Inevitably, if you enjoy foraging wild mushrooms and other foods in general, you will be faced with a quandary
Natures seasonal bounty comes in consistent giant waves, and with many mushrooms, intense intermittent spurts throughout the year. You will, as I have many times in the past, have to figure out what you are going to do with all of your free food. Especially if you have been touched with mushroom fever. One of the easiest and time honored ways of preserving food, especially mushrooms, is drying and dehydrating them.
Wild edibles like ramps, fiddleheads, roots and storage organs have a decent shelf life, perennial greens will be the first to wilt and then deliquesce. The root systems and possible bulbs attached (As in the case of ramps) will outlive the leaves in your fridge, just as they do naturally in nature. Leaves and green things are merely the conduits that pass nutrients to the root structure of the plant so that it may survive, retreating into the ground once it’s fruiting season has passed, where they patiently wait for the next year and a chance to play the reproduction game again. Mushrooms are very different, they’re delicate and almost immediately absorb smells and odors close to them, and have a fleeting shelf life at best, sometimes a day, maybe two in the case of suillus and some older boletes. Thus comes the race to preserve your treasures, to capture and save those moments that you experienced out in nature, and the excitement it brought. You do this so you can piecemeal them out and eat only a little at a time from your stash, hoping that they might last until the next season.
I have spoken on the individuality of each wild mushroom’s flavor and cooking methods a few different times. Their individual drying preferences and needs are varied as well. Morels, as they are hollow, take well to drying, but not near as quickly as a petite yellowfeet chanterelle, or a black trumpet would. Boletes, and slippery jacks in particular if they are to be dried must be attended to very quickly, almost immediately; to preserve them for future use. I have tried to dry and preserve almost every mushroom I have come across, and have been the point man for drying and preserving large quantities of wild mushrooms for a professional restaurant for some time. Drying mushrooms at home isn’t as serious as it is in a professional restaurant, where many many pounds, (this week there was 100lbs of morels that came in) are dealt with, but a few little tips and tricks can save you from possible heartbreak in the event you were out on a very hot or wet day when picking. Here are some important tips I find helpful to remember:
The best way to dehydrate wild mushrooms is to “Desicate” them.
- Desication means dehydrating them without heat. Heat is the enemy of flavor in dried foods and will harm the perfume of mushrooms irreparably if used in excess. Mushrooms dried without heat will have the strongest perfume and aroma possible.
- If you use a dehydrator to preserve your mushrooms, take a close look at the heat settings. When you turn the dehydrator on does the air feel warm? Each dehydrator is different ( I have an antique myself) and if the air at all feels warm on the lowest temp setting, open the door of the dehydrator during the preservation process.
- With delicate mushrooms like slippery jacks, or mushrooms picked in the later stage of their life cycle, the heat created by dehydrators can actually speed up the decomposition process, especially if they do not have proper breathing room.
- If your mushrooms are wet from rain or warm from being in a vehicle, before even thinking about processing, cooking, or cleaning them, lay them out comfortably on a cookie sheet*** and refrigerate them immediately, covered in a slightly moist towel or rag. They need to aerate, cool quickly, and breathe to retain their shelf life. Once they are cooled, you will have the best percentage of success drying them. This should only take half an hour or so in the fridge, or use the freezer if the weather has been particularly warm.
- Slice your mushrooms you intend to dry very thinly, this will help them dry faster and also help them to have a better mouthfeel and texture when rehydrated
- When placing mushrooms in a dehydrator, make sure they do not touch each other, remember they retain heat, and air circulation is key; especially with slippery jacks.
- Drying is a great way to salvage insect damaged mushrooms, or those that may be slightly imperfect if eaten fresh, “a la minute” (Immediately). After they are dehydrated, they can be ground into a flavorful powder that will create bouillons, rich compound butters, rubs and other things that are resourceful, not to mention delicious.
- Mushrooms are done dehydrating when they are *cracker* dry, they should almost be brittle, if there are any in your dried collection that have soft spots still, just leave the top of whatever container you are going to store them open, that way they will continue to aerate. After a week or two you may put the lid back on, and should have no problems.
Why should I dry my mushrooms?
Mushrooms have many different flavors and culinary properties. One of the most interesting experiments is noticing how their flavor intensifies, changes and morphs when dried. Typically the mushrooms flavor is intensified GREATLY, in some cases, this allows us to properly dictate how they should be cooked when fresh as well, as in the case of the sulphur bolete, which gives a smell of coffee and dark cocoa, and will be braised fresh this year with wild boar, then tossed with pasta and bitter shaved chocolate (Per Italian Tradition). Lobster mushrooms on the other hand, reek of shrimp and shellfish when dried, given this, dried and powdered they make wonderful dredges for fish, or as a stand in for a faux lobster vegetarian/vegan soup, see my vegan lobster mushroom bisque recipe HERE.
***Placing a rack on your cookie sheet and putting the mushrooms on it will speed the cooling process by allowing cool air to circulate underneath them as well.
Are My Morels Rotten?
Absolutely, positively, hands down, this is one of the biggest problems I notice when I have been in the homes of other mushroom hunters, and possesses one of the highest volume of searches I have noticed through google regarding wild mushroom preservation. I have been in the garages and man caves where the midwest morel hoards are kept and have witnessed personally the horror that is improper preservation. Smart, intelligent guys excitedly showing me their stashes, screens and blankets set up on sawhorses with morels strewn about, most of them black, soft, and putrid. Seeing someone exited to inadvertently poison their families is a grating feeling. If your morels are dark, if they are soft and wet, if they smell different or foul, if they have been in your fridge for more than a week, you need to inspect them post haste! Here is a picture that will show the 3 stages of morels and their successful and unsuccessful preservation through drying.