Antonio Carluccio’s guide to cooking and preserving mushrooms

By
Antonio Carluccio
Added
09 May, 2014

Antonio Carluccio shares his guide to cooking and preserving mushrooms, an expertise that comes from his lifelong passion for funghi.

A common autumn spectacle in Italy is of a group of people sitting around a table piled high with mushrooms, sorting and cleaning them. Mushrooms don’t improve once they have been gathered, and even if you have picked only a few handfuls, you should perform this ritual as soon as you get home to avoid the disappointment of finding that they have gone soggy overnight. Then there is the challenge of assessing the best way to make the culinary most of each mushroom. Sometimes a tiny amount of a good mushroom needs eking out. Sometimes (perhaps most often), you have a miscellaneous assortment that, while not gourmet material, is at least versatile. Sometimes there is enough to sort out some for preserving.

Cooking methods

Frying

I do this in oil, or butter, or a mixture of both. A mixture helps prevent the butter turning brown, or I use oil first and add butter later to give sauces a nice taste and a shiny, creamy look. When you sauté mushrooms briefly in very hot fat, add seasoning at the end. Garlic should on no account be allowed to brown, and salt will make the mushrooms exude water and alter their taste. The purpose of frying is to cook the outside of the mushroom so it is nice and crisp, sealing in the flavour, and it is a good thing to do so straightaway, since it is the first stage of any number of recipes. Mushrooms treated like his keep for a few hours or can be frozen.

Sautéing

This uses a lower heat than frying and is good for combinations of fresh and dried mushrooms. Flavour is exuded with the juices, making a delicious sauce.

Grilling

This is good for substantial mushrooms – big caps of cep (porcini), Caesar’s mushrooms, parasols, the agarics, slices of giant puffball and chunks of ready-blanched cauliflower fungus.

Blanching

This is sometimes a useful precaution for preserving young ink caps in their closed stage, for example, but is sometimes a necessary measure to remove the toxins present in raw mushrooms.

Deep-frying

This is a favourite of mine. Dip mushrooms in beaten egg and then in breadcrumbs and deep-fry. This seals in the flavour and gives an appetisingly crisp texture to the outside.

Preserving methods

No matter which way I preserve mushrooms, I always enjoy them and continually find new ways of using them. From the anonymity of the convenient frozen blocks of mushrooms in the freezer to the rows of glass jars packed with dried and pickled delights which turn my larder into a mycophagist’s Aladdin’s cave, preserving enables me to serve and enjoy wild mushrooms all the year round.

Drying

Drying captures and preserves the taste, aroma and texture of mushrooms, but very few retain their shape after they have been reconstituted by soaking in water – morels, cauliflower mushrooms and shiitake are exceptions.

How to dry
  • Never wash the mushrooms. Brush or cut away parts that are dirty or sandy.
  • Use only mature, not overripe specimens. The odd insect larva doesn’t matter – it will vacate its habitat once the mushroom is sliced.
  • Small mushrooms can be threaded whole on string (with space between for air to circulate) and hung up to dry. For larger, fleshy mushrooms, cut cap and stem into 5mm slices.
  • In warm climates, lay mushroom slices on gauze-covered mats and place in an airy spot in the sun – they should dry in a day. Where colder and more humid, dry indoors, on clean newspaper covered by a clean cloth. Leave in a well ventilated room, on top of a radiator or in an airing cupboard, turning occasionally.
  • They can be dried in a fan oven at a very low temperature with the door slightly open. If using a conventional oven, keep the door open and put a fan in front to ensure air circulation.
  • Store the perfectly dried mushrooms in airtight jars or plastic bags.
  • Make mushroom powder from dried mushrooms using a mortar and pestle or a food processor. Keep in an airtight jar and add to soups, sauces and omelettes, or incorporate in savoury butters and fresh pasta dough.
  • If buying best quality dried mushrooms, inspect to make sure they contain whole slices, not scrappy bits. Keep in fridge or freezer.
To reconstitute

Soak in lukewarm water for 15–20 minutes before preparing as directed in the recipe. Dried shiitake take about 30 minutes: discard the stem, which is usually tough and dirty. Use the soaking water – after straining through a fine sieve – for added flavour or as stock. Dried mushrooms may be added as they are when cooking soups and some sauces; they revive during the long, slow cooking.

Salting

Salting is still widely used to preserve food in Poland and Russia not only for meat and fish, but also for vegetables, including mushrooms. The process simply consists of embedding the mushrooms in plenty of salt, which gradually dissolves into a preservative brine. Saffron milk caps (pine mushrooms) and ceps (porcini) are two that are traditionally salted, but any young firm mushrooms are ideal. Once you have cleaned the mushrooms thoroughly (without, of course, washing them), remove any grit, check for maggots and cut in slices if they are large. Allow 55g sea or rock salt per 1kg mushrooms. Alternate layers of salt and mushrooms in non-corrosive containers with lids. Start and finish with a layer of salt.

You can add more layers of mushrooms and salt later, as you find the mushrooms. Press the contents down with a weight, and cover closely. Check occasionally, to ensure they are still covered with the salt solution. To use, rinse well and cook without additional salt.

Freezing

Since they may be up to 90 per cent water, mushrooms are not difficult to freeze: the problems arise when you come to thaw them. Experiments over the years have taught me which mushrooms can be frozen raw without becoming tough or ‘frostbitten’, and which need blanching before freezing. I have also evolved reliable ways of thawing.

Freezing in butter

My own favourite way of freezing boletes in particular is to cook them in butter, which helps protect them against ‘frostbite’. Use plenty of butter – 250g unsalted butter per 1kg mushrooms. Gently fry 150g finely chopped onions in 115g of the butter until golden, add the sliced mushrooms and cook for 2–4 minutes. (If the mushrooms are wanted later for sautéing or frying, omit the onions.) Take the dish off the heat, add the remaining butter and leave it to melt. Cool, put into plastic freezer boxes with lids, labelled with the date and type of mushrooms, then freeze. To thaw, leave the block at room temperature for an hour. The mushrooms and butter can be used together to provide a ready-made basis for soups and sauces, or can be used separately, after the mushrooms have been drained from the thawed butter. Mushrooms frozen in this way are ideal for risottos. You won’t be able to tell the difference from fresh.

Freezing duxelles

Duxelles is the standard way of beginning sauces and soups, and produces a ready-made filling for stuffed pasta. I freeze the mixture in an ice-cube tray, then put the cubes in a plastic bag in the freezer. (The amazing advantage is that you don’t have to thaw the whole block of mushrooms when you only want a little to flavour a sauce – exactly as I recommend for stock.)

Pickling

Whether the mushrooms are to be kept in brine or olive oil (brine is cheaper), they must first be boiled in a vinegar solution so they retain their texture and appearance. But since a traditional Italian antipasto must include something piquant and vinegary to tease the appetite, these delicacies are just what are needed. Commercially, you will usually only find pickled ceps (porcini), but almost all the edible mushrooms in this book are suitable for pickling. I quite like to serve a mixture.

Choose only the most tender specimens and clean them thoroughly. For once you can use water to rinse the mushrooms. They reduce in volume by about half when pickled. Store them in sterilised screw-top jars, using smaller jars in preference to larger ones since, once opened, the contents need to be consumed quickly. 

Mushroom extract

A useful way of coping with either a mixture of small quantities of different mushrooms or a glut of any one kind is to make this concentrate. Clean the mushrooms, chop finely, just cover with water and simmer until they have exuded as much as possible of their natural juices. Strain off the liquor. The mushrooms themselves will now be pretty tasteless, but could be used to make up a quantity for pickling, if you don’t want to eat them. Add to the liquor a sprig of rosemary, some sage leaves, a few bay leaves, some black pepper and a lot of salt. (I further reinforce the mushroom flavour by adding some dried mushrooms and garlic.) Boil until the liquid starts to thicken, then strain into a clean bottle and store in the fridge. Use a drop here and a drop there to flavour all sorts of dishes, and it will disappear in no time! Alternatively, you can freeze it in cubes.

Now you know how to keep your mushrooms, check out all of Carluccio's magnificent recipes in The Complete Mushroom Book.

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