The Santa Cruz Mountains are flush with wild fungi, if you know where to look. And if you don’t, locally foraged mushrooms are also plentiful this time of year at natural food stores and farmers markets. Slowly simmered in a stew, coated in cream and twirled around your fork in a pasta dish or piled on top of homemade ramen, they are an earthy, satisfying component to almost any winter dish.
But how can a home cook be sure they’re doing right by these delicate forest blossoms? Texture is hugely impactful to the flavor, and seemingly easy to get wrong. I’ve seen many friends swear they detested mushrooms, only to pull a 180 when they were prepared by a skilled chef. With so many varieties available to locals, how should we be cooking them, and what are we doing wrong?
Chef Zachary Mazi of Ulterior is a foraging veteran and an authority on preparing wild fungi. He is currently working on a book on the art and science of cooking mushrooms, which will explore the nuances of different edible varieties. He advises, first, to not wash mushrooms until you’re ready to use them. Doing so degrades enzymes found in mushrooms, and they’ll begin to break down.
He also suggests cooking mushrooms on low heat. “The same enzymes that break these mushrooms down when washed also convert some of the molecules in the mushroom into the flavors we love. This is why drying them intensifies the flavor,” explains Mazi. “For that same reason, when cooking fresh mushrooms, the flavor will be intensified by slow and low heat first, as high heat denatures the enzymes.”
For particularly delicate varieties, like Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides), Mazi recommends drying them dirty, at which point they become more durable and can be rinsed in cold water and rehydrated in boiling water. Be sure to reserve the hydration liquor for sauces and soups!
He also recommends drying the delightful maple-flavored Candy Cap mushroom (Lactarius rubidus), which intensifies their sweetness. One can then makes an alcohol extract in rum or brandy to be used for baking, making simple syrups, and as a substitute for vanilla extract.