Looking for something new to barbecue? You'll love big cluster mushrooms cooked low and slow with this innovative press-and-sear technique.
If you love the taste of meat, you probably like the taste of mushrooms, too. Meat and mushrooms have some of the same minerals and flavor compounds, giving them a similar savory taste. The Japanese call it “umami” or deliciousness. But unlike meat, mushrooms contain 90% water, which dilutes the flavor.
An innovative press-and-sear technique capitalizes on that flavor. I first came across this technique while working with chefs Chad Sarno and Derek Sarno on The Wicked Healthy Cookbook. (Full disclosure: I helped these badass brothers write the book, and I fell in love with their recipes.) The genius of the press-and-sear technique is not only that it evaporates water and concentrates the flavor and texture of mushrooms, it also creates a deep, brown sear which amps up the meaty taste even more.
I asked the chefs how they first came up with this technique. “I live in Austin,” said Chad Sarno, “and I love smoky food like smoked jalapenos and smoky BBQ sauces.” Brother Derek agreed, “It’s about enjoying all the decadence of smoky BBQ with mushrooms. After I moved from Austin to Portland, Oregon, I saw giant mushrooms everywhere. I started doing this press-and-sear technique at home and found so many uses for it.”
The book is full of recipes using the technique, and my favorite is Barbecued Maitake Steaks. This recipe gives avid backyard chefs something new to barbecue, and by that I mean low and slow smoking. It also gives you something to really satisfy the vegetarians and vegans at your next outdoor gathering. The mushrooms taste fantastic. If you love meat, don’t be surprised if you find yourself nibbling on and enjoying these barbecued mushrooms, too.
It’s amazing how these barbecued mushrooms end up looking like a smoked brisket or flank steak. The key is to use a big cluster mushroom like maitake (a.k.a. hen of the woods). You press and sear the whole cluster in a heavy skillet, which flattens it out into a steak-like shape and gives the mushroom a super satisfying chew. After pressing and during barbecuing, you can scatter or slather whatever rub and sauce you like all over the ‘shrooms. Just like you would with a hunk of meat.
Brown It and Smoke It
Here’s how Chad and Derek Sarno describe the technique and why they use it so often. “We love flavor and texture, and we developed this press-and-sear technique to intensify the taste and texture of mushrooms. It makes them super dense and meaty. The flavor comes from driving off some water and concentrating the natural savory or ‘umami’ taste of mushrooms. It also comes from searing and browning the mushrooms. We think that browning is the single most important technique to making food taste better than it already does. It’s the first thing you do in most cooking. Brown onions in a pan. Roast vegetables in a hot oven. Toast spices. It’s an absolutely essential technique because it creates new flavors in the food that were not there before. New flavors! When onions cook in a pan and go from white to gold to amber to deep brown, they get more and more flavorful because the natural sugar caramelizes. The darker the color, the deeper the flavor. Browning can happen in a hot pan, a hot oven, under a hot broiler, or on a hot grill. Either way, the process creates those aromatic and savory caramelized flavors that we recognize as GBD: golden brown and delicious.
A little fat on the surface of mushrooms helps them brown more evenly. The fat seeps into all the nooks and crannies and delivers heat to all areas of the food for more thorough browning—and deeper flavor. You only need a thin film of oil. Our favorite method is to simply rub some oil in our hands, then massage the mushrooms with the oil so they’re evenly coated all over.
Another layer of flavor here comes from the char and smoke of the grill or smoker. Charring is an extreme form of browning, and it tastes incredibly good. Char is what’s exciting about the blistered crust on a pizza and the grill marks on zucchini. Don’t be afraid to burn it a little. A little goes a long way because the flavor is so intense and concentrated. A hot charcoal or wood grill is our favorite method of introducing some char. The advantage of a grill (over, say, a broiler) is that it also adds smoke flavor. Smoke is yet another layer of flavor to add to your food. Smoke comes from wood, so grill with hardwood charcoal whenever possible—or better yet, wood chips or chunks. Even an inexpensive charcoal kettle grill can add great smoke flavor. There’s just something primal about char and smoke that makes us salivate.”
Make It Chewy
The chefs went on to describe how the press-and-sear technique improves the chewiness of mushrooms. “Here’s one of the more elusive food textures—and one of the most satisfying. Humans like to chew. That’s why chewing gum is so popular! Think of the chewy crust on a perfect pizza or the al dente texture of perfectly cooked pasta. It’s just so satisfying to sink your teeth into it. Good whole-grain bread also has that chew, and so does dried fruit like apricots, raisins, dates, and dried figs. We developed the press-and-sear method, in part, to get more chew out of mushrooms. It brings awesome chew to all kinds of mushrooms. Once pressed and seared, you can just serve the chewy mushrooms with your favorite sauce and a knife and fork, or you can slice up the ‘shrooms and slap into a sandwich, or skewer them and serve them with a dip."
Press-and-Sear Mushrooms: The Technique in Detail
Clearly, these guys love mushrooms. They explained their technique like this, "Ok, we admit it. We love ’shrooms. They are the meat of the plant world and one of the best sources of savory umami flavor. And they are infinitely improved by the press-and-sear technique. This 'patented' Wicked Healthy cooking method is pretty simple and has a big WOW! factor. Just heat up a cast-iron pan or other heavy pan until it’s wicked hot. Then rub the mushrooms all over with vegetable oil. Or if you don’t like to get dirty, add a thin film of oil to the pan. Then add as many mushrooms or mushroom clusters as you can fit in the pan.
Put a second heavy pan or a foil-wrapped brick or other heavy weight on top of the ’shrooms and press them down, searing them in the pan. When they’re good and browned on the bottom, flip the ’shrooms and season the browned side with a little salt, pepper, or other seasonings.
Then repeat the process, flipping and seasoning the other browned side. The mushrooms will get crispy and browned on both sides; the water will evaporate, which concentrates the flavor; and the heavy weight compresses the mushrooms, which concentrates the texture and makes them wicked dense and chewy. From there, you can eat the ’shrooms straight up with sauce or marinate and barbecue them later."
This press-and-sear method works with any mushroom from plain white button mushrooms to big chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms. The chefs especially love what it does to lion’s mane and maitake mushrooms. Check out the Barbecued Maitake Steaks recipe here. Seriously, try them. This cooking method will change the way you think about mushrooms. For more recipes using this method, including Lion’s Mane Street Tacos and King Satay with Spicy Peanut Ginger Sauce, have a look at The Wicked Healthy Cookbook.
This article is adapted with permission from The Wicked Healthy Cookbook by Chad Sarno, Derek Sarno, and David Joachim (Grand Central Life & Style, 2018). Photographs © 2018 by Eva Kosmas Flores.