Crowd the Pan: A Genius, Calmer Way to Cook Mushrooms

June 22, 2016

Most of the time, cooking mushrooms is the story of trying to understand—of texture management, shrinkage, and wait… where did all the butter go?

If you’re looking for classic sautéed mushrooms, Julia Child’s no-nonsense method will coax you through all this—hot butter, dry mushrooms, and an uncrowded pan are the keys.

But say you want to cook a lot of mushrooms at once, really outrun the shrinkage. Or to be less active in your cooking, and less hot. Then Alex Raij, chef-owner at Txikito, El Quinto Pino, La Vara, and Tekoá has a more scalable, meditative approach, with just as compelling an outcome: Cover all your mushrooms in olive oil with salt and a bit of smashed garlic in a big pot, then let them cook as slowly as you can until they’re tender.

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What kind of mushrooms, you ask? “I like oyster mushrooms but any are good, even button,” Raij wrote me. “All of them shrink a bit so ‘buy big’ so you aren't splitting peas.”

She calls these setas confitadas, or confited mushrooms, in her new cookbook The Basque Book, or you could rightly call the technique oil-poaching, as my friend Marian Bull did when she recently wrote about it over on The Awl.

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Top Comment:
“How long do these oil poached mushrooms keep?”
— Grammymem

It’s for the days when you want to listen to Simon and Garfunkel in the kitchen, not DeBarge (just me?). When you want to let your mind wander, and tend to anything else, while the mushrooms blurp quietly in the background. (This, as Raij points out, it actually not the oil simmering—it’s the mushrooms’ internal moisture slowly releasing as they soften and condense.)

Setas confitadas won’t have the brown, crispy faces of more active mushroom sauté-ery, but they inherit a richness that frames the mushroom flavor just as sweetly. Marian dug up some fascinating intel on the gentle touch of oil-poaching compared to regular water-poaching from J. Kenji López-Alt's The Food Lab, “A cup of water at a given temperature (say, 140°F) will have nearly three times more energy in it than a cup of oil at the same temperature.”

As a result of this lower-energy cooking, the mushrooms will be luscious and tender but still hold their own. They won’t be sodden in oil, though there will be enough present that they’ll taste even moister, and you’ll want to balance all that out with a bit of lemon, fresh herbs, sherry vinegar, that sort of thing.

Since we’re used to doling out olive oil by the tablespoonful, using this much at once will probably make you squirm. But you’re not wasting it—at least I hope you’re not: This mushroom- and garlic-scented oil is as much a reason for making the recipe as the mushrooms themselves are. The oil will be a head start on more adventures—frying eggs or more mushrooms, searing greens or chicken thighs, mixing new dressings and sauces. Marian suggests making mushroom aioli (oh hi, steak sandwiches), which will move you through your stash even more quickly.

When I first tried the mushrooms at Txikito, they were sliced thinly and plated carpaccio-style, dressed with more olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and parsley. I’ve since made plenty of my own, sticking them in grilled cheeses and quesadillas, soft scrambled eggs and herby pastas. I’ve warmed a few in the meaty juices left in the skillet while my steaks were resting, and dropped others as a lush wink on a cleansing plate of crudités. But the easiest and most natural way to serve them is on top of toast, like in The Basque Book and, now, here.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by Linda Xiao

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

1 Comment

Grammymem June 26, 2016
How long do these oil poached mushrooms keep?