Add flavor with mushrooms: How to boldly boost soups, broths, pasta, omelets and more

October 30th, 2019
add flavor with mushrooms - bowl of mushroom soup
Add flavor with mushrooms. Warm up a wintry day with a bowl of mushroom soup. Photo: Getty Images.

Kitchen fun with fungi — both the dried and fresh sorts — can arm you with heady scents and deeply-wrought flavors for the coming winter.

Properly stored in your pantry, an ounce of dried mushrooms lasts for months. Little else adds so much flavor to so many foods or preparations than the simple dried ‘shroom.

If one ounce sounds as if it isn’t much, really, consider that you’re likely never to run into any recipe calling for more — not even something that might serve six or eight people. A mere few grams is all one needs to boldly mark a stew or broth, top a portion of pasta, or add super deep flavors to a three-egg omelet.

However, for something so simple, adding flavor with mushrooms requires you to keep a few things in mind:

  • All dried mushrooms must be reconstituted in some sort of liquid. Water is the default, but if I’m already cooking with a flavorful liquid (wine, beer, juice, broth), I use that to enliven the dried mushrooms.
  • Typically, I warm the liquid first (microwave more than OK), although I find that an overnight room-temp liquid soak is especially useful in dealing with a particular mushroom, the gnarly dried shiitake. (With shiitake, also, break off the very tough stems before soaking, if possible; keep those for making stock.)
  • Never toss away the soaking liquid, though it must be strained of the ubiquitous grit found in all dried mushrooms. (Coffee filters and paper toweling are handy here, or a steady pour off the dregs.) The soaking liquid, now hugely boosted in the flavor and aroma departments, just goes into the final cooking preparation.
  • Don’t buy any dried mushrooms with small holes in the cap’s flesh; these holes might indicate former pinworm colonization.
  • It’s OK to rinse (quickly, and then gently squeeze) the mushrooms once removed from the soaking liquid. You’re not going to flush away a lot of flavor, but you are going to get rid of the last of the grit.
  • Most recipes call for using a certain weight of dried mushroom. If you buy an ounce of chanterelles, for example, and use half the package, be sure to mark the storage container somehow — or even the original wrapping — to let you know in the future what measure of weight remains.
  • No hard-and-fast rule governs the use of dried mushrooms in particular preparations, but it’s a no-brainer to pair each with cuisine from its country of origin: porcini with Italian risotto, for instance, or shiitake with Asian soups. My go-to, all-around dried mushroom is the well-priced shiitake.
  • Uses for dried and reconstituted mushrooms are legion: in rice or pilafs; in anything wet such as a soup or stew; spooned onto already-sauced pasta; in sautés of most any vegetable; and especially in egg-based dishes such as frittatas, omelets, or coddled eggs.

Cooking with fresh mushrooms

We grew up in the kitchen hearing, “Never wash mushrooms in water because they’re porous and will absorb the water. Instead brush or wipe them, one at a time, with a soft brush or kitchen towel.”

Pshaw. Mushrooms are 90 percent water and won’t absorb any more significant water (so say Mark Bittman, Martha Stewart and the Cooks Illustrated kitchens  not a bad lot, that). Dunk or spray-wash quickly, then remove to a dry cotton towel and pat dry with paper toweling.

I prepared this soup a couple of years ago for the 50th birthday dinner of a friend’s spouse. It ought to be called the “Oooh, Aaah Soup” because, besides the slurps, that was the common sound while it went down.

It’s named after my mother, who prepared this — as I have — many dozens of times to ward away winter’s frosties.

Madeleine’s Cream of Mushroom Winter Soup

Make 8-10 cups

Ingredients

1 small onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, both portions cut up and near room temperature

1 pound fresh mushrooms (either white button, cremini or portobello, or any mix of the three), 3/4 finely chopped, 1/4 sliced

3/4 cup flour

6  cups chicken stock, preferably homemade and low-salt or unsalted

1 pint half & half

1/2  teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

Healthy splash dry sherry (not “cooking sherry”), about 2-3 tablespoons

Directions

In a large heavy Dutch oven or pot, over medium-high heat, sauté the onion in 1/2 cup butter for 3 minutes. Add the 3/4 pound of the mushrooms and sauté the mixture for 5 minutes. Add the flour, coating and stirring constantly until the lot is well-blended. Add the stock and simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes.

Add the half & half, the salt and white pepper, and bring the soup to a gentle boil. Off the heat, and using an immersion blender (the best option) or a regular blender or fine sieve, blend everything. (If using a regular blender, be careful about splash-backs of the hot liquid.) Keep the soup very warm, even hot.

Sauté the 1/4 pound sliced mushrooms in the 2 tablespoons butter and the sherry until the mushrooms have given up their moisture and are beginning to brown or slightly crisp. Garnish each portion of the soup with a few of the sautéed mushrooms.

Variations: Top with croutons or toast rounds (the latter smeared with blue cheese if you like). Add pieces of leftover chicken, pork, turkey or veal. Add leftover cooked rice, wild or regular. Sprinkle with chopped flat-leaf parsley. For a French air, sprinkle fresh thyme leaves; for a Russian or Polish twist, omit flour, cooking at that stage with a cup and half of peeled, cubed potatoes and, when serving, top with fresh dill.

Reach Bill St John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.