Cooking delicious food is the definition of craft: start with curiosity, add in a little practice, mix in the right materials and ingredients, and eventually, you'll nail some basic techniques to make your weeknight meals something worth doing all those dishes.
But, there are also such things as shortcuts. Maybe not towards making a meal taste acceptable in the first place, but rather, little tips and tricks that take your food from good to holy-cow-that's-great; small works of wonder that make a meal more than just nutrition, and leaves you feeling excited and satisfied.
This is one of those things.
Because, every solid cook knows – great meals tend to start at the beginning of the process. Steps like, say, properly browning ingredients, letting spices bloom in oil, seasoning each step, and building layers of flavor. Despite what we saw in the movies and cartoons of our youth, no amount of sprinkling some dried herb at the end is going to wake a pot of sauce up to “just right.”
Yes, Virginia, there is an amazing secret ingredient that can take something good enough to truly spectacular. Something you can sprinkle on top of the food in a pan at the last minute that not only make it more mouthwatering, but, somehow, more like itself. And no, it's not MSG, though that's not entirely unrelated.
Enter dried mushroom powder. Sound like a let down? No way, man. This stuff is an incredible flavor booster, and, interestingly enough, doesn't make your food taste like mushrooms.
Instead, it gives everything an addictive quality that literally makes you salivate. It works in nearly any savory dish, and rounds everything out, bringing all the parts together into a cohesive whole.
You could buy some online, and I'm sure it would work great. Or, you could make your own for about 20% of the cost, and it will last forever in your pantry.
Here's how to make dried shiitake mushroom powder
The project begins with dried shiitake mushrooms. Yes, there are all kinds of other “gourmet” dried mushrooms at the fancy grocery store, but those will be wasted here. We're not looking for mushroom flavor nor texture. By pulverizing them in to the tiny bits, we're simply allowing the umami characteristics to shine through. And, since it's powdered, the mushroom bits will dissolve into whatever you're cooking, amplifying its flavor.
The best place to get these is your local Asian grocery store, where you can get a huge bag for $5. You'll also likely find them in the international food aisle of the megamart. Barring that, they're available (albeit more expensively) on Amazon.
Begin by filling your blender jar a little less than halfway full. For me, this was about 15 mushroom caps.
Then, give it a whaz. Start on the lowest setting, then work your way up to somewhere in the middle. (I stopped at “chop”) If you have a pulse setting, engage it so you can control the decimation.
Once everything is broken up, slowly remove the lid. Keep your face away, as things will have gotten a little smokey inside.
Pour the contents into a fine strainer. As you start to get inside the powder, you'll see not everything is broken up yet. This is okay.
Use your fingers to push the fine powder through the strainer, leaving the larger chunks. Then, put what remains in the strainer back in the blender, and blitz it up.
It should only take two rounds to get everything into a super fine powder.
Place it in a jar, label it, and use with abandon. Provided, of course, that no one has a mushroom allergy.
What's it good for? All things savory. Try it on soups, chili, long simmered sauces, all pasta and noodle dishes, roasted vegetables, steaks, pork chops, roasted chicken, dips and dressings, and eggs cooked every way. It works great with anything that comes off the grill our out of the oven (add it while they rest), and sprinkled on sauteed or braised dishes. Mix it in just a minute before everything finishes cooking.
In general, consider mushroom powder a “finishing” seasoning, adding it at the end of the cooking process. You want the liquid in the dish to absorb the powder, mixing up their molecules into a happy marriage of flavor. You could certainly put some in the beginning as well, say when you're sauteing your onions and garlic, but be sure to toss on a bit more just before serving. This is the key to the magic, “why does that taste so good?” experience that will keep you craving whatever is on the plate.
Go forth, and enjoy.