Portabella Mushrooms and Their Relatives: How to Handle Them

MushroomsPortabellas are one of the most widely-consumed mushrooms in the world. They're also the most popular ones in my household.  My husband and I are happy consumers of those delicious, relatively low-cal portabella mushroom sandwiches.  But making them requires beginning with a decision--whether or not to scrape away the gills.  So we'll begin by answering that profound question, move on to additional info about portabellas, continue with advice about the handling and shelf life of all types of mushrooms, and conclude with some fascinating facts about these scrumptious and nutritious fungi. 


Gills should go--or not?


Until recently, I associated gills with fish, not mushrooms.  That is, until a portabella mushroom sandwich recipe instructed me to scrape away the gills of my portabella (the big, flat mushroom shown in the accompanying photo) before grilling.  "Okay," I said.  "But where are they?"  It turns out that the gills are those black strands that form a circle inside the back of the mushroom.


So I grabbed a sharp knife and began scraping.  Well, stabbing at the mushroom wound up giving me mushrooms pieces instead of a portabella "patty" that I could put in my round bun and pretend was ground beef.  The better way to scrape away the gills is to use a spoon.


So now you know how to remove the gills.  If you're serving them to four or more people, you'll find all that scraping tedious.  Therefore, you have a right to ask, why remove the gills?  Do they harbor dangerous diseases?  Nope.  In fact, they can stay put, and no harm is done. The main reason for removing them is because, according to the website Missoulian, "the spores released from the gills during cooking will discolor other ingredients that are mixed in." Therefore, the site recommends removing them when making mushroom soup, risotto, or some other rice or pasta dish. I've also noted that, when gills are left intact and the portabella is grilled, the flesh comes out partially blackened (which doesn't bother me, but it might some diners).


Missoulian also recommends removing gills before stuffing mushrooms; that gives you more room for the stuffing (maybe crabmeat or cheese).  Before grilling or broiling, also remove the mushroom stems.


In addition to removing the gills, some chefs recommend removing the skin, which can sometimes be tough.  I've yet to run into that problem.


More about portabella mushrooms


First, what are they?  They're actually mature (one source calls them "grown-up") forms of the crimini (also called the "Italian brown"j).  Wikipedia gives the scientific name as "Agaricus bisporous" and says it may be a mature form of a mushroom "known variously as the common mushroom, button mushroom, white mushroom..." and on and on.  The immature ones may also be called "baby portabellas,"  "baby bellas," or "mini bellas."   In addition to "portabella," there are a few other spellings you may run into, most commonly "portobello."


Portabella mushrooms are ideal substitutes for hamburgers because they're big (some even measuring up to 5-6 inches across), flat, and, of course, round.  Their size is the result of a longer growing period. Grilled, they have a meat-like flavor that makes them a perfect and quite healthy substitute for a ground beef patty.  Recipes commonly recommend brushing them with oil (or oil and garlic) to keep them moist while cooking.  (Here's one recipe that sounds yummy.)  Alternatively, to avoid the calories in oil, spray them with a non-stick spray.


Proper handling of mushrooms


Treat portabellas as you would any other mushrooms. Follow these tips to get maximum shelf life from your mushrooms.


  • Conservative estimates of shelf life from the time of purchase is 2-3 days, but food scientist Dr. Luke LaBorde, an expert on produce, calls that "very conservative" and says ,"Some mushrooms, such as the portabella, can keep for longer, 5-7 days if stored properly."


  • Dr. LaBorde offers this sobering comment: "Consumers can never tell by looking or sniffing if mushrooms are unsafe. They are at the mercy of the grower and processor.  [Mishandling, for example by dirty hands, can lead to contamination.]  The only thing consumers can do to prevent microbial growth is keep them refrigerated and avoid cross-contamination when preparing them.  [For example, don't cut them on a cutting board previously came in contact with raw meat, poultry, or fish.] Portabellas are lower risk compared to white buttons because they are served cooked." 


  • Trust your senses to tell you when they've become too old to enjoy.  Food process engineer Dr. Tim Bowser says that, when mushrooms begin to turn dark, that's an indication they are starting to go bad.  Also, when they're slimy or smell bad, it's time to discard them. Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein agrees and says, "When they spoil, they become slimy, so I use that evidence to evaluate them."  Other indications of spoilage are wrinkles and mold growth.


  • When purchasing mushrooms, look for ones with few or no bruised spots.  They'll hold up longer.


  • Buy whole mushrooms rather than pre-sliced ones.  According to food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter, there are more issues with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes in pre-cut mushrooms, due to contamination that may result from additional handling. 


  • Don't wrap them in plastic because being inside the film retains too much moisture. Stores often use a micro-perforated plastic wrap, but perhaps the kindest thing you can do for your mushrooms is to put them in a paper bag. Produce Pete recommends wrapping portabellas in paper towels. 


  • Store them in the fridge to extend shelf life.


  • Don't wash or cut up mushrooms until you're ready to cook them or serve them raw. 


  • Too much water can make mushrooms soggy.  The best way to clean them is to wipe them off with a damp paper towel, or use a soft brush to get rid of surface dirt.  Yes, there is such a thing as a mushroom brush. 


  • If you're planning to cook them, you can keep them a little longer than if they're going into your salad raw.   Before they get old, consider adding fresh leftovers to a salad, or panfry them for a side hot veggie.


Mushroom types and facts from the American Mushroom Institute


  • The majority of mushrooms that we consume are grown in buildings called mushroom houses. In these rooms, farmers can maintain the same temperature and humidity.


  • The shitake mushroom, which looks like an umbrella, is commonly used in Asian food.  If you cook with it at home, cut off the stem, which is generally slightly "woody."


  • The oyster and enoki mushrooms grow in clusters.


  • The mushroom commonly used on pizza is the agaricus or white mushroom.


  • In a fancy restaurant, you might be served an exotic mushroom called porcini.


Fascinating info about poisonous mushrooms from horseincorp.com


  • In the U.S. alone, there are about 5,000 different types of mushrooms.  About 100 of these are responsible for most cases of mushroom poisoning.


  • Some mushrooms are poisonous only if accompanied by alcoholic consumption.


  • Stewed mushroom juice is a dangerous hallucinogenic drug that can cause illness and even death.


  • Some mushrooms are poisonous when eaten raw but not when cooked. 


WARNING: Don't go mushroom-picking for your dinner.  Even mushroom experts (mycologists) sometimes have trouble telling the poisonous ones from those that are safe.  However, don't let this scare you away from buying mushrooms.  According to Dr. LaBorde, the risk of poisoning comes "only from WILD mushrooms.  Domestically-grown mushrooms are not the poisonous kind." 



NOTE: The product section of Shelf Life Advice contains many Q/As about mushrooms





Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Luke LaBorde, Ph.D. Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science 


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


missoulian.com  "Portabellas Make Meaty Burgers" 



producepete.com  "Portabella Mushrooms"



horseincorp.com  "Mushrooms"



wikipedia.org  "Mushroom"



americanmushroom.org  "Mushroom Quest" 




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