Many of us have enjoyed delicious, golden brown sautéed mushrooms in restaurants. They show up alongside steaks, in salads, or on top of polenta. But when we sauté mushrooms at home, we end up with a soggy mess. What’s wrong?
Moisture is the problem; high heat is the solution
All foods contain water that’s released when the food is heated. The goal in sautéing (to develop a savory crust on the food) is only achieved if the water evaporates quickly, the instant it’s released. Mushrooms, especially cultivated white mushrooms, are hard to sauté because they release so much water. But there are tricks to sautéing all mushrooms so they’re deliciously browned and full of flavor. Most important is high heat, which encourages quick evaporation. If the heat isn’t high enough, mushrooms boil and steam in their own released moisture rather than brown.
“Wild” mushrooms sauté drier
Creminis and certain “wild” mushrooms, such as shiitakes (most of which are now cultivated), morels, and chanterelles, contain less water than white mushrooms do. Not only are wild mushrooms more flavorful, but because they contain less water, they’re also easier to sauté.
Hardly any prep work is needed. Before sautéing your mushrooms, clean off any excess dirt. Contrary to what most people think, you can rinse mushrooms. Just rinse them lightly with water in a colander; don’t soak them or they’ll absorb too much water. Dry them with paper towels and wipe off any stubborn dirt.
If the stems of your mushrooms seem dry, hard, or slimy, trim just that part off; otherwise just leave the stems intact. Shiitakes are the exception: their leathery stems don’t soften, so they should be cut off where they join the cap. (You can save the stems to flavor stocks and sauces.)
Cut your mushrooms on the thick side and try to keep their shape. As mushrooms release their moisture, they shrink. If you start with very thinly sliced mushrooms, they’ll shrivel down to nothing before they brown. Don’t slice cultivated mushrooms thinner than 1/4-inch. You can also cut them in half or quarters from top to bottom for a meatier bite.
I like to cook wild mushrooms whole, but if they’re very large or need to be combined with other mushrooms or ingredients, I cut them into pieces that follow their natural contours.
Cook in batches for best results
I sauté mushrooms only a handful at a time, making sure the mushrooms have browned before pushing them aside and adding more. Don’t worry about the mushrooms you added to the pan first: they won’t be in the pan long enough to overcook.
Start with a heavy pan. A heavy pan not only provides even heat, it also retains heat, so its temperature won’t drop very much when you start putting food into the pan.
Get the pan hot. Before you put anything in the pan, heat the pan over high heat. If you’re using oil or clarified butter, heat the fat until it ripples and barely begins to smoke—you want to hear the mushrooms sizzle when they hit the pan. (If you’re using whole butter, heat it until the butter is frothy.) Cook the mushrooms a handful at a time. Don’t add the next handful until the first has browned and there’s no liquid left in the bottom of the pan.
If the mushrooms release a lot of liquid in the pan, just keep cooking. You can cook all the mushrooms at one time, but because a lot of mushrooms will lower the temperature of the pan, you’ll wind up with a lot of liquid in the pan. If this happens, just continue cooking the mushrooms until the water boils away. Some liquid will evaporate and some gets reabsorbed into the mushrooms, which gives the mushrooms a rich flavor even though they were never actually sautéed.
A few easy ways to add flavor
The fat you use is the first way you can add flavor. Butter tastes great, but it’s tricky because it burns at a lower temperature. Clarified butter, on the other hand, works beautifully. Olive oil adds a lovely, fruity flavor, but I don’t recommend using extra-virgin olive oil because the high heat eliminates any of the nuances of this more expensive grade. For even more flavor, you can sauté mushrooms in duck fat, lard, or the fat rendered from bacon or pancetta.
Deglaze the pan to capture the most flavor. You can deglaze the pan, where some of the mushroom flavor is now clinging, with flavorful liquids, such as sherry, wine, stock, or cream. Add a couple of tablespoons of liquid while the heat is still on high; keep stirring to scrape up the browned mushroom juices until the liquid has completely evaporated.
Garlic, shallots, and herbs give the mushrooms some zing. French cooks are especially fond of mushrooms and like to sprinkle them with garlic, shallots, or herbs during sautéing to give them an extra burst of flavor. Chopped shallots can be added about halfway into sautéing; added too soon, they may burn; added too late, they’ll taste raw. Finely minced garlic is best added toward the end. I like to mix finely chopped garlic, parsley, and sometimes breadcrumbs (a mixture the French call a persillade) to sautéing mushrooms. I also like shallots and thyme.