For years I had portobello mushrooms on my menu. Then I noticed the word portabella on the box of mushrooms from Phillips Mushroom Farms in Avondale, Pennsylvania. Now I type the word differently every time. (Other variations include portobella and portabello.) Such capricious spelling drives my wife crazy, but no matter which version I use on my menu, my customers love these giant, flavorful mushrooms. As for me, I find that they’re not only great to eat, but fun to cook with as well.
The word portabella (that’s how Fine Cooking has chosen to spell it) originated as a way to help glamorize and sell mature cremini mushrooms, which were themselves given a snazzy, Italian-sounding name to make them sound more appealing than the variation of the everyday cultivated white mushroom that they are. But if all of this sounds more like Marketing 101 than anything to do with cooking, know this: creminis have more flavor than white mushrooms, and portabellas have more flavor still.
The portabella was “discovered,” probably by accident, when cremini caps were left to grow, open up, and develop gills. Creminis take about seven weeks to grow to the size at which they’re picked. Those that are not picked then mature to become portabellas within three to five days, often growing to six inches across in size. During this growth spurt, the mushroom’s gills become fully exposed, causing it to lose moisture. The loss of moisture concentrates the mushroom’s flavor and gives it the dense, meaty texture for which it’s renowned.
Portabella’s hearty, hardy nature takes well to roasting, braising, and grilling
Though you can eat portabellas raw, I prefer cooking them, which makes them tender and intensifies their flavor. My favorite ways to prepare them include searing, grilling, roasting, and braising.
Perhaps the best way to understand a portabella’s greatness is to try one grilled. To start, remove the stem, wipe the cap, brush it with olive oil, and sprinkle both sides generously with coarse salt. Grill over a hot fire for a few minutes on each side. While you’d never mistake a mushroom for meat, the smoky, earthy flavor of a grilled portabella gratifies in the same way.
Portabellas also take well to roasting. While other mushrooms shrivel away to almost nothing when roasted, portabellas start out so big that they finish with a good amount of mushroom left, even when cut into pieces. I like to roast chunks of portabellas and sweet potatoes with whole garlic cloves and large pieces of onion. I start by tossing the vegetables with a little olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and an ample sprinkling of fresh chopped rosemary and coarse salt. I spread the vegetables on a rimmed baking sheet and roast at 450°F, shaking the pan a couple of times, for about 45 minutes.
Braising portabellas, as I do for the pasta recipe, is a great way to boost their flavor. As the mushrooms cook, they absorb the braising liquid. Their sponge-like nature also makes them good candidates for marinades. The Asian marinade positively transforms the humble mushroom, giving it a spicy, vibrant flavor that you need to taste to believe.
Remove the stem with a snap, the gills with a spoon
I generally use all parts of portabellas. The stems, once trimmed and wiped cleaned, can be chopped up to use in a duxelles as you would use the stems of cultivated mushrooms. You can cut the stem out with a paring knife, but I find that grabbing it and twisting it off gives you a cleaner break.
Because the gills will turn anything I cook dark grayish brown, however, I often scrape them off. I also sometimes scrape out the gills to make a little more room if I’m stuffing the mushrooms. But in the restaurant business, we never waste food, so I often add these flavorful scrapings to stocks or dark sauces.