinating them miserably in their own sweat. Except, I didn’t have a larger pan and I wanted to dispatch several pounds of mushrooms in a single batch of duxelles.

But I soldiered on, realizing that the less I stirred the vat of finely chopped fungus, the more it darkened in color and deepened in aroma. And at the end of this 30-minute bath in butter, the duxelles did turn from cement gray to dark-chocolate brown and tasted the way my recipe, borrowed from longtime food-section columnist Jan Roberts-Dominguez, promised. Follow the process in your own kitchen with my latest podcast for companion.

When it’s a basic mushroom saute at stake, the fewer mushrooms in play and the less fiddling with them, the better. Remember that sautéing fungus and vegetables involves cooking at a higher temperature than sweating does. Sweating retains moisture whereas sautéing evaporates it, usually the goal with mushrooms because they contain so much water. And when moisture evaporates and a food’s surfaces are exposed to fairly high heat, that’s when natural sugars start to caramelize, aka brown.

Nicely browned mushrooms typically are the goal for any preparation that doesn’t incorporate a lot of liquid: stir-fry, pasta, burgers, pizza and yes, that filling/spread/dip duxelles. Sweated mushrooms, on the other hand, should be destined for a sauce, soup or stew.

So without further ado, here are the Chicago Tribune’s instructions for properly sautéing mushrooms. Julia would be so pleased.

Tribune News Service photo

Here’s how to saute mushrooms:

1. Cut mushrooms into bite-size pieces: slices, quarters, halves. If they’re small, saute them whole, like grasshoppers.

2. Place a large, slope-sided pan over heat the likes of which the souls of your mortal enemies will roast eternally. When the pan is nearly smoking, add just enough fat to coat the bottom. (A note about fat: clarified butter is magic, but any high-smoke-point oil will work: canola, peanut, grapeseed oil, etc.)

3. Spread mushrooms evenly over the bottom of the pan, no more than two layers deep. In other words: Don’t overcrowd the pan. Here’s why: Cold mushrooms cool down a hot pan, causing them to sweat instead of saute.

4. Once you add the ’shrooms to the pan, don’t touch them. Although your inclination is to shake the pan or grab a spoon or spatula and poke a little, shake a little, poke a little, shake a little, poke, poke, poke, shake a lot, poke a little more — don’t do it. Wait a minute until the pan comes back up to temperature, then leave it a bit longer, until the mushrooms start to brown.

5. Season with salt and a grind of pepper. Maybe add a bit of minced garlic or shallots.

6. When mushrooms are nicely seasoned and brown on the bottom, toss or stir them in the pan. They’ll be done in under a minute; serve them immediately over a seared rib-eye, stir them into a favorite sauce or hold onto them to make omelets tomorrow morning.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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