Dried mushrooms are my kind of luxury, convenient and affordable. While caviar or foie gras rarely fit my mood or budget, I can always have dried shiitakes, porcini, morels, and chanterelles on hand. And I reach for them often—both on harried weeknights when the clock is ticking and also when I’m looking for an extra boost of flavor to elevate a special dish. The flavor of dried mushrooms is concentrated and intense, and the texture is good and meaty. Like fresh mushrooms, they’re terrific in everything from soups to sauces to sautés.
Give ’em a soak. Before using dried mushrooms in a recipe, even if it’s a soup or a stew, it’s best to rehydrate them in hot water. This is necessary for two reasons: First, it plumps up the mushrooms, and, as a bonus, the soaking liquid creates a flavorful broth, which you can incorporate into a dish much as you would any other kind of broth. Second, soaking also helps remove grit from the mushrooms that would otherwise spoil your dish.
Once the mushrooms have steeped, it’s easy to add them to braises, stews, or sauces. What I do is brown the meat or fish (if there’s any in the dish) and then sauté the rehydrated mushrooms with the aromatics like shallots, garlic, or onion. Because they’re moist, the mushrooms don’t exactly brown, but this quick toss in hot oil really intensifies their flavor. Finally, I add the mushroom soaking liquid and finish cooking the dish.
The way I see it, there’s no set rule for which mushroom to pair with a specific dish. It makes sense to look to the mushroom’s native region, using Italian porcini in risotto, shiitakes in Asian dishes, and chanterelles in French sauces and bistro classics like omelettes. But I often mix shiitakes with other kinds of mushrooms, particularly when I’m using a pricey variety like morels. It’s a little trick of mine. Shiitakes’ flavor perfectly complements that of other mushrooms, and their affordability keeps the meal in the realm of simple, home cooking, just where it belongs.
Versatile, affordable dried shiitakes are my go-to mushroom. Their meaty texture and smoky flavor is great on its own or paired with other varieties. Shiitakes are an obvious choice for Asian dishes, filling out soy-based braises or stews or perking up quick stir-fries.
Look for shiitakes with thick brown caps ridged with white. The stems can be woody, so trim them off and discard after soaking.