Behold the Magic of the Mighty Mushroom
Forager and photographer Andrea Gentl shares everything you need to know about fungi in ‘Cooking with Mushrooms’.
You may have seen mushrooms in your coffee or as a meat replacement. Perhaps you’ve even dabbled in microdosing, or maybe your TikTok feed is flooded with foraging videos. Regardless, it’s clear that people appreciate the versatility of fungi, so much so that entire cookbooks are dedicated to them. Food and travel photographer and fungi lover Andrea Gentl reveals her “well-kept secrets” about the magic of mushrooms in her first cookbook, Cooking with Mushrooms.
Gentl has been foraging since she was young, starting on her family farm in Western Massachusetts and now in upstate New York. Her new cookbook serves as both a field guide and an ode to the beloved mushroom and all of its transformative properties. As she notes in the beginning of her mushroom manifesto: “Once you start cooking with mushrooms, you will never stop.”
Shop local for your mushrooms
When she isn’t foraging, Gentl buys her mushrooms from vendors at local farmers markets, and she recommends all mushroom-minded consumers do the same. “Mushrooms don’t like plastic, and I think that’s why a lot of people have bad feelings towards them, because they’re buying the ones from the supermarket that have been sitting under plastic for who knows how long,” Gentl says.
More and more grocery stores like Whole Foods, Central Market, and Erewhon are starting to sell their mushrooms in open baskets and bins, so make sure to keep an eye out for those.
If you want to take a crack at harvesting your own mushrooms, Gentl advises foragers to first be proficient in identifying their mushrooms so they don’t harvest anything questionable. And while you might be seeing people on TikTok foraging in their local parks, Gentl notes that it isn’t wise to forage in cities and other places clouded with pollution and other toxins.
Know your mushroom types
Lion’s mane has rich seafood notes and a texture that tears into shreds like crabmeat, while rounded-capped porcinis are incredibly earthy and nutty, which is why you’re likely to find them in Italian dishes. See, no mushroom is completely alike; each kind has its own specific look, texture, and taste, and it’s essential to know their individual purposes.
“I like to think about mushrooms in the way that people think about wine,” Gentl says. “I feel like they all have a certain terroir. They have flavor profiles and notes the same way you would talk about wine or chocolate.”
It’s easy to view mushrooms as a solely savory fungus, but a myriad of them have sweet notes of caramel and maple, such as candy caps and chaga, which Gentl likes to use in her Coconut Dark Chocolate Pot de creme and Maple Mushroom Ice Cream.
Clean your mushrooms (but don’t go overboard)
After you pick up your fresh bushel of mushrooms from your local farmer’s market or great foraging adventure, you’ll notice some remnants of dirt. Fight every impulse you have to plunge them in water; it will only make the cooking process more laborious and complex.
“Mushrooms are like sponges: they soak up any liquid,” Gentl says. “I don’t really wash my mushrooms; I just clean them with a damp cloth if they really need it. Cultivated mushrooms are super clean and generally don’t need to be cleaned anyway.”
For those looking to get serious with their mushrooms, there are foraging knives with small brushes on the end of them, ideal for dusting them off and removing any soil.
And if you’re not planning on cooking your mushrooms right away, make sure to store them adequately. Mushrooms fare best amongst paper, so keep them either in a brown paper bag or in an open basket.
How to cook mushrooms
Cooking with Mushrooms showcases the impressive adaptability of the fungus, with recipes that utilize mushrooms in ways you never thought possible. When it comes down to it, though, Gentl also emphasizes the importance of sticking to the basics, advising us to “cook mushrooms the way that you would normally cook your favorite foods.”
Mushrooms house so much flavor and goodness that they can be served on their own or in conjunction with other dishes. Whether you are stirring them into a ragu or layering them in a grilled cheese, there are certain ingredients that are bound to make your mushrooms stand out.
“People aren’t experimenting enough. There are so many ways to cook with mushrooms beyond a portobello burger.”
“Mushrooms love fat. It helps bring out all of their different flavor notes,” Gentl says. “They also like to be paired with other umami flavors. You can use miso, soy, fish sauce, or colatura, or just a nice salty butter; they all pair so well.”
Gentl chooses which mushrooms to cook based on what she feels like eating. For example, because lion’s mane has such a rich texture and flavor, Gentl likes to grill it as if it were a steak with butter, salt, and pepper. If she wants a dish like a larb or a ragu, she’ll opt for fresh cremini mushrooms, which, when chopped, resemble ground meat.
Get funky with your fungi
If Gentl’s cookbook teaches you anything, it’s that mushrooms know no bounds. Most of us are accustomed to sautéing and roasting, but there is a whole world of mushroom butters, pastes, honeys, powders, and salts out there waiting for us. “People aren’t experimenting enough. There are so many ways to cook with mushrooms beyond a portobello burger,” Gentl laughs.
In order to venture into the mushroom’s shapeshifting powers, you have to start with the severely underutilized method: dehydration. Let your mushrooms dry out for a couple of hours until they are crispy, akin to the consistency of a cracker. Then you can immediately throw them in a food processor with salt to create a mushroom salt, or you can grind them into a fine powder using a coffee or spice grinder. Make sure to store your salts and powders in well-sealed jars, far away from any heat or moisture.
Remember, certain mushrooms emit different flavors, so be thoughtful with the ones you choose (for example, a chaga powder works best in lattes and overnight oats, while porcini or maitake powder suits savory dips or pastas). Just know that whatever you’re craving, there’s a mushroom for it.