Sunday, August 1, 2010

Flavour bomb: Powdered mushrooms

It's always a bit awkward when a culture has a word to describe something really basic, but for which we, as English speakers, have no word. Example: umami. The Japanese have aptly come up with a word to describe something we all understand, but sound really silly trying to describe in our own language. Meaty? Savoury? Earthy? Brothy? Slow-cooked? Protein-ey? You know when you start adding on the suffix "ey" where it doesn't belong that you have succeeded in sounding like a complete doofus. I should know, since I do it all the time.

We all know that savoury taste... that, for lack of a better word, "meatiness" that is associated with foods high in glutamates, (yes – natural MSG!) such as tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and, of course, meat. It's just that none of us has ever thought to put a word to it until the Japanese came along and did it for us. Well thank you, once again, Japan! You can add this to the list of awesome stuff you've invented, including ramen noodles and ninja stars. You even chose a word that sounds like "Oooh, Mami!", which is just downright appropriate.

Umami is the newest addition to list of basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It might even be my favourite of the basic tastes. I mean come on – mushrooms, tomatoes, slow-cooked meats, cheese? Cheese?! Yeah, it's definitely my favourite taste. It's no wonder MSG is one of the most common food additives, today. Food is more palatable when it includes an umami element, which is probably why MSG, as a chemical additive, is associated with obesity.

The great news is that you can achieve a toned-down, natural, non-chemical version of that MSG taste in many ways. My favourite shortcut way to add savouriness is with mushrooms. Mushrooms are frequently described with those same descriptors that we use for umami: meaty, earthy... all that good stuff. Dried mushrooms are even more intensely flavoured than their fresh counterparts, so you're getting a double whammy of mushrumami by using them. I like to grind dried mushrooms into a powder using a coffee grinder. From there, just sprinkle them into sauces and stews to add an instant and significant depth of flavour.

Another cool way to use mushroom powder is by mixing it, half-and-half, with a good sea salt. Mushroom salt is killer sprinkled over scrambled eggs. Or dust it onto a steak before searing it. Use it wherever you'd like to inject some insta-flavour.

My favourite mushrooms to powder are porcini and shiitake, but you can use any variety of dried mushroom, such as morels, black trumpets, chanterelles, cepes, lobster or a mixture of several different kinds. Just remember, the stronger they taste, the more of a flavour punch they'll pack. If they're not terribly strong-tasting mushrooms, they won't go very far in flavouring something.

For you mushroom haters: the resulting taste after adding powdered mushroom isn't really all that mushroomy. It almost acts like a powdered bouillon. And there is none of that mushroom texture that seems to freak you all out so much. So just suck it up and try it, OK? OK, good.

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