What Are Oyster Mushrooms?

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The oyster mushroom's shellfish-inspired name owes to its broad, fan-shaped cap -- similar to the shape of an oyster -- as well as a subtle shellfish flavor. Oyster mushrooms are valued for their tenderness. They can be downright juicy when you cook them properly. Cooks also appreciate that oyster mushrooms are versatile and require minimal preparation. Simply tear the tender caps into bite-size pieces to prepare the mushrooms for an array of dishes, including Asian stir-fries, pastas and salads.

Appearance, Flavor and Texture

Oyster mushroom caps are cream or tan and usually 1 to 6 inches wide. Fresh oyster mushrooms give off a bittersweet scent similar to anise and almonds, but they have a delicate, familiar mushroom flavor. The caps have a velvety texture when they are raw; they develop a tender, juicy texture when you cook them. The narrow cream-colored stalks are also edible. They have a tougher texture than the caps but are not difficult to chew.

Signs of Freshness

Fresh oyster mushrooms should feel hydrated, like fresh button mushrooms. Avoid wet or slimy mushrooms. Look for smooth caps that are not wrinkled or shriveled, and avoid mushrooms with dry edges. The gills should be firm and free from slime. Dryness, sliminess and wrinkled caps are all signs that the mushrooms have started deteriorating.

Cleaning Techniques

Oyster mushrooms are sold in their natural state -- clustered on a large central stem. Cultivated oyster mushrooms are usually clean and do not require washing before you cook or eat them. Rinse wild oyster mushrooms under cool running water to remove dirt. Scrub the caps gently with a mushroom brush to remove dirt, if necessary. Trim along the central stem with a sharp knife to sever individual mushrooms. Leave the stalks intact or remove them with a knife, depending on your preference. Tear the caps into bite-size pieces, slice them with a knife or prepare them whole.

Recipe Ideas

Oyster mushrooms are delicious in Asian stir-fries. Many cooks add them to chicken, pork or beef entrees because the tender, juicy texture of the mushrooms is similar to the texture of tender meat. They complement seafood and are a good choice for dishes featuring cream sauces, such as fettuccine Alfredo or potatoes au gratin. Take care not to overcook the mushrooms, which may drain their succulence. Incorporate them into a dish later in the recipe, when possible, or saute them briefly in butter or olive oil before adding them to a cooked dish. Roasting oyster mushrooms also enhances their flavor and keeps them tender. Sauteed and raw oyster mushrooms enhance salads.

Shelf-Life and Freezing

Cultivated oyster mushrooms that have just been harvested may stay fresh up to two weeks, but they generally start to deteriorate within a few days. Wild oyster mushrooms stay fresh for only a few days. Store the mushrooms in the refrigerator in a brown paper bag. Plastic bags and containers trap moisture, causing mushrooms to become slimy sooner. Discard mushrooms with mold or slime. Freeze steamed or sauteed oyster mushrooms to preserve them longer. Pack cooked mushrooms tightly in a freezer-safe container, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Store in the freezer up to one year.

Fresh or Dried?

Many cooks believe that fresh oyster mushrooms are superior in flavor to dried ones so choose fresh when you have the option. If you have dried oyster mushrooms, soak them in water to reconstitute them before you cook with them. Place the dried pieces in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Place a small bowl or plate in the bowl to keep the mushrooms submerged, if necessary. Drain the bowl once the mushrooms are plump and tender, after about 20 minutes. Squeeze them to expel the excess water.