Putting raw mushrooms on a pizza is pretty much proof that you don’t know anything about pizza or mushrooms. Why do people persist in doing this? The pizza is ruined, the mushrooms taste raw, because they mostly are. And yet, even some pizza delivery places still put fresh sliced mushrooms on their pizza. I got news for you, even canned mushrooms on a pizza are better than fresh sliced and uncooked.
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It’s not just pizza. Have you ever seen a recipe involving mushrooms that did not involve pre-cooking the mushrooms? This is usually done by sauteing the mushrooms over high heat with just a little oil and salt. There is a reason that mushrooms need to be well-cooked before being added to recipes. And, just perhaps, there is a reason that many people do not realize this.
I think I know what that reason is. People think of mushrooms as if they are vegetables. Nothing worse than an over-cooked vegetable. Precisely the reason so many never ate their vegetables as children…because they were boiled to a bitter mush! Someone once said you shouldn’t cook vegetables, you should only threaten them! And they were right. But mushrooms are not vegetables, they are fungi. And they are chock-full of water.
You may be thinking, well, vegetables have a lot of water as well. Sure. A fresh-picked vegetable may be up to 70% water. But mushrooms, my friend, contain 90% water! They are more water than anything else. If you store mushrooms in a plastic bag, moisture droplets will collect on the inside of the bag from the water vapor coming off the mushrooms. Incidentally, this is why you should never store mushrooms in a plastic bag but instead should store them in a paper or cloth bag.
When you place raw mushrooms on a pizza, in the dry heat they immediately begin shedding a lot of water. Yet, they have nowhere near enough time to completely cook before the pizza is ready, so you end up with a watery pizza and mushrooms that are barely cooked. In order for mushrooms to have the most flavor and have the right texture, you have to cook out almost all of this water. If you place raw mushrooms in a concoction with lots of liquid, they will not ever lose all this moisture and they will be limp and bland inside the dish. At least so we’ve been taught. I’ll get to that, but although you can poach or “blanch” mushrooms, this is not the texture you want for pizza, where you want a little chew and a concentrated flavor.
Now, I do recognize that there are those who like to eat raw mushrooms. They show up on salad bars all the time. Some mushrooms do taste better raw than some other mushrooms do. But they don’t tend to find their way into salads. Instead, it’s the common white button mushroom that people pile on their salad most often, and this is one mushroom that benefits from a heavy spanking with high direct heat.
Unlike vegetables, you should not be afraid of over-cooking a mushroom, for the most part. Some of the more delicate varieties must be handled a bit differently, but most of the commonly used mushrooms like White, Baby Bella, Portabella, Shitake, etc., you can cook until they are nice and browned and all the moisture has been removed.
To do it right for pizza you’ll want to saute the mushrooms in a large skillet over med-high to high heat. Yes..that hot. Don’t worry, they won’t burn. Remember, they are full of water. Once the skillet is good and hot, add the oil and let it reach smoking point. Then place a layer of prepared mushrooms on the bottom of the skillet. Sprinkle some salt on them. The salt will help get the moisture out and do what salt does, make them taste better. Once you put them in, DO NOT stir them right away. Let them go. And go. A large amount of water will start to shed and at first it will be more like the mushrooms are stewing than sauteing. Do not stir them around until pretty much all of this water has boiled off and no more is appearing. Then move them around and let them cook some more. Continue cooking them until they are nice and browned, or until they are to your liking. At this point, they are ready to put on the pizza. You could of course add herbs or garlic at the end of the process. You can also deglaze the pan with a tiny amount of red wine. But this is all optional. A properly cooked mushroom does not need any help, except for a bit of salt.
If you must cook a large amount of mushrooms then it may help to do them in smaller batches. However, the idea that you must never “crowd” the pan is a myth. Yes, when you cook a lot of mushrooms at once, at first they will give off so much water that it will be as if they are stewing instead of browning, but once the water is boiled off, they will cook up just fine. However, in my experience, for the best results, do not cook many more than will cover the bottom of your pan in a layer. Of course, you can get away with a little more than this. But if you add a huge pile of mushrooms into the pan, the bottom layer will shed water and the upper layers will just sit there and boil. If you stir and stir, you will eventually get them all cooked, for the most part, but the texture will be uneven and they will be a little less tasty and a bit more soggy than they would if you cooked them in batches. This may be nitpicking and simply opinion, and I have come across some people who prefer the texture of mushrooms cooked in water.
In fact, and this is an aside, if you would like a softer texture with less browning, then DO crowd the pan, and allow the mushrooms to cook in their own juices. This will eventually shrink up the mushrooms as the water sheds and evaporates, but they will not brown as quickly or deeply, allowing you to cook them and develop a little texture in them without as concentrated a taste or as chewy a texture. Experiment for yourself to find out what method turns out the type of mushroom texture and flavor you want.
There is a lot of talk about mushrooms soaking up butter or oil resulting in browned but greasy mushrooms. This probably comes from using twice, if not more, the amount of oil or butter than is needed. You can cook a pound of mushrooms using as little as a tablespoon of oil. The second problem is insisting on butter instead of oil. You could poach whole mushrooms in butter, but to saute them you’re better off with an oil that can withstand high heat without burning.
In general, to cook all mushrooms, you need to either grill, broil, or saute them. The key, then, is dry heat. Yes, cooking something in a little bit of oil still qualifies as dry heat. However, it is also possible to poach or blanch mushrooms, in oil or stock, but this is done to develop a stock or sauce, and the mushrooms would still normally be finished off with a dry-heat method, such as a sauté, or even on the grill.
Before moving on, you may be interested in learning more about those “common” mushrooms I mentioned above. When I say common I mean the cultivated kind that we usually see at our grocery store.
General Rule for Raw or Cooked Ingredients on a Pizza
It is very easy to determine which ingredients should be precooked before adding to a pizza, and which can be raw. Remember, pizzas are baked very quickly at high heat. This means that any raw ingredient that you place on the pizza will not be “fully cooked” by the time you remove the pizza from the oven. Anything that you need to be fully cooked, for whatever reason, once the pizza is done, needs to be pre-cooked. So, if you can’t eat it raw do not put it on a pizza without cooking it first.
So, you would never put raw meat on a pizza. Beef, chicken, etc. must be pre-cooked before adding. Fresh sausage, as well, must be pre-cooked. Italian sausage is a fresh sausage. This means that it is made of raw meat and seasonings that are encased and then refrigerated. This must be fully cooked in advance. Bratwurst and chorizo are other examples. And although you would probably not want these on a pizza, breakfast links and patties (country style sausage like Bob Evans brand) is fresh sausage…unless, of course, you get one of the pre-cooked packages that are now available.
Smoked or cured sausages are essentially pre-cooked. Pepperoni is a cured sausage, so you do not need to precook it. Salami is another type of cured sausage.
Most vegetables that are used on pizza do not have to be pre-cooked, unless you prefer. Their degree of doneness, once the pizza is baked, has much to do with how small you cut the pieces. If you use large slices or chucks of green pepper, like many pizza delivery places do, you will essentially have raw green pepper on your pizza at the end. Same thing with onion, which when cut into big slices or chunks, will simply be a bit more wilted and dry, but not cooked. If you like big pieces for your toppings, but you do not wish to be overwhelmed by the raw flavor of them on the pizza, you should pre-sauté them. And even if they are chopped small, but you like them to be thoroughly cooked, pre-Sauté them.
Mushrooms, the subject of this post, are a gray area. Most of the common mushrooms we use, with their large amount of water, should be pre-cooked so as to have a good texture and taste and not saturate your pizza.