Sautéing mushrooms seems simple enough, right? There is just one main ingredient (the mushrooms), one basic cooking technique (sautéing), and one pan (a skillet).
Yet sautéed mushrooms can be challenging to perfect. The high water content and sponge-like structure of mushrooms causes them to initially exude large amounts of liquid. After that, they’re prone to soaking up oil too quickly. All of this makes it easy to end up with either floppy wet mushrooms or floppy greasy ones.
The traditional technique to avoid this and ensure perfectly browned results is to sauté mushrooms in very small batches, the logic being that by avoiding a crowded pan, the mushrooms avoid steaming almost entirely and go straight to proper roasting. That method does work, but it’s time consuming. Even better is the counterintuitive method I’m sharing here, in which the mushrooms are allowed to fully steam in a covered skillet before the lid is removed, the water cooks off, and the mushrooms fully sear. Add some aromatics like fresh thyme, garlic, and shallots and you’re guaranteed a dinner-party–worthy side of deeply browned mushrooms with a meaty-textured and loads of flavor. All in less time than the classic approach.
Cleaning and Cutting the Mushrooms
To start, let’s debunk the old culinary school myth that you should never soak mushrooms in water to clean them. The logic behind this outdated culinary rule is that the sponge-like nature of mushrooms would cause them to soak up excess water, which would change their texture and could affect their ability to brown properly and increase their total cooking time. While this may be true for certain varieties such as morels, lion’s mane or matsutake mushrooms, I found this logic to not hold up with the mushrooms varieties tested in this recipe.
In reality, even after a prolonged soak, most mushrooms absorb such a small percentage of their total weight in water that it makes no noticeable difference in their cooking time or final appearance. Also, with this specific cooking technique, since we are going to first steam and draw out any excess water from the mushrooms before browning, what difference would it make if the mushrooms absorb a bit more water first? Raw mushrooms are practically 50% water weight as-is.
So go ahead, for this recipe, dip your mushrooms in a big bowl of cold water, rub off any dirt or debris, and let the dirt sink to the bottom before lifting the mushrooms out and draining them. No need to use a salad spinner or waste paper towels drying them, since they will have all their moisture cooked off before browning anyway. I do advise cutting and trimming the mushrooms before washing while they are still dry. Once washed, they may be slippery and harder to handle on the cutting board.
As more varieties of mushroom are becoming available throughout the year, it was important to me that this recipe worked for a range of mushrooms. I tested many different types, including white button, portobello, cremini, shiitake, oyster, and maitake mushrooms, to make sure this recipe works well with all of them.
Cutting the mushrooms to a consistent size is key for even cooking and an enjoyable eating experience. Though how you do this will vary by the type of mushroom, since they don’t all share the same form—oyster and maitake mushrooms, for example, have relatively thin fan-shaped lobes, while cremini mushrooms have a classic toadstool shape with a thicker cap. The goal is for these different mushroom types to all release their liquid at roughly the same rate while cooking. You want mushrooms cut large enough to avoid the risk of over-drying before the exterior browns, ensuring you are left with meaty-textured and well-browned mushrooms. Cutting the different mushroom varieties as specified in the recipe is an insurance policy of sorts against leathery results.
Full Steam Ahead: Why We Don’t Recommend the Traditional Mushroom Sautéing Method
A simple sauté method generally follows these basic guidelines: 1) Heat a little oil or butter in a skillet. 2) Throw in the prepared food, making sure not to overcrowd the skillet to avoid excessive steaming. 3) Sear the food while tossing and stirring until well browned all over and properly cooked all the way through.
Because mushrooms have such a high water content and spongy texture, classic methods often take this approach to an extreme, instructing cooks to cook the mushrooms in inconveniently small batches where there’s visible space between each and every piece. Each individual batch cooks up very quickly, since the steam drives off quickly and browning follows at a rapid clip, but when you multiply the method across multiple batches to make a full recipe, it becomes a pretty big inconvenience.
That’s not the only problem with the classic method, though. Because mushrooms are spongy and filled with tiny pockets of air when raw, they have a tendency to rapidly suck up fat from the moment they first touch it. You’ve possibly experienced this before: You put your mushrooms in a well-oiled hot pan and before you know it the pan has gone bone dry, so you add more fat to prevent scorching and sticking, only to add it all over again after the pan goes dry once more . And then, just as the mushrooms seem like they might begin to properly brown, they start to release their liquid, thwarting your effort yet again. In the worst-case scenario, you end up with a pile of oil-logged mushrooms that you spent too long cooking in multiple batches.
The solution to all of this is to break with tradition and steam your mushrooms first. By putting the mushrooms in a pan and immediately covering it, heat is trapped and builds up rapidly. This, along with an early addition of salt, encourages the mushrooms to release their water in much less time. At the same time, the intense heat of the steam softens the cell structure of the mushrooms, collapsing the internal air pockets. Once the lid comes off, the water can quickly evaporate and the mushrooms are then primed to sauté and brown without sucking up a ton of grease.
The best part? You can cook a large volume of mushrooms without the need to cook in batches—you can just load up the skillet with a hefty amount of mushrooms and cook them all at once. Once their liquid is released and reduced, they will lose more than half of their starting volume, and their flavor will increase by an impressive amount.
Important Steps for Building Flavor
Browning is one of the keys to great sautèed mushroom flavor, but that’s not the only way. While there are many ways to go in terms of flavorings, I like to start by sweating minced shallot in butter before adding the mushrooms, and then finish the mushrooms with finely minced garlic and thyme right at the end of cooking—just long enough to cook the raw flavor out of the garlic and thyme, but not burn them. At the very end, I deglaze the pan with a splash of white wine vinegar mixed with a bit of water to pick up any browned bits stuck to the pan and to give the mushrooms a subtle pop of acidity that perfectly balances their earthiness; no need to worry, it’s a small amount of liquid that will give the mushrooms a final glossy sheen.
But those are just the flavorings I like to use. With this basic technique, you can customize the mushrooms however you wish—use onion instead of shallot, omit the garlic, replace the thyme with another woodsy herb like rosemary, or deglaze with lemon juice instead. If you add a more delicate fresh herb like parsley or chives, I recommend doing it off heat right before serving. What’s important is that with this solid method, perfect sautéed mushrooms are always at your fingertips.
Cut the mushrooms based on the variety used: Stem and halve portobello mushrooms and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Trim white button or cremini mushrooms; quarter them if large or medium (about 1 1/2 to 3-inches in diameter) or halve them if small (about 1 to 1 1/2-inches in diameter). Tear trimmed oyster mushrooms into about 1-inch pieces. Stem shiitake mushrooms; quarter large caps (about 1 1/2- to 3-inches in diameter) and halve small caps (about 1 to 1 1/2-inches in diameter). Cut trimmed maitake (hen-of-the-woods) mushrooms into about 1-pieces.
In a 12-inch skillet, melt 2 tablespoons (25g) butter over medium heat. Add shallot and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add cut mushrooms and salt and increase heat to medium-high. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms have released their liquid, 8 to 10 minutes.
Remove lid, add remaining 2 tablespoons (25g) butter, and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are deep golden brown and tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in thyme and garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add vinegar and water and cook, scraping up any browned bits, until liquid is nearly evaporated, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.
12-inch skillet with lid
This recipe is flexible: You can use a single variety of mushroom or any combination of the mushroom varieties listed.
While I opt for white wine vinegar because it is a pantry-staple for me and offers a fairly neutral pop of acidity, any type of vinegar, such as red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar, can work. You can also use another acid like lemon juice, or even regular dry red or white wine. If substituting wine for the vinegar, use 1/4 cup (60ml) and omit the added water.