Monday, January 21, 2013

Double Umami

Are you biased against the humble white button mushroom?

I was.

When I say, "button mushroom," do you think of its more glamorous cousins,

Shitakes from the farmers' market

rich with flavor, or do you think of these rubbery tire bits in a can?

Manufacturer's name omitted to protect the guilty

Do you think of bits of sponge or slime - raw mushrooms - adding nothing good to salads? (And that's without even knowing about the toxic hydrazine in mushrooms that cooking neutralizes.)

No wonder I had some aversion to button mushrooms. 

And yet I loved shiitake mushrooms - fresh from the farmers' market or dried in Chinatown, where they're often known as Chinese black mushrooms. Restaurant dishes that featured wild mushrooms like chanterelles and morels were consistently thrilling, as were portobella "burgers" eaten at restaurants and friends' barbecues, sometimes as the main vegetarian option, and at home. (Portobella or portobello? I'll go with "bella" because the small versions - more on this in a minute - are called Baby Bellas.) And I knew these favored fungi were chock full of wonderful nutritional benefitsTrumpet, Hen of the Woods, oyster - I loved them all. 

Crimini mushrooms helped me bridge the gap. 

Build a bridge with a fungus

First, I learned that "Baby Bella" was basically just a marketing term - portobellas are just more mature criminis. Then I learned that crimini are just slightly more mature and suntanned white button mushrooms.  (What this means practically is, of course, subject to debate.) 

Time for a reputation rehab! 

Last week David Tanis published an ode to this humble and overlooked mushroom in the New York Times. Others have pointed out that button mushrooms share, and sometimes exceed, the health benefits of more exotic mushroom varieties.

Would it help to call them Champignons de Paris, as the French - their original cultivators - do? Professor Brian Wansink of Cornell University has published a lot of amusing and thought-provoking research showing that that people enjoy food more if they think it's fancier, so you could try a re-branding campaign.

Or your could cook the unsung white buttons to give them a leg up. For me, this meant upping the mushrooms' umami quotient.

Umami, sometimes known as the fifth taste fifth taste (in addition to salty, sweet, bitter and sour), is the "pleasant savory taste" based upon glutamates in the food. Mushrooms are rich in umami. So are fermented products like my beloved soy sauce. 

To me, there are few cooked foods that aren't enhanced by a dash or two of soy sauce. I also believe that a good sear in a cast iron skillet is often a great flavor enhancer. (And cooking in a cast iron skillet can also add iron to your diet, by the way.) 

So I started with this,

added some potion (high octane Korean soy sauce diluted with a little water; low-salt would be a good idea if you didn't want to dilute),


And next thing you know, my buttons have gotten lacquered.

Why, you're looking positively crimini!

I have to say I was delighted with the result.

The finish line

The mushrooms were great on their own and would be a great topping for toast or pasta. Diced more finely, you could use them for bruschetta, pizza or omlets.You know, whatever you might use "fancy" mushrooms for.


  1. Your finish line looks beautiful, but isn't that just the soy sauce talking? Mushroom flesh tastes like a wad of damp kleenex. The only good 'shrooms are the dark, ropy, skinny, stringy kind. Portobellas are okay if you need a bland platter to soak up bread crumbs or greasy cheese.

  2. I sense the possibility of a blind taste test! Button mushrooms with soy sauce vs. damp tissues with soy sauce. The winner: soy sauce!
    Well, some people really don't like mushrooms.