There you are, standing in front of the mushroom bin at the supermarket pondering whether to get the white button mushrooms or spring for the slightly more expensive cremini mushrooms. What is the difference between the two? And what's the difference among cremini mushrooms, brown mushrooms, and so-called baby bellas? Are there any?
What Are Cremini Mushrooms?
Cremini mushrooms are simply the slightly more mature version of the common white button mushroom. You might see them referred to as brown mushrooms, Italian mushrooms, or baby bella mushrooms. But all of these names refer to the same thing; namely, cremini mushrooms.
However, cremini mushrooms are still considered immature. Like their white counterparts, they're young, not fully developed. So what do they look like when they're fully mature? They become portobello mushrooms.
So cremini mushrooms are nothing more than the middle stage of development of the common mushroom, Agaricus bispora.
How to Use Cremini Mushrooms
So you can see that their flavor is correlated with their age, both of which are negatively correlated with their moisture content. In short, as the mushrooms age, they get drier and more flavorful. And browner.
Cremini mushrooms are wonderful to use in pastas, soups, casseroles, risottos, omelets, quesadillas, tacos, tarts, bruschettas and salads, as well as for making sauces and gravies. This partial list still manages to understate how many ways cremini mushrooms can be used. In terms of cooking methods, you can prepare them via sautéing, or by roasting, baking, simmering, and you can serve them raw as well.
What Do They Taste Like?
White mushrooms, or button mushrooms, are the least mature form of this mushroom, and while they unquestionably taste like mushrooms, alternately earthy, meaty and brothy (i.e. umami), their flavor is comparatively mild.
As they age, however, not only does their color change, shifting from pale white to a medium cocoa brown color, but their flavor intensifies. In part, this is due to the fact that the white versions have a slightly higher water content when compared with creminis. As the water content drops, the flavor becomes more concentrated.
And also, as the mushroom develops, the flavor compounds in the mushroom also intensify, which is why creminis taste so much more mushroomy than white mushrooms.
Likewise, portobellos, which are the fully mature form of the mushroom, have a still lower water content, giving them a more meaty texture as well as a deeper mushroom flavor.
Cremini Mushroom Recipes
Substitute cremini mushrooms for white mushrooms in any of the following recipes (or most any recipe that calls for white mushrooms).
Where to Buy Cremini Mushrooms
Depending on how the produce department at your supermarket is set up, loose cremini mushrooms might be sold in a bin right beside the regular white mushrooms, or they might be packaged in containers wrapped with plastic. Either form is fine, but see below for tips on how to store them.
One of the effects that this lower water content has on cremini mushrooms is that it takes them less time to cook. White mushrooms can take on a squishy consistency when they're not cooked long enough, but they eventually give up their water, the cells break down, and the mushroom softens. But because cremini mushrooms are less watery, it takes less time for this to happen. This makes cremini mushrooms a better choice for dishes where the mushrooms need to be caramelized.
Cleaning Cremini Mushrooms
For a long time, the conventional wisdom when it came to mushrooms was that they were to be kept dry at all costs. This was problematic when it came time to clean them, given that mushrooms grow in the ground, and when you pick them, they tend to have dirt on them.
Nevertheless, at any point during the 2000s it was possible to find otherwise reasonable chefs encouraging the use of soft-bristled brushes to gently whisk away the particles of dirt from the surface of mushrooms before cooking them, lest they should inadvertently come in contact with running water. The fear was that mushrooms would soak up water like a sponge, causing them to turn out spongy.
And in a sense, it's true that mushrooms are like sponges. But they're like sponges that are already saturated—their water content is over 90 percent. There's not much more water they can absorb. If you were to soak them for an extended period, it's possible that they might absorb some additional water.
But a quick but careful rinse isn't going to make them turn squishy. So go ahead and rinse your mushrooms, but not until you're ready to use them in a recipe. In fact, you can even soak them. Any additional water they absorb is negligible compared with what's already in them, which will undoubtedly cook away, anyway.
Because mushrooms contain so much water, they are prone to turning moldy or slimy. The best way to avoid this is to use them as soon as possible. But storing them in the fridge for 2 to 3 days should be fine provided they aren't encased in plastic, which traps in moisture, leading to the dreaded slime.
So if you buy whole mushrooms, store them loose in the crisper drawer, on the humid setting, with a clean paper towel underneath them. If you buy the sliced kind that are sold in an 8-ounce container with a plastic wrapper over them, you can store them in their container in the crisper drawer, but remove the plastic wrap. Often times, mushrooms are sold at farmers markets in brown paper bags, so you can try using those, too.