Dried mushrooms are often listed as an essential pantry item by many accomplished cooks. They may not be right there on top with olive oil and sacks of rice but they usually hold their own somewhere in the middle, especially if you cook Asian or European cuisines. Dried mushrooms can be pricy, but they pack a lot of flavor. Once the mushrooms are soaked, strained, and chopped, even just a small amount will add enormous flavor to a dish. Here's how to make the most of your dried mushrooms.
Once an exotic, somewhat obscure item, dried mushrooms are easily available in many grocery stores these days. They fall roughly into two categories: Asian mushrooms like shiitake, wood ear, cloud ear, and matsutake, and European/American mushrooms like porcini, morel, trumpet, and chanterelle. Their quality, flavor, and amount of grit can vary considerably. Price is often a good guide as the pricier versions tend to be of higher quality and lower grit. Purchase your mushrooms from a reliable source or find a brand that you can rely on for quality. They will last a very long time — a year, if not more — if kept in a well-sealed container.
Dried mushrooms need to be reconstituted with water before you can use them, and this produces two wonderful things: the mushrooms themselves and their flavorful soaking liquid. Both can be used in soups, stews, sauces, pâtés, and gratins. Often dried mushrooms are used in conjunction with not-so-flavorful button mushrooms to give them a boost. Dried mushrooms add a rich, meaty, savory note and are high in umami.
One of the big challenges with dried mushrooms is grit. Dried mushrooms are notoriously gritty and it only takes the tiniest amount of it to ruin a whole dish. Some people have even given up on dried mushrooms due to the fact that they can't seem to get the grit out. Soaking as we explain here will remove the majority of it, and rinsing, too, will often take care of the rest.
Cheap and low-grade mushrooms tend to have more grit, and the amount of grit can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, depending on how they handle the mushrooms. Ask around, find a brand you like and stick with them.
The best way to reconstitute dried mushrooms is to simply soak them in water. Many recipes call for hot or warm water but it isn't always necessary to use hot water. Room temperature water will also soften the mushrooms and many people believe it extracts less of the flavor from the mushrooms, leaving more mushroomy flavor right there in the mushroom where it belongs.
I experimented for this post and reconstituted 2 batches of thinly sliced, dried porcinis, 1/2 ounce each, taken from the same packet. One batch was soaked in hot water and the other in room temperature water, both for 1/2 hour. The results were interesting: I found that not only did the mushrooms soften almost as quickly in room temperature water as they did in hot water, but the room temp mushrooms did indeed hang onto more flavor. The batch of mushrooms softened in hot water were less flavorful and their soaking broth was significantly darker.
Porcinis soaked in hot water (left) and porcinis soaked in room temperature water (right)
I have not yet tested this with thicker dried mushrooms, like whole shiitake caps, which I suspect would take a little longer to soften in room temp water. Andrea Nguyen has a wonderful post on her blog Viet World Kitchen which talks about giving shiitakes a long slow soak (8 hours or more) to encourage mushrooms that are "deeply flavored, amazingly firm and velvety when cut."
Bottom line: Start your mushrooms soaking as the first step in your recipe and use room temperature water. Use hot water for thickly sliced or capped mushrooms only if you are in a hurry.
Some people don't rinse their mushrooms after soaking because they believe that the flavor gets washed away. Others swear that the mushrooms should be rinsed as there is often residual grit. I'm in agreement with the rinsers here. I give my soaked mushrooms a good rinse under running water to remove any hidden, stubborn grit and I haven't noticed a change in flavor. I always taste one, too, before adding it to my dish, just to be sure.
The Flavorful Broth
No matter if you use hot or cool water, the mushrooms will produce a dark, flavorful broth that should not be tossed away. Often it can be used in the recipe you are soaking the mushrooms for but be careful: the flavor is strong and can overwhelm the dish. If you don't want to use it right away, store it in a covered container in the refrigerator for several days or freeze it for even longer.
Much of the mushroom's grit is released into the soaking water and will have fallen to the bottom of the bowl. You do not want to add this grit to your dish so either pour it carefully out, leaving the heavier grit in the bowl or strain your broth through a coffee filter or paper towel. I like to strain it: that way I am sure all the grit is left behind.
Pour off and reserve the soaking water, being sure that you leave behind any grit.
How To Work with Dried Mushrooms
What You Need
Dried mushrooms, any amount and any variety
Room temperature water (See Recipe Note)
2 bowls or jars big enough to hold the mushrooms and water
Coffee filter or paper towel
- Measure the mushrooms: Most recipes call for dried mushrooms to be measured in weight. Weigh the mushrooms, then place them in a bowl.
- Cover the mushrooms with water: Cover generously with water and gently push on the mushrooms to submerge them into the water.
- Soak your mushrooms: Soaking time will vary depending on the size and thickness of the mushrooms. Most thinly sliced mushrooms will be rehydrated in 20 to 30 minutes. Thicker and whole cap mushrooms may take a little longer — you can rush this a bit by soaking them in hot water. Mushrooms are ready to use when they have softened all the way through.
- Remove the mushrooms from the liquid: When the mushrooms are soft, lift them from the water using your fingers or a spoon, squeezing them lightly to remove as much water as possible.
- Rinse the mushrooms: Taste a mushroom. If you detect any grittiness, you'll need to rinse them. Place the mushrooms in a strainer and run them under the faucet for several seconds, tossing them and making sure all the grit is gone. Your mushrooms are now ready for your recipe.
- Strain the soaking liquid: Place the strainer over the second bowl and line with a coffee filter or paper towel. Pour the soaking liquid into the strainer and allow it to drain through. Discard the filter. Use the soaking liquid in your recipe or store in the refrigerator in a covered container for about one week (or freeze for up to 3 months).
• Faster Rehydrated Mushrooms: If you're in a hurry, use warm or hot water to soak your mushrooms. Your mushrooms will soften more quickly, but more of their flavor will be extracted into the soaking water.
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(Image credits: Dana Velden)