The Fungal Gourmet Transcript

The Backyard

    This big old world of ours suffers no shortage of edible oddities. Consider the roast guinea pigs Peru or Zanzibar's ant pies, the bird nest soups of southeast Asia. If I told you what tacos were originally meant to hold, you'd never look at a bait shop the same way again. And yet, the weirdest food of all may just be lurking in your refrigerator right now or at the very least your back yard.
    Mushrooms, like this agaricus bisporous, are strange feed indeed. A fungus at once sinister and yet sublime, they kind of occupy that middle ground between meat and vegetable, between science and superstition, between the pit of man's stomach and the summit of his culinary knowledge. And yet, with the right care and simple cooking, well, mushrooms are welcome citizens in that zone that we're proud to call good eats.

Sher Rockee Mushroom Farms: Avondale, PA - 6:01 am

    Weird though it may be, the mushroom actually has more in common with an apple than athlete's foot. That's because like an apple a mushroom is a fruiting body, kind of seed delivery device. Only the 'tree' happens to be embedded either in the ground or an old log, whatever it happens to be growing on. Now, these underground trees called 'mycelium' can live for a hundred years and can cover up to an acre of land which makes them some of the largest living creatures on earth.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Mad French Chef
              Kitchen Apprentice

    Like most vegetables mushrooms continue to breathe post harvest. But unlike, say, lettuce, mushrooms don't like holding their breath. Locked away in plastic any mushroom worth its cap is going to sweat itself to gooeyness in a matter of hours. On the other hand, they dry out easily, too. So, the best we can do is play the middle.

    Now as soon as I get them home I seal mine in a small paper bag. Now paper is a good choice because it holds on to moisture while letting air pass through. Even in here, though, mushrooms are going to go crazy in 3 or 4 days. So use them soon as you can.

Seal in paper bag

Use in 3 - 4 days

    If you insist on keeping them in their little bucket, well, at least give them a few air holes.

Let 'em breath

    Lastly, don't wash them until you are ready to cook the mushroom.

MAD FRENCH CHEF: What iz theez craziness you speak about? Zee champignon must never touch zee water.
AB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    I hope he knows that this means war.

    We've all heard that tired, old, kitchen myth that washing mushrooms waterlogs them rendering them ...

MFC: Inedible! That's it.

    Well the way we see it, a fresh mushroom is already like a saturated sponge. So in order to water log it, you'd have to soak it in a lot more water than it would take to just give it a good bath.

MFC: Ridiculous.

    To prove the point, I am going to wash these mushrooms while my raving, French colleague cleans the exact same amount his way, the brush. Just to keep things completely scientific we will give mine a weigh both pre and post wash. So, we will know if water has been absorbed. We've got 32 ounces or 2 pounds including the bowl.

  AB: Now chef, just to make you feel more at home we've enlisted the aid of a kitchen apprentice for you to squawk at.

MFC: Ah, that's very thoughtful of you.
  AB: Um, hm. Let's do it.
MFC: Alleze! Let's go!

[MFC and Asst. begin to clean the mushrooms with a brush while AB puts them in a colander, rinses under cold water, lays them out on paper towels to air dry and then roles them up for storage]

MFC: Faster!


MFC: I'm fini. Where is that shoemaker?
  AB: [enters reading a book, sarcastically] What? Time to weigh in already?

    Well, it seems that my mushrooms ...

  AB: [to MFC] ... which were clean an hour ago ...

    ... have picked up a hefty 2 ounces or water.

MFC: Uh, huh. There, you see? I win.

AB: Yeah, not so fast, Frenchy. Besides the fact that 2 ounces hardly qualifies as water logged I do declare that I spy a piece of dirt.
MFC: Aaaah.

That's 1.5 grams of
H2O per 'shroom

 If your mushrooms aren't visibly dirty, there's no need to wash them.
If they do need a bath, use cold water.

    In days of yore, food scribes described mushrooms as vegetable meat. Now they may have been off the mark botanically, but they were dead on culinarily because the secret to cooking mushrooms is to treat them like a piece of meat. And to us that means hot, fast, dry cooking methods like broiling, roasting, sautéing.


    Now, literally translated sauté means 'jump' in French, but specifically it means to cook small, uniform pieces of food in a little bit of fat in a very hot pan and keep it constantly moving or 'jumping.'

Small, uniform pieces
Small amount of fat
High heat
Constant movement

    Now, the first key to successful sautéing is uniformity of size which is why I'm cutting all of my crimini mushrooms into exactly one quarter inch thick slices. Now, granted I've done a good bit of knife work over the years and hey, practice does make perfect.



1/4 inch thick

    [Camera pans down to show that his perfect slicing is done by an egg slicer] Okay, so I cheat. So, don't hate me just because I'm lazy. But, the truth is is that an egg slicer really is the perfect tool for cutting up meaty mushrooms like criminis and white buttons. Now, if you're using woodier stemmed mushrooms like shiitakes just use your kitchen sheers. Beats a knife any day.

Crimini    White
Oyster    Porcini

Wood Ear

    Okay, number two: heavy pan, high heat. I guess that's 2 and 3 actually. Heavy pans are dense and dense means that when food hits the pan the heat will be maintained. That's how browning gets done. Now, ordinarily I would do this in cast iron but watching mushrooms cook on a black surface is kind of like taking a nap. So, I'm using a traditional sauté pan. It's named for the job because these straight sides provide for the widest possible cooking area. This goes over high heat.

Heavy Pan
High Heat

Dense = Even Heating

    That leads us to rule number four: choose the right fat. Now, we need a high smoke point to prevent burning but since mushrooms are absorbent little suckers flavor would be good, too. Now, olive oil would be good for the job so would bacon drippings. But as far as I'm concerned sautéing goes best with butter.

Chose the right fat

    Now, I know. You're saying butter has a low smoke point. Well, you're right. It does unless it's been clarified. Don't have time to bother? I'll make a deal with you. If I can explain it in one breath you'll do it, okay? Fine. I must prepare. [inhales deeply]

    Melt a pound of butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat and slowly cook until the bubbling ceases and the liquid turns clear, 30-40 minutes depending on the water.

Melt a pound of butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat and slowly cook until the bubbling ceases and the liquid turns clear, 30-40 minutes.

    Strain and cool, being sure to leave any solids in the bottom of the pan.

Strain and cool, being sure to leave any solids in the bottom of the pan.

    Or, once the butter is clear, remove the pan from the heat and quickly add two inches of hot tap water. Since it is less dense than water, the now clarified butter will float to the top.

Or, once the butter has cleared, remove from heat and add two inches of hot tap water. Since it's less dense than water, the now clarified butter will float to the top.

    And in a few hours in the refrigerator will solidify it into a big yellow Frisbee that you can lift out and use. Use it immediately or wrap in wax paper and refrigerate or add foil and freeze it for 2 months.

A few hours in the fridge will solidify the butter. Use or wrap in wax paper and foil and refrigerate. Can be frozen for up to two months.

    See, that was a breeze ... [collapses]. Um, just put an ounce of that butter in the pan. I'm going to catch my breath a little bit, okay? You'll know it's ready when it ripples on the surface.

Because its milk solids have been removed, clarified or "drawn" butter
(called Ghee in India) has a higher smoke point than regular butter.

Out of the Floor and into the Pan
The Kitchen

GUESTS: Scientists #1 & #2

    Over crowded pans are the number one cause of failed sautés. You see, if the food is all piled up in there then it can't touch the pan. And if it doesn't touch the pan it can't undergo browning, that miraculous set of reactions that create flavor and texture and that, well, neither science nor physics has been able to explain.

AB: [to scientists] Have you? Come on guys. Blind me with science.
SCIENTISTS #1 & #2: [run away]

    Lab punks. Now, you see here moisture is already seeping out of these mushrooms but the pan is so hot that it's evaporating the second that it hits the fat. And you hear that sound? Ah. That is the music of the sauté. That means that the moisture is being pulled out and it's getting out of the pan in vapor form. And that means that a crust is going to be forming on this food in no time flat. As long as you hear that sound, you are sautéing.

    Now, you want to keep things moving around. Just kind of turning things over. But what you want to avoid is that flashy kind of restaurant business of tossing the food around in the air because you know what? Unless you're inside an oven doesn't cook in the air. And we're not in an oven. Okay?

Keep it moving

    Just turn things over. And you see this is already starting to get a crust on it. That is what sauté is all about. It doesn't matter if this is a pork chop or shrimp. That is the exact thing that we are looking for.

    As soon as the first batch starts to take on really nice color like this, push it out to the perimeter of the pan just get it out to the coolest area. It's kind of like moving out to the suburbs and leave middle ... room right in the middle of the pan for the next addition. Just another handful. Now, I usually get about 4 handfuls to a pan but I make each addition just a little bit smaller than the one before, again, because of over crowding.

4 handfuls to a 10 inch pan

    Did you know that Russians are so mushroom crazy that they actually have a word for mushroom crazy, raszh. They actually say that Lenin had a real serious raszh which I think is kind of funny ... but that's just me.

Raszh: mushroom crazy

    Anyway, fight the desire to turn the heat down. You may think that things are about to burn but believe me they're not. Because as long as you hear that sizzling, and I still hear sizzling, then there's still water in there. Soon as the sizzling stops that's when burning can happen. Of course we don't want to strangle every little bit of juice out of the mushrooms or they'll be like shoe leather. So, just watch for the color on the outside.

Keep the heat high

    Okay, time for another addition so I'm going to move everything back to the outsides of the pan and its starting to look just a little bit dry in there so I'm going to add just a few drops of butter right to the middle of the pan like that and go with another handful. This one is a little bit smaller than the one before. There.

    Now, as soon as you've got the final addition in the pan it's okay to go ahead and season. Up to this point you wouldn't want to throw salt in there because one small group of the mushrooms would take it all and leave none for the rest. So, I'm going to add a pinch of kosher salt right now. And be sure to scatter it very evenly. Don't dump it in one place.

Pinch of Kosher Salt

    I'm also going to open up a little hole right there for about a tablespoon of shallot. Just minced, chopped up right there in the middle. Toss it in with the rest of the mushrooms. And everything is getting to a good even cooking point. In the middle over the high heat they're still a little on the underdone side but out across the sides here in the suburbs things are looking really good.

1 Tbls minced Shallot

    Now, once the heat has wrung out most of the moisture the pan is going to darken with kind of stuck mushroom guts. It's time to deglaze with a jigger of cognac. Just pour it right into the middle of the pan. There. Now, just kind of scrape around.
    Now, we've done some deglazing before but it's always been in roasting pans after the food has been removed. In this case, you want to deglaze with the mushrooms in the pan so that once the liquid has dissolved all those nice brown bits, the fond on the bottom of the pan, then the sauce can just jump right back onto the mushrooms coating them.

mushroom guts

1 Jigger (1 1/2 oz) Cognac

    I'm going to finish this with a little herb. Little chive and some grinds of pepper. Time to get out of the pan.

2 tsp chopped chives
3-4 grinds of pepper

    Good looking stuff and darn versatile, too. Now besides playing side man to every major entree from steak to scrambled, sautéed mushrooms can fuel a plethora of other dishes from mushroom soup to meatloaf. Now, just about any mushroom is sauté-able as long as it doesn't have a thick woody stem. As a matter of fact, one of my favorites is the Asian newcomer the Shiitake.

Sher Rockee Mushroom Farms: Avondale, PA - 4:37 pm

    It's Japanese for 'wood grown'. You see, shiitakes don't do dirt. They do logs. In fact, if you were to pick up an oak log that a shiitake colony had finished with you'd notice that it feels like balsa; there's just nothing left.
    Now, we've worked up a pretty good appetite for shiitakes over the last few years. The problem is that once a log has been inoculated it takes years to fruit which just isn't fast enough for our demand. So the answer, faux logs. Wood chip composites with 'shroom spore and 'shroom chow already in the mix. Cuts years to weeks.

To extract the flavor from tough Shiitake stems,
steep them in hot stock or broth, then discard.

Stick That in Your Cap and Roast It
The Kitchen

    Having made the ultimate sacrifice our adobe friend over there is on its way to the compost heap but we've got a nice pan full of shiitakes.

    The very same dish, in fact, that we did with the criminis except now we used the stem shiitakes so its a slightly different dish.

Substitute Shiitakes for Criminis in sauté

    Now, as delicious as this sauté is, you know, I'm really just not in the mood for it anymore. So, I think I'm going to turn it into a paste by adding about a third of a cup of heavy cream right to the hot pan. Now since it's got a lot more fat in it than, say, whipping cream or half-and-half it's going to thicken much faster because there is less moisture to evaporate off.

1/3 Cup Heavy Cream

    Also, I think I'm going to toss in a quarter of a cup of shredded parmesan. Part of that's for flavor but it will also thicken, too, because it melts and those proteins uncoil and reach out for other things. Now, just about 30 seconds over high heat and this will tighten up considerably.

1/4 Cup Shredded Parmesan

    While we're at it, I think I'm going to add a little more flavor to boot. I'm going to go with about a teaspoon of dried tarragon. Now, tarragon is kind of the mushroom herb of choice both in France and in Russia. Oh, in Russia did I mention that Lenin had a really bad raszh? I mentioned that, didn't I?

1 tsp dry tarragon

    Okay. Stir a couple of times. It's already thickened up and we're going to get it off the heat because if it over cooks the cheese will definitely break.
    Now, the next step to making a paste would to be to bind this up and my favorite binder is bread crumbs. Going to sprinkle on just enough to cover the surface of the mushrooms and then stir that in. The reason that bread crumbs bind so well is, well one they've got a very kind of abrasive shape. They've got like these peatons{?} that go off in every direction and that kind of sticks into the food and holds it together. And they're extremely absorbent so they will soak up any moisture that tries to seep in or out of the filling.

1-2 Tbls bread crumbs

    It's now a delicious and stable filler. But, we really don't have anything to fill do we? I don't know. If we could find something around here. Maybe a, I don't know what. What are we going to fill? We're going to fill ... [camera pans to mushrooms on counter] Oh, that's crazy talk. You want to put mushrooms inside mushrooms? That's, that's crazy. You can't ... well, they do have a pretty good shape. They've got a nice little pocket there that we could put the filling ... but you know what? This isn't going to work. These are raw, that's cooked. By the time these did cook the moisture would come out and that stuff would float away. It would be completely ... [camera pans to oven] Roast them, huh? Roast them before we fill ... That could work.

    But you know what, if we're going to put heat into these we might as well add a little bit of flavor while we're at it. So, you know what, I think I'll get a big, big, big bowl something like this and we'll just put about 10 of these in here, right? Just kind of a big, big cluster and we'll drizzle those with some oil. Okay. Little oil, maybe a tablespoon of olive oil.

10-12 large white caps

Olive oil to coat

    Kind of toss that around and uh, hey! Would you look at that. We've got some herbs, too. Say a teaspoon of rosemary and thyme. Thyme is on our side, right? A teaspoon of thyme and a couple cloves of garlic, crushed.

1 tsp each rosemary & thyme
2 cloves garlic (crushed)

    Now, why don't you kick the oven on. 350 I think will be fine. Now, once we got these all kind of herbed up and lubed down, we're going to need to put something, put them on something ... Hey, I know. A baking sheet with a cooling rack. That will allow the moisture to fall away from the mushroom so they won't water log. Ha, ha, ha, ha. Just put them upside down so the extra moisture runs off. Just line them up on the pan like that. Then scoop up the rest of the herbs and just sprinkle right across the top. Yeah. That'll work.

heat oven to 350°

    Now, as far as length of time we don't want these things to cook too long because they're going to cook again one they're stuffed. So, why don't we go with about. Well, let's see. We want them to be kind of al dente, right? I mean basically you'll know they're done when you take the tip of a paring knife and you kind of just push into the mushroom and they'll slide out nice and easy. That's how you know they're done. So, I'm figuring 10 minutes, tops.

10 minutes ... tops!

    Oh, I said ten minutes, tops. They were done in eight. You see, sometimes time is not on your side and you've got to actually look at the food.

    So, anyway, here we are. Pretty cut and dried from here, really. just kind of mound a tablespoons worth kind of right on top of the the little cavity. You don't want to push down or the filling will just kind of pack and it will take on a really bad texture and it will also cook very slowly. So, there.

1 Tbls of filling per
cap ... don't pack

    Uh, one last touch, more bread crumbs. This is going to help form a crust on top of the filling and it will also take some color from the broiler.

Top with more bread crumbs

    Oh, while you were watching the clock I took the liberty of moving the rack up one level and turning on the broiler.

Heat Broiler to High

    So, this is done. Back into the oven it goes. But this time I really suggest that you don't look at the clock. You've got to watch these things because as soon as the filling bubbles a little bit and the top browns they are done. So, don't go away. [camera pans away from oven to AB] No. Really. You need to watch the mushrooms.

Browning will take 3-4
minutes ... tops!

"Portobello" is just marketing-speak for "overgrown Crimini".

Kroger: Alpharetta, GA - 3:09 pm

    Now, despite the fact that computerized, refrigerated trucks and pony express style driver shopping are getting 'shrooms to the store quicker than ever, it still pays to be vigilant right here.


    For instance, don't assume that bulk or whole loose mushrooms are any fresher than mushrooms that are packaged. You see it all comes down to what sells the quickest and gets restocked most often in your store.

Bulk aren't always better

    But I will say this: if you see condensation inside the package, beware. The same goes for un-refrigerated mushrooms or mushrooms that are, heaven forbid, under the mister.

un-refrigerated bins

    As for pre-sliced mushrooms or pre-sliced anything short of loaf bread, just let me remind you: quality and convenience are rarely seen holding hands.


GUEST: Death, aka Joe Black

    Foraging for mushrooms is a lot of fun. And heck, anytime you can go out in the woods and find free food has got to be a good thing, right? The trouble is, if you don't know what you're doing, and I mean really know what you're doing, you're basically playing botanical Russian roulette. Because sooner or later you're going to get hold of a bad cap and if that cap happens to be, say, the extremely common yet deceptively docile looking Death Cap, then you're going to end up consuming a wide range of toxins some of which have the habit of things like, say, dissolving your liver into a little puddle of goo ... which I hear doesn't feel very good.
    To avoid that here are your options: you either take the time and get the training to become an experience mycologist, you forage with an experienced mycologist or you go ahead and set a place at the table for Joe Black.

DEATH: [pops out from behind a tree]

    But I assure you, death doesn't look anymore like Brad Pitt than I do. Now, since I am decidedly not an experienced mycologist I stick with store bought mushrooms.

AB: [tosses the basket of hand picked mushrooms over his head which hits Death]
[staggers back behind the tree]

    Now besides riboflavin and potassium, mushrooms contain high concentrations of glutamic acid, a kind of chemical cousin to monosodium glutamate. And that means, besides tasting great all on their own, mushrooms actually have the ability to turn up the flavors of the foods that are cooked with them. Pretty cool, huh?
    Now, we hope that we've turned up your interest in mushroom cookery. If you're a fungal freshman, just kind of consider this as a primer. Believe me there are far more flavorful caps on down the line: chanterelles, woodiers, puffballs you name it. But, consider this: if you're capable of converting a common crimini into truly good eats, just think of what you'll be able to do the next time you see a porchini pop up in your yard ...

DEATH: [pops up behind AB]

... supermarket. Pop up in your supermarket. That's what I meant to say.

DEATH: [shuffles off]

    Now, I'm Alton Brown. This is Good Eats. And, I think he's taking a holiday.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010