Mushrooms: In praise of the basic button

by Terry B on February 20, 2008

The humble button mushroom packs as many or more antioxidants than more expensive varieties. And with a few simple ingredients, it packs amazing flavor too. A pair of recipes below.

After weeks of meat and fish, it’s time for vegetables to take center stage with another in the series of A Little Something on the Side.

We all remember the rotary phone, right? Before the advent of the touchtone phone, though, the retroactively dubbed rotary phone was just “the phone.”

And not so long ago in most American supermarkets and kitchens, humble button mushrooms were just mushrooms. Unless you were one of those people who trekked out into the woods collecting wild mushrooms [and in doing so, inspiring countless articles about the deadly dangers of toadstools], button mushrooms were pretty much the only game in town.

Now, between fresh and dried varieties, we have an embarrassment of mushroom riches at our fingertips. The portobello, once exotic and hard to find, is now almost boringly available in most stores. Shiitake, crimini, oyster, porcini, chanterelle, morel and a dazzling array of other fungi are increasingly finding their way onto store shelves and into our culinary hearts. Just this past weekend, I found enoki mushrooms, those slender, almost alien-being looking Japanese beauties, shrink-wrapped and sharing shelf space with portobello caps and pre-sliced “baby bellas” [they're just crimini mushrooms, people---don't get all wound up] in my neighborhood grocery store.

With competition like this, it’s easy for dependable old button mushrooms to get kicked to the curb, to be seen as somehow less wonderful than their more exotic, more expensive brethren.

Not so fast. Turns out button mushrooms have plenty going on, especially in the health department. According to a recent article in ScienceDaily [sent to me by fellow Internet magpie Carolyn---the magpie motto: "Ooooh, here's another shiny link!"], “The humble white button mushroom [Agaricus bisporus] has as much, and in some cases, more anti-oxidant properties than more expensive varieties.” Who knew? For that matter, who knew that mushrooms even contained antioxidants, let alone that button mushrooms were particularly rich in them?

Which reminds me of a commentary I heard on American Public Media’s Marketplace last week. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, says that despite the growing cacophony of health claims from processed, packaged foods, the healthiest foods are still to be found in the produce section. “In fact,” Pollan states, “The more processed the food, the less nutritious it typically is. Yet it’s the processed food makers who have the marketing budgets to do the research to support the health claims and then shout them from the rooftops.” So we sometimes forget that “the hands-down healthiest foods in the supermarket are the unprocessed vegetables and fruits and whole grains. These foods sit silently in the produce section or the bulk-food bins. They don’t utter a word about their antioxidants or heart-healthiness, while just a few aisles over the sugary cereals scream about their heart-healthy ‘whole grain goodness.’”

So button mushrooms are healthy. What about taste? Now see, here’s the great thing about mushrooms—they are flavor sponges. In fact, you have to store them carefully so they don’t soak up flavors from your fridge [see Kitchen Notes for storage tips]. So while the more esoteric mushrooms offer delicious variations on the unmistakable earthy theme that make them absolutely worth exploring, button mushrooms, when combined with the right ingredients, can do some pretty amazing things too.

In the quick, simple recipes below, butter and salt combine first with garlic and parsley, then with port, to make the humble button heavenly.

This first dish makes a delicious first course or, served in smaller portions, an elegant amuse-bouche. It’s been described as a mushroom take on classic escargots, and indeed, when I described preparing mushrooms this way to a French colleague without mentioning the connection, she said, “Ahhh, just like escargots!”

Given an escargot treatment with butter, garlic, salt and parsley, everyday button mushrooms transform into an elegant first course. Given an escargot treatment with butter, garlic, salt and parsley, everyday button mushrooms transform into an elegant first course.

Sautéed Mushrooms with Garlic Butter
Makes four first-course servings

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 lb small white mushrooms, wiped clean and sliced in half
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Melt butter with garlic, salt and pepper over low heat in a lidded sauté pan or skillet. Add mushrooms and toss with garlic butter to coat. Cover the pan and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally and making sure garlic doesn’t burn. Reduce heat to very low, if necessary. During the cooking process, the mushrooms will release their moisture. Most of this will steam away as they cook; what remains will become part of a lovely garlicky/buttery sauce.

Just before serving, toss mushrooms with parsley. A more involved version of this dish at epicurious.com involves croutons and baking the mushrooms; personally, I think the crunchy croutons would just get in the way.

What Would Julia Do? Sautéed mushrooms—who hasn’t made them, right? But one day, tucked in the middle of a quiche recipe by Deb over at Smitten Kitchen, I found this revelation: Julia Child’s method for sautéing mushrooms. As Deb so beautifully put it, “How does she take something you’ve done your whole life and convince you each time you could have been doing it better because they’ve never tasted this good?”

Elevate mash potatoes with a topping of Julia Child's simple, classic sautéed mushrooms. Elevate mash potatoes with a topping of Julia Child’s simple, classic sautéed mushrooms.

These are delicious with baked or mashed potatoes, as shown above, and are absolutely wonderful spooned over steaks.

Julia Child’s Sautéed Mushrooms
Serves 2

1 tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon port
5 to 6 large white mushrooms, sliced

Melt butter in a sauce pan over moderately low heat. Add port and salt, swirling to combine. Add mushrooms and stir to coat them with the butter mixture. Cover pan and cook for 8 minutes; mushrooms will give off moisture, so don’t be concerned that there isn’t enough liquid in the pan.

Remove lid, raise heat and boil for several minutes until liquid is completely evaporated [I actually stop just short of letting the liquid evaporate completely---this little bit of liquid is a heavenly extra as you spoon the mushrooms over a steak or baked or mashed potatoes]. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Storing mushrooms. On just about every topic including this one, everyone’s got an opinion. What most people say, though, and what works just fine for me, is to put them in a paper bag, fold the top shut and store them in your fridge. Despite their dry outer appearance, mushrooms contain a fair amount of moisture [as we see when we have them in a hot pan]; storing them in plastic will cause them to spoil faster. For the same reason, don’t store them in the vegetable crisper drawer, which is specifically designed to keep produce from drying out. All that said, if your mushrooms come packaged in plastic wrap, most sources say to leave them that way ’til you’re ready to use them. Regarding that, use them within a few days, or within a week if they are packaged and unopened.

Cleaning mushrooms. We all have those little soft brushes for cleaning mushrooms tucked in a drawer somewhere, don’t we? Leave them there. What works best, hands down, is a dry, wadded up paper towel. Use it to gently brush dirt from mushrooms. Scrape away any stubborn spots with a paring knife. Don’t rinse mushrooms unless you plan to dump them right into a sauce—they have enough moisture in them already.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 2/20/2008

Books and dogs and rock & roll. Harry and the Potters play inventive, geeky rock & roll at libraries and bookstores—and one of them blogs about hot dogs, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?

1.67 cents for your thoughts. With the cost of copper and zinc going up, who knows if the Lincoln penny make it to its 100th anniversary celebration, at WTF? Random food for thought.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types February 20, 2008 at 10:39 am

Hurray for the mushroom! What a beautiful dish and a fitting tribute!

chapter_4 February 20, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Yumm, I love mushrooms, looks delicious.

Gretchen Noelle February 20, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Loved your post. Elevating the great button mushroom back where it belongs. Very informative.

Christine February 20, 2008 at 1:58 pm

I LOVE MUSHROOMS! Great post! I have some port on hand from my VDay dinner so it looks like I found another use for that with these recipes.

Mike of Mike's Table February 20, 2008 at 3:01 pm

Very informative post. I must admit I’ve been ignoring the button mushroom for a while now for no good reason. I’ll have to give them another fair chance…and the sautes look great *yum*

Terry B February 20, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Thanks, everyone! Looks like there’s a hidden mushroom lover lurking in every one of us.

michelle February 20, 2008 at 3:58 pm

i *love* mushrooms. i’ll definitely be using the first recipe. it’s good to know that there is so much value in a button mushroom; the crimini has been my go-to ‘shroom for the past few years.

turns out, i’ve been cooking my mushrooms julia child-style and i didn’t even know it! except that i use sherry, which tastes amazing with mushrooms, instead of port.

Jennifer Hess February 20, 2008 at 4:32 pm

I should know better than to read your posts on an empty stomach…

Nicole February 20, 2008 at 6:08 pm

Another wonderful post, Terry. I really, really want to love mushrooms. I know they are good for me. But I have to admit that I’m still struggling with my childhood dislike of all things fungi. When in Sicily, I did eat many wonderful pasta and risotto dishes that featured the famous mushrooms found on Mount Etna. And my favorite pizzeria served porcini mushroom bruschetta that was out of this world. But for some reason, I just can’t seem to bring myself to cook with them. I know I’ll get over it, but for now the mental block is still there. Wish me luck!

Patricia Scarpin February 20, 2008 at 6:31 pm

Terry,
My friend Valentina, from the blog Trem Bom, is absolutely crazy about mushrooms – I’m gonna send this link to her.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) February 20, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Once again, Julia shows us the way! For all the fancy mushrooms, fresh and dried, button mushrooms are still my favorite. Sometimes, to deepen the flavor, I’ll combine them with some minced dried porcini.

Terry B February 20, 2008 at 7:49 pm

Michelle—Sherry is great with mushrooms. So is brandy. In fact, I do a nice simple paasta with chicken, mushrooms and brandy.

Jennifer—Turn about fair play, I say—you’ve made me hungry plenty of times.

Nicole—Thanks! And good luck to you. But it’s not like a personality defect or anything. There are just certain things we never get over disliking. That would probably make an excellent post, in fact, inviting people to confess their firmly entrenched food dislikes.

Patricia—Thanks! Sharing recipes I’ve discovered with friends is one of the joys of food blogging for me.

Lydia—Every time I cook with mushrooms, I feel that I don’t do so often enough. Maybe this post will get me started exploring more.

carol w. February 20, 2008 at 10:27 pm

The photos are exquisite, specially the first. The brown bag, the angled tiles, the lovely little mushrooms…and that’s before we even try the recipe. You are an artist. Thank you for giving us a weekly reminder of what’s really important.

Melinda February 20, 2008 at 10:49 pm

I’ve never stopped loving all edible mushrooms. Except perhaps the enoki ones . They are very sweet looking but they are a little puff of nothing to me.
Lovely post and pics.

Terry B February 20, 2008 at 11:14 pm

Thanks, Carol! Having seen your photographs, I take this as a high compliment indeed.

Melinda—I agree that enokis can be fairly subtle, but they are indeed beautiful. Most recently, Marion has used them in a delicious attempt to recreate a wonderful raumen we had in LA’s Little Tokyo.

Kevin February 21, 2008 at 3:10 am

Mushrooms sauteed in butter with garlic are so easy and yet so tasty!

Christina February 21, 2008 at 5:29 am

Mushrooms are a regular guest on our table. I’ve never cooked them with port as you suggest here, but you know I’m going to be trying that soon. Julia is rarely wrong, after all. Hmm, I think ECG has a steak to grill in the near future and I have some mushrooms to prepare. You’ve included such helpful kitchen notes in this post!

Mimi February 21, 2008 at 12:34 pm

I’m happy to read good things about button mushrooms. I can rarely find anything other than buttons or Portobellos locally. My favorite way to prepare them is simply sauteed with shallots and freshly ground pepper. Your photo is lovely, TerryB!

ejm February 21, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Well said!

We too generally choose white button mushrooms. And they ARE good, aren’t they?

When we want something with the taste of truffles (but without the exorbitant cost) – say in a “truffle” omelette, we cheat and saute button mushrooms then add a drop or two of truffle oil to the finished dish just before serving. Et voila! Faux truffle omelette!

-Elizabeth

Terry B February 21, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Kevin—I agree! There are plenty of complicated ways to make things taste good, but the simple ones like this are real treasures to me.

Christina—Thanks! Of course, now you’ve got me wanting a steak. Right now.

Mimi—God, those sound good. I still have some mushrooms—just have to pick up some shallots!

ejm—Thanks for the excellent “cheat” idea!

Toni February 21, 2008 at 10:50 pm

It’s funny, but I rarely cook mushrooms as a vegetable. I tend to use them more like herbs – to enhance a dish. But those mushrooms over the mashed potatoes? They’re MINE! ;-)

Turns out that mushrooms – all of them – have anti-carcinogenic properties. Meaning they fight cancers. Not bad for a lowly fungus, eh?

canarygirl February 22, 2008 at 9:31 am

Delicious! I make mine almost exactly the same way (but with a dry white rather than port)…SO good…try making them on the grill this way–even better! :)

Terry B February 22, 2008 at 6:32 pm

Toni—Mushrooms fight cancer too. Wow. Again, as author Michael Pollan suggests, load up in the produce section, people. It’s good for you.

canarygirl—Yet more proof of the flavor-sponge versatility of mushrooms. I’ll also sometimes sprinkle in some herbes de Provence or another dry herb when I’m sautéing mushrooms. They soak the flavor right up!

Warda February 22, 2008 at 7:12 pm

This is the same way I have been making Button Mushrooms (also called Paris Mushrooms. Not Paris Hilton, but Paris the city ;)
Mark Bittman wrote, not too long ago, about the dilemma of washing or not washing the mushrooms. According to him, it’s OK to wash them quickly under running water.
BTW, you have been tagged for a Meme.
Happy weekend!

SurfaceEarth February 23, 2008 at 2:57 pm

Delicious! Thank you. I have a bunch of mushrooms waiting for this recipe later today!

Terry B February 23, 2008 at 3:20 pm

Warda—I hadn’t heard the term “Paris mushrooms.” Just Googled it and got about 1,700 results. Very cool, like calling arugula “rocket”—a much more fun name, if you ask me.

SurfaceEarth—Thanks! Hope you enjoy them.

Susan from Food Blogga February 26, 2008 at 1:18 pm

It’s amazing that the humble button mushroom is healthier than its more glamorous cousins, isn’t it? I wrote about them for Fit Fare and was pleasantly surprised to discover their nutritional benefits. Great post!

Ron, England March 26, 2008 at 6:24 pm

The best thing to do with button mushies is just brush them off and eat them raw, just as they are or, if you want more flavour, slice them thickly, or quarter them if very small, whisk together some good olive oil with a drop of white wine vinegar, sliced garlic and a splash of sweet chilli sauce, and marinate them overnight (don’t stint on the marinade, they’ll suck it up like little sponges). Serve as a salad component, or just put a drippy handful in a bread roll…

Terry B March 26, 2008 at 6:33 pm

Susan—Thanks, as always!

Thanks to LUKLI too, for the link.

Ron—Spoken like a true mushroom lover. This sounds delicious—will have to give it a try.

Casey Pons June 2, 2009 at 3:39 am

I stumbled and fell here, only to find this great little tribute to the proud little Button. What a nice gesture to one of my favorites for as long as I can remember. When people were saying,” Euweee…..you like mushrooms,” do you know they are just a fungus?
Yes, and please pass those you disgrace… over to me, Thank you very much.
I have a 55 gallon drum full in the fridge that need some loving care very soon and you have come to my rescue, as you have the beautiful Button Mushroom. Thanks for sharing!
Long live Julia & the Button!
Casey

Chris February 20, 2013 at 7:34 pm

Loved the recipe of sauteed mushrooms, butter, garlic, salt n pepper. Served with mash, green veg n pork loins grilled. I took the mushrooms out and deglazed pan with some white wine. Made a great garlicky Jeau to spoon over the pork n mash. Garlic lovers feast!
Thankyou for a great recipe!

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