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According to On Food and Cooking, mushrooms are about 80-90% water.

It makes sense, then, that when frying the mushrooms I should aim to remove as much of that water as possible. That way, I could actually start "frying" and could begin caramelisation and the Maillard Reaction.

Bon Appetit give that exact advice here:

If you keep the heat low, the mushrooms will just simmer in their liquid. Medium high or high heat will get rid of all that liquid, and will give the mushrooms a nice brown color.

Advice from On Food and Cooking, however, is the exact opposite:

Their flavor is generally most developed and intense when they are cooked slowly with dry heat to allow enzymes some time to work before being inactivated, and to cook out some of their abundant water and concentrate the amino acids, sugars, and aromas.

Which approach will work best for extracting the most flavour from mushrooms: low heat, or high heat? And why?

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  • 2
    What are you trying to cook?
    – rumtscho
    Aug 2 at 10:27
  • 3
    ...hard to argue with McGee.
    – moscafj
    Aug 2 at 10:33
  • 1
    @rumtscho nothing specific - I just want to understand, generally, how to get the most flavour out of mushrooms Aug 2 at 10:51
  • 1
    This makes your question quite unanswerable. Different end products require different methods of cooking, and "getting the most flavor out" depends on what you are making. For example, just the other day, somebody asked how to get the most flavor out of mushrooms while making stock with dried mushroom powder, and my answer was that they should use a pressure cooker - but I would never have advised that if they wanted to make, say, a salad with the mushrooms!
    – rumtscho
    Aug 2 at 11:03
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    @rumtscho that makes sense. To be more specific, I'm frying the mushrooms. Let's say they're a standalone dish. Would that be helpful for you? Aug 2 at 12:15

2 Answers 2

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I am with Bon Appetit on this one, or even more extreme - I always pan-fry mushrooms on the highest heat setting.

For me, the keys for nice, browned mushrooms on a domestic stove are:

  • Use very high heat, and preheat the pan before the first batch.
  • Don't crowd the pan, make a single layer of mushrooms.
  • Use a proper turning/stirring regime. That mostly includes to have the patience to wait for the mushrooms to brown well on one side before flipping them to another.

McGee's advice sounds intriguing, but note that he specifies

with dry heat

At least for me, that is incompatible with the "cooked slowly" suggestion. Whenever I try to pan fry mushrooms on medium or low heat, the water they exude stays around, instead of instantly evaporating the way it does on a hot pan. They just stew around in their own sauce, which makes them soggy, bland, rubbery, and prevents caramelization.

I don't know why it works for McGee; it might be that he has some technique trick I don't know, or maybe he simply leaves mushrooms in a low oven overnight with the intention to produce a kind of undiluted stew, or even to process them further to something marmitey. But for pan-frying, I have never had success with medium or low temperatures.

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    Absolutely this. The main thing with cooking mushroom is keeping the temperature high enough so that water from the mushroom immediately boils away. The pan has to stay dry. You can also listen to their chant as they cook. If you hear it, your pan is just right.
    – Jeffrey
    Aug 2 at 13:58
  • After cooking mushrooms once weekly, I have noticed that the flavour itself get's more concentrated when high heat. I would say even if it's high heat, putting a lid on to concentrate the heat, and adding very little amounts of water when very dry. This produces a KIND of socarrat, but with mushrooms with extreme flavour! But when making stews with mushrooms, I cook them low heat, with liquid, they take longer, but add kind of a nutty flavour and solid denser texture (like when adding a bit of cornstarch to a sauce). I mix it with other veggies so I don't really notice the sogginess if any!
    – M.K
    Aug 4 at 6:23
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While I often cook mushrooms the way @rumtscho does, I wouldn't discount the advice of Harold McGee (refer to top right, p. 346). If you are looking to maximize flavor, it might be worth experimenting with a combination of both techniques. The important point McGee makes is that when heated, the enzymatic action enhances the flavor. Too hot, too soon, and those enzymes don't get a chance to do their flavor thing before the heat inactivates them (same is true in something like a sweet potato, btw). So, to more precisely address your desire to achieve the MOST flavor. It appears you need to maximize enzymatic activity. In this case, I would follow McGee's advice for as long (in terms of cooking time) as possible...depending on your final product. Loss of water, remember, is also concentrating flavor. If you find there is too much, you can always continue to cook, and allow that water to evaporate...or ultimately turn up the heat. Also consider, that different mushrooms (foraged, for example) require different cooking techniques. So you may have to take that into account as well.

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    ...and there's nothing to say that enzymatic action will necessarily produce compounds that taste better than Maillard reactions do. Or, for that matter, that either of these even increases "amount of taste" at all – both add some flavours, but also remove others. In some cases, the most flavour may actually be achieved by not cooking the mushrooms at all but instead freeze-drying them and only adding when the food is almost finished. Aug 3 at 13:13
  • @leftaroundabout...sure "tastes better" is subjective....maximizing flavor and aroma of the mushroom (whether you like the flavor or not) by maximizing enzymatic activity is objective. Freeze drying is interesting, as McGee specifies that it is the damaging of the enzymes that produces the result. Heat (low enough not to inactivate) is only one way to damage those enzymes.
    – moscafj
    Aug 3 at 13:34

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