The absolute best way to brown mushrooms, according to so many tests

How to produce crisp, mahogany-colored mushrooms swathed in butter

By Ella Quittner
March 30, 2021 2:30PM (UTC)
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Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. Food stylist: Monica Pierini (Linda Xiao / Food52)

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In Absolute Best TestsElla Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and roasted more broccoli than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles mushrooms.

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On Sep. 19, 1991, Helmut and Erika Simon — two German tourists traversing the eastern ridge of the Fineilspitze peak in the Ötztal Alps — stumbled upon something unexpected: a dead man.

He was roughly five feet and three inches tall, and he had been completely frozen to the ground. The Simons assumed they'd discovered a fellow hiker who had met a tragic fate. It wasn't until Professor Konrad Spindler and a team of colleagues from Innsbruck University in Austria arrived by helicopter that the body could be aged: Ötzi, as the frozen man was dubbed, had been lying in the icy snow for some 5,300 years.

Alongside Ötzi, researchers found a copper ax, two baskets, a quiver of arrows, a longbow, several berries, and two mushrooms — making Ötzi's spoils one of the earliest documented incidences of edible mushrooms.

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Other especially early accounts include a 13,000-year-old archaeological site in Chile, throughout which species of mushrooms were found among other comestibles, and records of mushrooms in China that date back to at least 200 to 300 BCE.

All of which is to say: Fungi have been making the rounds for a long time, both as medicine and as food. Today, we know of some 10,000 types of edible mushrooms, and at least that many ways to prepare them; a Google search for "how to cook mushrooms" returns a daunting 286 million results. (And that doesn't even include Ötzi's method, which was "raw, threaded through with a leather string.")

Enter browning, one subset of mushroom cookery narrow enough for head-to-head analysis. For this Absolute Best Tests shroom spotlight, I have tackled the best way to produce crisp, mahogany-colored mushrooms swathed in butter. Which, incidentally, is a phrase I whisper to myself each night as I'm falling asleep. Moving along . . .

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Controls and Fine Print

For each trial, I used:

  • 1/2 pound cremini (aka baby bella) mushrooms, washed, dried, and sliced about 1/3-inch thick
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

In the Stovetop (Butter + Oil) method and Oven Fry method, I also used 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil.

A note on salt timing: I pored over lots of conflicting advice online before deciding to season afterthe mushrooms were cooked, to avoid a liquidy pileup at the beginning that could inhibit browning. (The only exception was the Oven Fry method, wherein salt was included in the breading.)

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Tests and Findings

Stovetop (Hot Pan)

Adapted from Josh Cohen's Mushrooms with Caramelized Shallots and Fresh Thyme.

  1. Set a skillet or wok over high heat.
  2. Add 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter. When the foam has subsided, add enough sliced cremini mushrooms to fill the pan in a single even layer, with some room in between. (It's critical not to overcrowd, which will steam the mushrooms and inhibit crisping.)
  3. Sear until the bottoms of the mushrooms begin to turn caramel-brown and develop a crust. Stir and continue to sear until the mushrooms are browned all over, with crispy bits around their edges.
  4. Transfer the cooked mushrooms to a plate, then repeat with the rest of the mushrooms (using 1/2 pound total) until all have been cooked.
  5. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, plus more to taste if needed.

Call me a crayon novice, but I didn't know burnt orange until I met these seared boys. They were easily the most beautiful, and the most flavorful — in fact, a few days after testing, my boyfriend lost most of his sense of taste (mild COVID!), and these shrooms were literally the only food in our home from which he could discern flavor. (Yes, we spent many hours testing other items! No, it did not make the time pass more quickly!)

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The Stovetop (Hot Pan) mushrooms didn't lose a ton of volume while cooking, and the resulting texture read to the palate almost like bites of steak. The flavor was more woodsy than earthy, closer to cedar than it was to soil.

Stovetop (Butter + Oil)

Adapted from Julia Child's Sautéed Mushrooms.

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  1. Set a skillet or wok over high heat.
  2. Add 3 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil. When the foam has subsided, add enough sliced cremini mushrooms to fill the pan in a single even layer, with some room in between. (It's critical not to overcrowd, which will steam the mushrooms and inhibit crisping.)
  3. Sauté for 6 to 8 minutes, until they're golden brown. Transfer the cooked mushrooms to a plate, then repeat with the rest of the mushrooms (using 1/2 pound total) until all have been cooked.
  4. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt, plus more to taste if needed.

The Stovetop (Butter + Oil) mushrooms had a bit more depth than the Stovetop (Hot Pan) batch, since they were cooked with oil in addition to butter. But I actually preferred the Stovetop (Hot Pan) mushrooms cooked only in butter, because there was no competition of flavors to overshadow the inherent earthiness of the shrooms. That said, Stovetop (Butter + Oil) mushrooms were slightly crispier than Stovetop (Hot Pan) mushrooms, so if you're after acutely seared edges, you might consider doubling up on types of fat.

Stovetop (No Fat)

Adapted from The Kitchn.

  1. Set a skillet or wok over high heat for about 3 minutes, until it's nice and hot. Add enough sliced cremini mushrooms to fill the pan in a single even layer, with some room in between. (It's critical not to overcrowd, which would steam the mushrooms and inhibit crisping.)
  2. Sear for about 3 minutes without moving them. Flip and sear another 3-ish minutes on the other side. Continue to sear, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned and have shrunk to about half their size.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium. Continue to cook about 6 to 10 more minutes, until the mushrooms are browned to a mahogany, with crispy edges. Transfer the cooked mushrooms to a plate, then repeat with the rest of the mushrooms (using 1/2 pound total) until all have been cooked.
  4. Cut the heat and toss with 3 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste.

These Stovetop (No Fat) mushrooms do get tossed with butter, eventually — but The Kitchn swears by a dry-pan method of searing, claiming that "the high heat browns the mushrooms while instantly driving off excess moisture." These mushrooms did initially get far crispier than some of the other batches, but with two main faults. One: They later became limp when doused in melted butter. (Note: I used more than called for in the recipe to be consistent with my trials, so this is on me.) And two: Any crispiness gains were at the expense of flavor. Cooking with no fat then tossing with melted butter at the end meant the fat's flavor was less developed than it could have been. Also, the mushrooms absorbed less of the butter since it was added off the heat, which meant the final product was a bit greasy. If I were trying this method again, I would brown the butter first to boost flavor development, and I would use less butter — a sentiment I truly never thought I would express.

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Broiler

Adapted from Marian Burros' Broiled Portobello Mushrooms.

  1. Heat the broiler.
  2. Toss 1/2 pound of sliced cremini mushrooms with 3 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter on a sheet pan.
  3. Broil until golden and crisp, flipping midway through, 5 to 8 minutes total.
  4. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, plus more to taste if needed.

These shrooms had the least shrinkage of all the shrooms, which is a new tongue twister I'm actively promoting. But also, good for them, retaining volume! The downside, of course, was an underdeveloped, less concentrated flavor. Another knock was that these Broiler mushrooms required continuous monitoring to catch them before they went from beautifully browed to blackened. But they were tender and had spots of char, so they'd be a good stand-in for grilled mushrooms during cold months.

Oven Roast

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Adapted from Food Network.

  1. Heat the oven to 450°F.
  2. Toss 1/2 pound of sliced cremini mushrooms with 3 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter on a sheet pan.
  3. Roast until golden and crisp, 12 to 18 minutes.
  4. Season with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste if needed.

I've been really trying to avoid using the word "mushroomy," but here's where I'll throw in the towel. These mushrooms were the most mushroomy of all the batches, with a strong, meaty flavor, and a middle-of-the-pack crispness. These had a more intense flavor than the Stovetop (Hot Pan)mushrooms, though they lacked some of the butteriness, as though the fat weren't quite as well absorbed. They also shrunk by only about a third.

Air Fryer

  1. Heat the air fryer to 375°F.
  2. Toss 1/2 pound of sliced cremini mushrooms with 3 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter.
  3. Air fry until browned and crisp, about 15 minutes, shaking halfway through.
  4. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, plus more to taste if needed.

I would love to say this method is incredibly easy, but that would omit the part of the narrative where I had to lug a borrowed air fryer 20 blocks. If you already own an air fryer, this method is incredibly easy! The resulting mushrooms shrunk by about half (shocking to behold!!!), and got a slight crisp going on their exteriors, with more internal chew than any other method. Notably, they had a super-concentrated flavor with the tiniest notes of sweetness.

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Oven Fry

Adapted from Judy Hesser's Oven-Fried Chicken.

  1. Heat the oven to 450°F.
  2. Put 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a large cast-iron skillet and immediately place in the oven while it heats.
  3. Toss 1/2 pound of sliced cremini mushrooms with 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, then shake in a zip-top bag with 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt.
  4. Carefully remove the skillet from the oven. Shake off any excess flour as you remove the mushroom pieces from the bag. Place in a single, uncrowded layer in the skillet. Fry for 5 to 7 minutes, until the bottoms are crisp and browned, then flip and fry another 4 to 6 minutes until browned on the other side.

I would eat an oven-fried shoe. I love this technique, which requires a few extra steps, but produces crusty, crunchy specimens that are halfway to a full meal (they'd make excellent taco subjects or salad toppers). I suspect that a similar breading and deep-frying would have worked wonders, too.

The Oven Fry mushrooms were actually not as visibly browned as some other batches, but because of their flour coating, they were quite crisp. Given the constraints of these trials, I seasoned the breading only with salt, but it's easy to see how the Oven Fry mushrooms could really shine with spices, grated cheese, panko, or almost any other flavorful or crispy addition to their shells.

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TL;DR

  • All-Around Best: Stovetop (Hot Pan) and Oven Roast
  • Crispiest: Stovetop (Butter + Oil)
  • Most Concentrated Flavor: Air Fryer
  • Delicious Wild Card: Oven Fry

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