Mushrooms, butter and a frying pan - that's a recipe for a simple pleasure. And it will happily serve any meal: breakfast, lunch or a side dish at dinner.
Cultivated mushrooms vs. wild fungi
There are about 15,000 types of fungi, only about 40 of which are edible mushrooms. Isn’t mushroom an amazing thing? Neither plant nor animal, it is a multi-cell organism that - depending on the variety you ingest – will feed you, get you high or kill you. And that’s before we consider antibiotics which are derived from fungi.
Wild mushrooms are a delicacy that either comes for free, to an experienced forager in a suitable environment, or at a hefty price in minute quantities to the rest of us.
Most wild mushrooms are also resistant to be tamed. Several varieties have been successfully grown in China for centuries, including enoki and shiitake, but in Europe only in the 17th century, in France, Agarus bisporus (cap mushroom to you and me) started to be cultivated on melon compost heaps.
The boring Agarus comes in several types: button, chestnut (cremini) or portobello (field) but disappointingly it is actually the same mushroom picked at different stage of growth.
Although some people, me included, claim the chestnuts are more flavoursome than white caps, it is probably only the perception: darker colour suggests more wholesome food.
But even the humble ‘shop mushrooms’, in their three incarnations, are lovely enough, especially that it can be prepared in so many ways.
You can add all kinds of seasoning to them, including cheese and cream. You can roast them or grill them or deep fry them. You can cook them whole or chop them up. You can even have them raw if that’s what you fancy.
And mushrooms are good for you: an excellent source of protein and fibre as vegetarians know well.
Simple things are the best
There are many ways to have with mushrooms, but in my view nothing beats crisp and golden slices fried in butter.
Is there a better side dish to a steak than fried mushrooms and onions? Or a nicer extra to your breakfast egg on toast than a pile of scorched brown slices?
How to cook mushrooms?
It’s a simple dish, a simple pleasure but fried mushrooms have to be cooked properly. The cardinal sin against fried breakfast is not microwaved bacon, or cardboard sausages – it’s limpid, soggy pale mushrooms.
Most vegetables benefit from quick cooking, but not ‘shrooms. Like eggs, they need to be fried, with butter and/or oil, in a skillet, far, far away from the microwave.
They don’t take very long to cook but when they release moisture and start to shrink a little, continue cooking them patiently, stirring now and then. Turn up the heat and season them with salt only when the moisture is beginning to disappear. That’s when the frying actually starts.
They’ll go golden brown and crisp and delicious in a few minutes if you just toss them around so that most slices scorch on both sides.
There’s no need to flip every single slice to make sure all are done to perfection, especially if you’re cooking a pound of them. I only do it very occasionally…
To wash or not to wash mushrooms?
Against the advice of hygiene afficionados, I stick to the old truth: washing ruins the mushrooms turning them into waterlogged sponges. When fried, they will be limp and wilty rather than crisp and brown, regardless of the fact they will take twice as long to cook.
‘Shop mushrooms’ that we are using here are usually clean; also these days they don’t actually grow in compost but fairly inoffensive plant-based mixes. If they are covered in lots of black speckles, brush those off with kitchen towels or a soft brush.
Wild mushrooms are a different story, they can be quite mucky with soil, pine needles and sand. None of those substances are poisonous so brushing is also my preferred way of cleaning them.
In the very worst case I’ll plunge them quickly in a bowl of water by a handful, promptly remove and dry very well before storing or cooking.
More mushroom recipes
As I said before, there are many ways to cook mushrooms. A recipe similar to this is garlic mushrooms, best made with small button ones.
If you prefer them creamy, this is the one for you. I recommend fresh shiitake for this one.
Mushroom sauce is one of the most flexible sauces: excellent for pasta, jacket potato or meatballs. The secret is to add a few dried wild porcini for the flavour.