PRACTICE: Miraculous Mushrooms
I spent the better part of my thirties absolutely obsessed with mushrooms. During those years, I taught myself to cultivate a variety of edible species, learned to forage edibles safely and capably, and even earned a master’s degree in biology with a focus in mycology. But back then my passion for fungi was a nerdy, niche activity, something I had to keep to myself out of mild shame or explain in exhaustive detail to justify.
Now, with scores of people growing mushrooms at home or learning to forage for them in the wild, it seems like mycology has crossed over into the mainstream. (Another bit of evidence: at Halloween last year, I saw loads of mushroom getups, when I don’t think I’d seen any previously.) And it’s about time, because mushrooms and other fungi are amazing things that everyone needs to know more about.
For starters, life on land might not exist without fungi, which are essential for breaking down organic matter, turning dead plants and animals into rich soil. Many fungi are delicious, and essential for making bread, wine, soy sauce, and much more. And certain mushrooms can alter consciousness in profound and beneficial ways, including extraordinary promise as treatment for depression and PTSD. (While the US government remains way behind the times, many municipalities — my own among them — have decriminalized psilocybin-containing mushrooms for personal use in recent years.)
You don’t need to ingest psychoactive fungi to derive health benefits from mushrooms. Mushrooms are low in calories and relatively high in both fiber and protein. They contain many essential nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin D, and minerals like selenium, potassium, and copper. There is increasing evidence that eating certain mushrooms can improve health, whether through boosting the immune system, preventing cancer, or promoting beneficial gut bacteria, to name just a few examples. And—perhaps most importantly—mushrooms serve as a satisfying and far more healthful substitute for meat.
Though my involvement with fungi these days is mostly related to using yeast to ferment grains for bread, my love of mushrooms has not waned since those days of mycomania. I still forage, cook, and eat them regularly. And I still have a deep respect for fungi, both because they are in many ways responsible for my new career, and simply because they are amazing organisms.
In the kitchen, one way that I use mushrooms regularly is in mushroom confit, a recipe I have made for more than a decade. Not only is it delicious and versatile in its uses, it is also an excellent means of preserving mushrooms, whether foraged in the wild, homegrown, or plucked from the shelves of your local H-Mart.
It’s entirely agnostic as to which kinds of mushrooms one should put into it. Mushrooms such as chanterelles or morels are best used here solo, if possible, so that their distinctive flavors remain at the forefront. Other varieties may be combined however you like, and i have yet to meet a mushroom that does *not* benefit from this treatment.
A confit is anything cooked gently in fat, usually with the purpose of preservation—of which duck confit is the most well-known example. That confit is made by cooking duck legs and thighs in the duck’s own copious fat; as mushrooms are essentially fat-free, this confit is instead made using olive oil. Cooking mushrooms in this way twice transforms them. First because the long, slow cooking gently draws out and drives off a substantial amount of the water they contain—fresh mushrooms being some 90% water—which intensifies both their intrinsic flavor and meaty texture. Secondly, the addition of fat lends them a welcome unctuousness that—being lean—they would otherwise lack.
The recipe itself is simple: You first start by tearing or slicing the mushrooms into bite-sized pieces and then let them sit for a half hour in a Dutch oven with a light coating of salt to help draw out the moisture they contain. You then cover them with olive oil (only partially, because they reduce in volume considerably by the time they are fully cooked), add whole garlic cloves, herbs, and spices, and transfer the pot to a 275˚F oven to cook for a few hours, stirring occasionally to keep the mushroom pieces evenly coated. The confit is done when the mushroom pieces have shrunken in size by about a third and have darkened in color (though exactly by how much in either case depends somewhat upon the mushroom species in question). Once cooled to room temperature, the confit goes into the fridge for up to 10 days, or the freezer for 2 months.
As for the confit’s uses, they are nearly limitless. Used as is, it is my preferred form of mushroom as a pizza topping or pasta add-in, and it is excellent stirred into garlicky sautéed greens, or folded into an omelet or scrambled eggs.
You can also quickly pulse the confit in a food processor to a coarse purée, converting it into something akin to a mushroom tapenade, which is excellent spooned over crusty bread or crackers, perhaps along with a funky cheese, or used (again) with pasta, pizza, greens, and eggs. Or blitz it longer until fully smooth, after which it can serve as a sauce—with or without the addition of a little cream or crème fraîche—for pasta or pizza, or simply for spooning onto toast.
The flavor profile of this confit—with olive oil, rosemary, and thyme—is decidedly Mediterranean, which does limit its uses somewhat. But the cooking *technique* is universal, and I routinely make a more “neutral” version by using vegetable oil in place of olive, and either leave out the other seasonings—aside from the salt, which is essential—entirely, or swap them out for other combinations (ginger, garlic, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorn, perhaps?). Unflavored or Asian-inflected confited mushrooms make excellent additions to stir-fries, noodles, or fried rice.
Try it! Will it save your life? I can't say. But it will change your life — particularly the flavor of your meals — significantly, and for the better.
RECIPE: Mushroom Confit
PRACTICE is an ongoing series of columns about home cooking as an expression of wellbeing.