How to: Mushrooms

posted in Food, Vegetables and Beans by Kathy Maister

When it comes to buying mushrooms, we often go by appearance rather than taste. We stick to those clean-cut white button mushrooms, perhaps a bit intimidated by the wilder characters in the fungus family. But it’s worth getting to know all those odd-looking mushrooms—they can really add taste and sophistication to your cooking.

Most supermarkets sell a few varieties of fresh mushrooms, including portobello, oyster and shiitake, as well as bags of dried mushrooms. But beginner cooks may not be sure how to clean specialty mushrooms, or what to do with them. This post will take the mystery out of buying mushrooms and help figure out what kind to use when.

I have already covered the basics on how to wash and store mushrooms, but the basic idea is to rinse them (never soak them) and use a cloth or paper towel to remove any clingy dirt.

White Mushrooms (Button Mushrooms)

These immature, unopened mushrooms are probably the most common in North American supermarkets. They can be bought either fresh or canned. (I do not recommend using canned mushrooms.) Some grocery stores sell them pre-sliced but, once sliced, these mushrooms spoil quickly; they oxidize after being cut, turning brown and soft once exposed to air. They can be eaten raw or cooked in almost any dish, but their flavor intensifies with cooking. Bigger button mushrooms can be left whole and stuffed, for an appetizer or side dish. Check out’s recipe video for bacon-and-cream cheese Stuffed Mushrooms.

Baby Bella Mushrooms (Cremini or Brown Mushrooms)

These are a darker, more flavorful version of the white button mushroom. They can be used in all the same ways as the white button mushroom.

Portobello (or Portabella) Mushrooms

These are the grownup versions of the baby bella mushrooms, and can have caps that are six inches in diameter. They may be sliced and sautéed, but are often left whole and roasted. They have a rich taste and meaty texture that’s often likened to steak; some vegetarian recipes use them as a meat substitute. Their tough stems should be removed before cooking. Although the dark brown gills under the mushroom cap are edible, some prefer to remove them. To do this, simply scrape them off with the tip of a knife. Here’s’s recipe for Portobello Mushrooms and Goat Cheese.

Oyster Mushrooms

These fan-shaped mushrooms grow on the sides of trees, looking kind of like an (you guessed it) oyster. They have a mild taste, and work well in stir-fries, soups, sauces and many other dishes. Cut off the base of the mushroom, then separate its layers before cleaning them.

Shiitake Mushrooms

If you like Asian food, you’ve probably tasted these in miso soup, sushi or in Chinese stir-fries. They have white stems, brown caps and typically sprout off logs. Shiitakes add a deep, smoky flavour and chewy texture to all kinds of dishes. They are available fresh or dried, which is said to have a more intense flavour. In Asia, shiitake mushrooms are associated with longevity and good health.

Enoki Mushrooms

These long, crisp mushrooms are usually used in soups, but can also go in salads and sandwiches. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and are available fresh and canned. They grow naturally on the hackberry tree (enoki in Japanese). Cut off the roots before using.

Maitake Mushrooms (also known as Hen of the Woods, Sheepshead or Ram’s Head Mushrooms)

Clustering around the base of trees, these feathery fungi are known as the King of Mushrooms in Japan because they can grow very large. Used in China and Japan for medicinal purposes, they have a strong, woodsy flavour and meaty texture. They work well in stir-fries.

Porcini Mushrooms (these are the dried version)

Prized in Italian cooking, these large-capped mushrooms typically grow in Europe and North America. They can be bought fresh and, because of their meaty texture, can be grilled and sautéed much like portobellos. They are often available dried in bags, and after being soaked in water, can be added to soups, sauces, stews and risottos. Read on for more about reconstituting dried mushrooms.

Dried Wild Mushrooms

It’s nice to have a bag of mixed dried mushrooms (like the ones above) on hand to add “oomf” to all kinds of dishes. Just remember to leave time to reconstitute them. There are various ways to do this, depending on how much time you have. The dried mushrooms can sit in a bowl of cool water overnight, or in warm water for 20 minutes before cooking. They can also be boiled for 10 minutes before cooking. The water that they steep in will have lots of flavor and, if strained through a coffee filter to remove grit, can be used in place of other liquids in recipes.


After I finished photographing all these mushrooms, I sliced them and cooked them in a large frying pan with a small amount of olive oil. They were FANTASTIC!



If you are new to startcooking, or are a regular visitor here, please consider subscribing for free.

How to: Squash

posted in Food, Vegetables and Beans by Kathy Maister

Can you spot the buttercup squash? If not, read on!

As autumn arrives, grocery stores and markets fill up with winter squash in all shapes and sizes. Acorn, butternut, buttercup, spaghetti … which one is which? And what do you do with them? This post will introduce you to some of the more popular members of the gourd family. Even if you don’t end up cooking with them, you can use them as seasonal decorations!

How to Choose Squash

Winter squash have tough, inedible skins. When buying winter squash, look for ones that are heavy and have smooth, un-dented skins with the stems still on. These are indications that the squash was harvested when ripe and will have more flavor. Winter squash contain lots of healthy nutrients, like Vitamin A, Vitamin C, potassium and fiber. Whole squash can be kept for up to a month, unrefrigerated, in a cool dry location.

Preparing Winter Squash

Most squash varieties can be baked, boiled, steamed and sautéed, but they each have different tastes and textures. Particular cooking techniques are better suited to some than others – don’t try making butternut squash soup with spaghetti squash!

To prepare squash, start by washing it off and drying it. The next step will depend on how you want to use the squash and whether you have a good, sharp knife.

Option 1. Cut the Squash Before Cooking: Peeling squash is not easy, which is why some people roast squash unpeeled. You can peel the squash with a vegetable peeler (as shown it this video) or with a knife. Then you can cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and cut the flesh into whatever size pieces you need. Or, you can simply cook the two peeled/scooped-out halves in the oven (at 400F for about 40 minutes) or the microwave (calculating two minutes of cooking time per pound of squash).

Option 2. Partially Cook the Squash Before Cutting: If the squash is too hard to cut, try microwaving it for a minute or two, or boiling it for five minutes. You’ll have to let it cool and then try to cut it.

Option 3. Cut the Squash After Cooking: Another way to avoid cutting a raw squash is to bake it whole. Pierce the squash in several places (using a fork or sharp knife) to let air escape, then bake it at 400F for about an hour. (If you do not pierce the squash it may EXPLODE in the oven!) Once it has cooled, you can cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and either cut the skin off or scoop out the flesh. This is a great method to use if the squash is going to be pureed for a side dish or soup.

Option 4. Roasting squash: Once you have cut the squash in half and scooped out the seeds you can roast it. Preheat the oven to 400F and drizzle the squash halves with some olive oil, salt and pepper. Put them cut-side down on a baking sheet, and roast for about 40 minutes.

Kathy roasted all the squash she photographed, shown below cut-side down…

…then turned each piece over to check that it was done.

Now, let’s find out who’s who in the squash family!

Butternut Squash (shown below)

Butternut squash is one of the most popular varieties because of its sweet, rich taste and beautiful orange color. These creamy-skinned squashes have a bulb-shaped end that contains the seeds. Butternut squash can be served pureed with apples or as the made into butternut squash soup. Here’s a video that demonstrates maple-glazed butternut squash, a delicious and simple side-dish that calls for a quarter cup of rum. You can also use plain baked butternut squash as a side dish, salad or pasta topping.

Buttercup Squash (shown below)

Buttercup squashes are round and flat in shape and often have dark green skins. Although their flavor is similar to that of butternut squash, they’re not as sweet and they have a drier texture. They work well in many of the same recipes as butternut squash. Here’s a recipe for Brandy-Laced Squash Soup with Cinnamon and Bay Leaves.

Spaghetti Squash (shown below)

These oval-shaped squash produce stringy flesh that can actually substitute for pasta. (It looks like pasta but tastes like watery summer squash!) The flavor is mild, so you can serve it with a pasta sauce or parmesan cheese, or even just a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Kathy explains how to cook and serve basic spaghetti squash, or try this Mediterranean version.

Acorn Squash (shown below)

Shaped like (you guessed it!) acorns, and typically dark green on the outside, this type of squash tastes great baked. Its nutty flesh is a bit drier than that of other squash varieties. You’ll often see recipes for stuffed acorn squash, because an acorn squash half makes an attractive, edible bowl.

Delicata Squash (shown below)

These long, cylindrical squash are also known as sweet potato squash because their creamy flesh resembles that of a sweet potato. They can be used in many recipes that call for butternut or buttercup squashes or sweet potato. Here’s a recipe for Delicata Squash and Gruyere Dip.

Pumpkin (shown below)

While these bright orange globes are the most sought after of the squash family, they get carved for Halloween more often than eaten. The size of pumpkins makes them a bit difficult to handle in the kitchen, which is why there’s a marvelous invention called canned pumpkin. Kathy makes use of pumpkin puree in her Pumpkin Soup Without the Fuss and in her Pumpkin Pie for Beginners.

Summer Squash (shown below)

Yellow summer squash (shown above) and green zucchini (shown below) are also part of the gourd family. We have already covered how to prepare zucchini and yellow-skinned summer squash can be prepared in many of the same ways. Here’s a recipe specifically for summer squash.

If you are new to startcooking, or are a regular visitor here, please consider subscribing for free.

How to: Potatoes

posted in Vegetables and Beans by Kathy Maister

There is an incredible variety of potatoes from around the world – literally thousands of them. Different varieties of potatoes vary in texture. They can be starchy, waxy, or somewhere in-between. Some potatoes are great for mashing while others work best if baked or roasted.

At the grocery store there are usually signs above the potatoes that will tell you which ones are great for baking versus which ones are better for mashing. Some potatoes are described as “all-purpose” which means you can cook them any way you want.

What’s common to all potatoes is that they’re incredibly versatile and nutritious. They contain iron, Vitamin C, potassium and starch. Sweet potatoes – which are actually a very distant relative of regular potatoes – are loaded with Vitamin A, C and B6. In general, potatoes can be boiled, baked, steamed, microwaved, and used in salads, soups and stews.

Starchy, Waxy or All-Purpose?

Russet or Idaho potatoes have a starchy texture that works well for baking.

Starchy Potatoes (aka baking potatoes) are good to use for baking, French fries and mashing. They tend to come apart when cooked, so they’re not great for dishes like Potato Hash.
Some examples: Russet (aka Idaho), Norchip, Goldrush, Norkotah, Long white, Jewel Yam, Japanese Sweet potato, Hannah Sweet Potato

Small, round new potatoes taste great boiled.

Waxy Potatoes (aka boiling potatoes, round white, round red) keep their shape when cooked, so these are the best options for boiling, roasting or steaming. They’re also the best to use in dishes like potato salad or scalloped potatoes
Some examples: Warba, Rose Finn, Pontiac, Russian Banana, Red Thumb, French Fingerling, LaRette, Austrian Crescent, New potatoes


These potatoes fall somewhere between starchy and waxy, so they work in most recipes.
Some examples: Viking, All blue, Kennebec, Carlton, Yukon Gold, Norland Red, Purple Majesty.

Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes are often referred to as “yams” in the United States. Strictly speaking, they are not the same thing (not even related!). True yams are typically grown in parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean – they are often brown or black, and can grow to be several feet long.

Follow the same guidelines for buying and storing sweet potatoes as you would other potatoes.

Sweet potatoes are often baked in their skins, or used to make sweet potato fries. There’s also the Thanksgiving classic, Sweet Potato Casserole (shown below), which is often topped with marshmallows!’s Sweet Potato Casserole

Buying and Storing

  • Look for potatoes that are unblemished and don’t have a green tinge. A greenish skin color signals that the potato has had too much exposure to light. These potatoes may actually taste bitter and cause digestive (and other) problems. If the potato is only partially green, you can remove the green part and use the rest.
  • The worst place to store potatoes is in the fridge – this affects their taste and color. They should be kept in a cool, dark and dry place (not under the kitchen sink), and away from onions.
  • If stored at room temperature, they’ll last about a week. If stored between 45 and 50F (7 to 10C), they’ll last several weeks.
  • It’s better to store potatoes in a paper bag or cardboard box than in a plastic bag.
  • Pre-washed potatoes will spoil more quickly than unwashed.
  • If you’ve had some potatoes around for a while, you may notice that they start to sprout. According to the National Potato Council, this means that they’re being stored at too high a temperature. You can still use them – just cut the sprouts off.

How to Wash Potatoes

Wash them under running water, scrubbing the surface of the skin with a brush, or vigorously with your hands. Don’t use soap, though.

How to Peel Potatoes

Depending on how you’re using potatoes, you may want to peel them. If you want to remove the skin before cooking, simply use a vegetable peeler and peel from one end of the potato to the other.

If you don’t like peeling, you can also remove the skin of a potato after boiling it. In this method, cut a shallow slit around the middle of the uncooked potato, and then boil it. After boiling, dunk the potato in ice water for a few seconds. When it’s cool enough to touch, it will be very easy to pull the skin off. The potato is then ready for mashing or using in a recipe.

When it Comes to Cooking Potatoes, has Covered:

Here are More Basic Potato Recipes:


If you are new to startcooking, or are a regular visitor here, please consider subscribing for free.