I’ve always loved the comfort and richness of Italian food. But when it came to preparing it, I knew I was missing one of the most important components: an Italian family to teach me the ins and outs of the cuisine.
So, in lieu of taking an extended trip to Italy, I went out and got a job at a small Italian restaurant. The owner, a native of Naples, was more like an Italian Gordon Ramsay than the doting, surrogate grandmother I was hoping for, but it was undeniable: The woman could cook. Her chicken saltimbocca and tiramisu were amazing, but her antipasto platters were my favorite. And there, nestled among the grilled calamari and fire-roasted red peppers were the stars of the dish: the marinated mushrooms.
Up to this point, my experiences with marinated mushrooms had been mediocre at best. They had always fit into one of two categories: raw mushrooms dunked in bottled Italian dressing masquerading as a marinade, or shriveled, soggy sponges that tasted entirely like oil.
But these were different. A quick sauté softened and browned the mushrooms’ edges so they achieved that elusive combination of tender and firm. Shallots and white wine vinegar added a sweet tanginess that complemented the mushrooms’ meaty, earthy centers. And after sitting in a Mason jar for three or four days with fresh herbs and garlic cloves, they were also pungent and savory.
So now, long after I’ve hung up my chef’s coat and survived my last dinner rush, I’ve still got a tasty reminder of my time at the Italian restaurant: A marinated mushroom recipe that I can easily prepare at home (with or without the Italian heritage).
Note: These mushrooms will taste better the longer they get to marinate. I like to gauge the flavor improvement by giving them a taste (or two or three) every day. You know, for research purposes. Day four is the farthest I’ve gotten (I need to start making bigger batches), but the marinade goes a long way. The flavored oil and vinegar combination makes a great dip for warm, crusty bread.
Everything in this recipe cooks quickly, so I make sure all the ingredients are prepared ahead of time. I’ve found that the easiest way to make a simple recipe difficult is to prepare it while running around the kitchen measuring vinegar and mincing herbs at the last minute.
It’s important to wait until the oil and pan are hot enough before adding the mushrooms. The best indicator is seeing the oil start to shimmer and move quickly around the pan when it’s shaken. I like to use this trick to determine whether or not the oil’s hot enough: I add a mushroom or two to the pan. If it sizzles, I add the rest of them. If it doesn’t, I wait another few seconds until it does.
I like to make sure all of the mushrooms are cut-side down when they first hit the pan. It simplifies keeping track of their browning because it’s easier to see the edges brown than it is to see the upside-down mushroom caps get color. Also, when I turn the mushrooms over with tongs, it’s easier to know which have been flipped over and which haven’t: If they’re still cut-side down, they still have to be flipped.
Make sure the mushrooms cover the pan in one layer. (If the pan’s overcrowded, the mushrooms will steam instead of brown.) I always try to keep in mind one of the golden rules of cooking: color equals flavor. So once I’ve added the mushrooms to the pan, I make sure not to touch them until I can see their edges start to brown. This is when the mushrooms start to get their appealing texture and earthy flavor, so it’s important to be patient. I usually have to step away from the tongs until the mushrooms are properly caramelized, just so I’m not tempted to touch them.
After the mushrooms have browned, I don’t want them to continue cooking over high heat or they’ll get mushy. One of the most appealing aspects of this recipe is the resulting texture of the mushrooms: soft but still firm. Keeping the pan warm but not too hot allows the mushrooms to absorb some of the vinegar and still maintain their shape.
Each flavoring in this recipe serves a purpose. The vinegar accounts for the mushrooms’ tang, while a final dose of lemon juice brightens them up. But feel free to mix and match. I like to swap the thyme for basil, or kick up the quantity of red pepper flakes. And, as always, I add salt and pepper to my liking throughout the cooking process and at the end.
I've tried this recipe with a variety of vinegars (including apple cider, rice wine, red wine vinegars), and white wine vinegar is my favorite. It's acidic, but a bit less than other vinegars. I like for the mushrooms to have a sweet and sour punch, but not to be so tangy that they taste like sour candy.
I like to brighten up the finished dish with a bit of lemon juice. But be careful not to add too much. If the ½ tablespoon called for in the recipe isn’t enough, add more in ½ teaspoon increments, tasting after each addition. The lemon juice should make the rest of the flavors stand out, but add too much and I find that it clashes with the tangy vinegar.
Adding whole thyme and rosemary sprigs to the container infuses the dish with their flavors, but in a different way than the minced herbs. They’re more subtle and muted. The minced herbs flavor the mushrooms while the whole herbs flavor the oil. (And the whole package makes for a pretty presentation.)
After transferring everything in the pan to the jar, securely cover the jar. I allow the mushrooms to sit in the refrigerator for a day or two to really let their flavors mingle. I give the jar a shake every once in a while to move everything around, but the oil will solidify in the coolness of the fridge, so I try to take the mushrooms out a couple hours in advance to allow it to liquefy again.