3 biggest mistakes to avoid when cooking mushrooms

Flimsy, weak mushrooms no more!

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published February 1, 2023 5:30PM (EST)

Hand holding mushrooms (Getty Images/Clover No.7 Photography)
Hand holding mushrooms (Getty Images/Clover No.7 Photography)

Because they provide so much depth and flavor, mushrooms are the starring ingredient in many of my favorite dishes to cook at home. They're also a cornerstone of vegetarian and vegan diets. Why, then, do so many cooks struggle with correctly cooking mushrooms in the kitchen?

I love super buttery, sautéed mushrooms with lots of flaky salt and fresh herbs. I'm talking maybe a whole stick of unsalted butter (or even browned butter), a handful of finely chopped herbs and heaps of rich, deeply flavored, earthy mushrooms of different varieties.

I've been cooking with mushrooms for a long time, everything from mushroom pastas and soups to the super-crispy roasted mushrooms my mom asks for with her steak. No matter which way you decide to cook mushrooms, though, there are three important factors to keep in mind.

To guide you, I developed this primer on how to cook mushrooms at home. Whether you're using cremini, oyster, portobello, white button or practically any other variety, these techniques are all applicable. If you're looking to master mushrooms — especially when it comes to sautéeing them — here's a rundown of the most important mistakes to avoid.

How to clean and prepare mushrooms

When it comes to cooking mushrooms, the key variables to consider are heat, pan size and salt. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's first review how to clean and prepare this vegetable.

As with most produce, you'll want to begin with the freshest product imaginable. If the mushrooms you pull out of the fridge are a bit slimy or foul-smelling, don't take the risk and just discard them instead.

I love super buttery, sautéed mushrooms with lots of flaky salt and fresh herbs.

Don't put the mushrooms under running water or throw them into a colander for a wash. Because mushrooms are uber-porous, they'll soak up lots of that now-dirty water. Simply clean the mushrooms with a slightly dampened paper towel or cloth, removing as much grit, soil and grime as possible. Finally, make sure they're as dry as can be before you put them in a hot pan.

If you're preparing fresh morel mushrooms, you'll use a slightly different cleaning approach. This type of mushroom is soaked, while others are not.

How to cook mushrooms

1. Heat

Don't be spooked by high-heat cooking if you're planning to use the stovetop. Many foods will only turn out the way you'd like them to if you're willing to cook or sear them over high heat. This is the case for almost any type of mushroom.

I don't love thinly sliced mushrooms; since there's less surface area there, they don't take to heat as well as thickly-sliced mushrooms or quartered mushrooms. They're more likely to turn out flaccid and flimsy instead of crisp and brown. No matter how you cut your mushrooms, though, always grab a very sharp knife and a stabilized cutting board.

2. Pan size

When they're ready to cook, reach for a pan or skillet that seems like it might be too big. You'll need lots of room for properly cooked mushrooms. Cast iron is great, but practically any pan works.

Next, warm up some sort of cooking fat before adding the mushrooms to the pan. Because they're super porous, the mushrooms will soak up some of the cooking fat. I tend to like using high-quality, unsalted butter and not a flavorless oil.

When you're ready to add the mushrooms to the pan, make sure they're in a single layer with little-to-no overlap, or else they'll steam. Cook them in batches, if need be, but don't overcrowd the pan, or the mushrooms will never brown properly. Also, remember that you're going to be cooking over (at least) medium-high heat here.

3. Salt

This is the big one: Do not salt the mushrooms too early in the cooking process.

Salting too early often draws out too much of the inherent moisture or liquid, which can be a bit overwhelming if you're a mushroom newbie making a large batch. (You might end up asking Alexa if it's normal for mushrooms to give off so much water.) The liquid will seep out on its own over the course of the beginning of the cooking process, but adding salt will speed up that process and practically fill up your skillet with mushroom water.

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A common-sense approach is to generally avoid salting mushrooms until they've been perfectly caramelized and crisped. You essentially want to cook them until the water has been released and evaporated or reduced, at which point the mushroom flavor should be doubly concentrated and the 'shrooms should begin to brown.

Keep in mind that it's quite literally impossible for mushrooms to crisp or brown if they're sitting in a puddle of liquid and the heat isn't high enough. Don't disturb the mushrooms much; let them cook, brown and caramelize without being stirred about throughout the cooking process (something that really holds true for most foods). The moisture should evaporate on its own, which will also help embolden and deepen the intrinsic mushroom flavor even further.

Final thoughts

At the end of the cooking process, once the mushrooms have reached your desired color and texture and the pan is relatively dry, it's finally time to season them with salt. For best results, I recommend reaching for flaky salt.

I think mushrooms are amazing on their own, or perhaps with butter and herbs, but some are fans of adding sherry or wine. Others even opt for vinegar or sauces like Worcestershire or fish sauce. As I always like to say, it's your kitchen, so season according to your own tastes.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Food How-to Mushrooms Vegetables Vegetarian